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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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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