I was checking up on press coverage of past Olympics. As we brace ourselves for 2012, I wondered if the same mixture of hope and dread was being aired in the press 100 years ago. I like a few pictures with my news – I know, I know, it’s a lack of seriousness – so I turned to the Illustrated London News, the latest toy… sorry, I mean exclusive reference resource for Westminster Libraries members (you will need your library card to log in).
From 1845 onwards, the ILN was probably the best source of words-and-pictures journalism in the UK, at least until the birth of picture-heavy daily papers in the early Twentieth Century. The magnificence and the ridiculousness of High Victorianism was chronicled in loving detail. High drama – fires, floods, railway crashes – were sketched and engraved by roving artists until the camera took up the task of capturing the passing scene. Statesmen and writers, villains and society hostesses – all got their share of coverage. The frocks, the hats, the horses and the horseless carriages were portrayed in this must-read weekly fount of intelligence. So, as I was saying, I looked at the ILN’s coverage of the Olympics.
Would it, I feared, be all spiritual uplift and Corinthian ideals? Would there be trivia? I needn’t have worried. “The Diverse Costumes of the World’s Athletes” was a title which caught my eye in a 1908 issue. It does not disappoint. At the opening ceremony, the United Kingdom contingent mostly wore white – white blazers, white caps and just-above-the-knee white shorts. Very natty they looked. Some of the Australasian team seemed to be wearing swimming costumes, while the Swedes were led by a posse of military types complete with plumed helmets. But the “sensation of the games” (ooh… sensation – I was getting really interested now) was the “wonderful exhibition of physical drill by Danish girls”. The costumes worn for this display of Scandinavian suppleness – the girls are pictured leaning impossibly far to their right – is a bit puzzling. They seem to be wearing white macs, but I expect they were just rather baggy dresses with hemlines well above the ankle. I think that was OK as long as it was either Art or, as in this case, healthy outdoor pursuits.
The Grand Surprise Feature at the 1908 games sounded interesting but was ludicrous rather than inspiring. The caption beneath a picture of the arena turned out to be an advert for toothpaste, the “indisputable champion in the World’s Dentifrice competitions”.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were overshadowed (sometimes literally) by the Nazis, but the ILN comes up with some sterling trivia: “Would the ancient Greeks have defeated the athletes of today?” This question is the excuse for a double-page spread of photos of athletes running, boxing, wrestling and just posing, interspersed with scenes from old pots depicting the same activities. An expert concludes that modern athletes would outstrip their forebears in competition, but would be found wanting “in the harmonious development of the whole body”, because “athletics among the Greeks was closely bound up with dancing and singing on the one hand, and on the other, with the practical training of young men in bearing arms”. What lessons there for 2012?