The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start

As London gets set to host the XXXth Olympiad, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford connects the modern Games to their unlikely origin—in rural England

As the Games return to London, it's worth remembering that they may not exist at all were it not for the perseverance of the Brits. (John Ritter)
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The summer of 1940 might have climaxed with the Games of the XIIth Olympiad, but instead it was the time of the Battle of Britain, and on the afternoon of August 16, Pilot Officer Fiske’s squadron was ordered out on patrol. Fiske went up in Hurricane P3358. A flight of Junker Stukas, dive-bombers, came across the coast down by Portsmouth, the 601 engaged them, and, in a series of short dogfights, shot down eight of the Stukas.

However, a German gunner made a hit on Fiske’s fuel tank. Although his hands and ankles were badly burned, Fiske managed to bring P3358 back to Tangmere, gliding over a hedgerow, belly-landing between fresh bomb craters. He was pulled from the flames just before his Hurricane exploded, but he died two days later. At his funeral, he was laid in the ground nearby at Boxgrove, in the yard of the ancient Priory Church. The RAF band played, and, distinctively, his coffin was covered by both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.

As Billy Fiske was the first American to join the RAF, so too was he the first American to die in the RAF.

The next July Fourth, Winston Churchill had a memorial tablet installed at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It rests only a few steps away from Lord Nelson’s sarcophagus, and it reads:

18 AUGUST 1940

It would be nice if whoever carries the American flag past the royal box come July 27—with a wink and a nod—dips the flag in honor of Billy Fiske, the one Olympian who binds the United States and England. The law says you can’t do that for any “person or thing,” but it doesn’t say anything about honoring a memory. And, should Queen Elizabeth think the dip is for her, fine, none need be the wiser.

John Ritter’s work has appeared in several major magazines.


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