The ghosts of London's Olympic past
The opening ceremonies of the 1948 Olympic Games, London. (BBC)
Today, London becomes the first city in the world to host more than two Olympics.
As the UK spends billions of pounds striving to make the 2012 Olympics the best it can be, it’s worth taking a look back at the London Games which laid its foundation.
Rome was set to host the 1908 Olympics when Mount Vesuvius erupted two years prior, forcing the city to forgo the Games due to the cost of rebuilding (although some historians speculate that Italy was struggling to fund the event even before the volcano erupted). The newly formed British Olympic Association, presided over by William Grenfell, a silver medallist in the 1906 Athens Games, had only 10 months to organize the global multi-sport event. Yet for the first time, a city built a brand new stadium for the Olympics: the £60,000 White City Stadium, which sat 130,000 people on the 140-acre site of the Franco-British Exhibition in Shepherds Bush, West London.
1908 also marked the first time athletes competed as part of national teams and the first time swimming events took place in man-made pools rather than natural bodies of water. Sports at the first London Olympics included tug of war, motorboat racing and bicycle polo -- events that have since disappeared from the Games -- in addition to more typical events such as football and swimming.
The Games, which cost about £20,000 in total, made London a profit of more than £21,000. Britain was the top medal winner, taking 56 gold medals.
The successful event was not devoid of controversy, though. For one thing, visiting countries were sceptical about the host country’s many triumphs, since all of the referees and officials were from Britain, adhering to the convention of the time. The US team staged several protests against British officials, refusing to dip its flag in the Royal Box during the Opening Ceremonies; boycotting the tug of war game since the British players wore spiked boots; and objecting to rules that dictated the length of running shorts and prohibited coaches from being on the field.
One of the most memorable events was the marathon, which took place during a July heatwave. Among the contestants were Tom Longboat, an aboriginal runner from Canada whose inclusion was fervently opposed due to his race, and Dorando Pietri, a 5ft 2in, 22-year-old Italian pastry chef. Longboat, who had won the Boston Marathon the year before, collapsed 19 miles into the race, perhaps because of the champagne his assistants gave him along the way. In those days, alcohol wasn’t seen as inhibiting athletics. Pietri, who was given brandy by his assistants, also collapsed, and at one point even ran in the wrong direction. But the British officials overseeing the race helped Pietri to the finish line, enabling him to gain first place. Second place went to Johnny Hayes from the US team, which contested Pietri’s win vehemently. Pietri was disqualified, and the gold medal went to Hayes. But the former retained the glory with the help of a journalist who had been covering the race, the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle started a fundraising campaign via his newspaper and collected £300 for Pietri, who went pro and later triumphed over Hayes in races in Italy.
All of this controversy, however, also led to positive changes in subsequent Games. From this time on, officials would have to come from more than one country to prevent favouritism, and rules for each sport would have to be standardised.
The Games of the XIV Olympiad were also hosted by London on short notice. The Olympics had been on hold for 12 years, since the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled due to World War II. Since the 1944 Games were originally scheduled for London – and since Britain was in better shape following the war than other European countries – in 1946, London was awarded the 1948 Games, nicknamed The Austerity Olympics.
Not having the funds to build a new stadium was the least of London's problems. There was a fuel shortage; the national debt was at 250% of the Gross Domestic Product; rationing of food, fuel and clothing was even stricter than during the war; and homelessness was on the rise.
So, the Olympic organisers got creative. They used Wembley Stadium in northwest London, which seats 90,000 people, by laying down 800 tons of cinder blocks on the greyhound racing track to retrofit it for a variety of events. Rather than building an Olympic Village, they used Royal Air Force camps to accommodate male athletes and college dormitories to lodge the females. The competitors did their part as well. Female athletes sewed their own uniforms, and many teams brought their own food. The British team fortified its meals with whale meat, which, unlike other protein sources, was unrationed.
Even though times were tough, the 1948 Games, the first ever to be broadcasted on television, made a profit of around £30,000. There were other heart-warming successes as well. Squashing stereotypes about gender and age, 30-year-old Fanny Blankers-Koen from the Dutch Team won more gold medals than any other athlete, taking home four golds in track and field. Since she also held world records for the high jump and long jump, some believed Blankers-Koen would have won even more medals if not for a past rule that prohibited women from competing in more than three individual events (one of the events she won, the 4x100 meter relay, was a team event).
Hungary’s Karoly Takacs also impressed the world when he won the gold for rapid-fire pistol shooting. A few years earlier, during army training, Takacs lost his right hand in a grenade accident. So he taught himself to shoot with his left hand, and won at the Olympics in 1948 and in 1952.
And the youngest athlete to win a men’s event, 17-year-old Bob Mathias from the US came out of the woodwork to take the gold for the decathlon.
Since the Games took place in the aftermath of World War II, Germany and Japan were not allowed to attend and the USSR did not send a team. Newcomers to the event, on the other hand, included Syria, Venezuela, Lebanon and Burma.
Hunting down the ghosts of Olympics past
Spectators to this summer’s Games can acquaint themselves with Olympic history at sites throughout the capital. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has teamed up with Geocaching.com, the official site for geocaching, a GPS-powered treasure hunting game played all over the world, to create a scavenger hunt tour of past and present Olympic venues. Sites include White City Stadium; the location of the 1908 marathon event, northwest of Windsor Castle; Stoke Mandeville, the birthplace of the Paralympic movement for the disabled in 1948; and Portland Sculpture Park, an old quarry near the site of the London 2012 Olympic sailing events in Dorset, southwest of London on England’s southern coast.
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