Let the Games begin!

The 4th post in our Olympic Marathon takes a detailed look at the previous London Olympics in 1908 and 1948.

Sporting Stories at Westminster City Archives

Westminster City Archives is entering the spirit of the London 2012 Festival by celebrating the city’s sporting heritage a host of online resources, displays and exhibitions. Over the next few weeks, you can discover Westminster’s amazing Sporting Stories online, hear original accounts of the 1948 Olympics and visit an exciting exhibition of community art inspired by the Olympic Games.

London Olympics, 1908 and 1948, by Jane HamptonAs we’ve been gearing up for the Archives’ celebration of London 2012, Archives Assistant Michelle Goodman has been learning more about the city’s Olympic heritage, from Jane Hampton’s fascinating history London Olympics: 1908 and 1948.

The first London Olympics: 1908

Devastation caused by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius caused Rome to unexpectedly withdraw from hosting the 1908 Olympic Games. However, London accepted responsibility for the Games with enthusiasm and, within a year, a multi-purpose stadium and swimming pool had been built at White City.

The opening ceremony heralding the start of the 1908 Olympic Games was the first of its kind, though only male competitors were allowed to march. The Games were run as a private enterprise, with no government assistance provided.

For a time, the event appeared to be teetering towards disaster. This was only the fourth modern Olympics, and the Games were not particularly well-known or popular among the general public. Tickets were expensive and it was difficult for many Londoners to take time off work to attend. These factors, combined with appalling wet weather, contributed to a worrying lack of interest during the first week. However, ticket prices were reduced considerably for the second week and, as the summer sun broke through, ticket sales picked up.

Crowds flocked to enjoy a plethora of sports including tug-of-war, women’s diving events (with ladies resplendent in modest woollen costumes plunging from dizzying heights) and the bizarre “standing long jump” where the participant leant as far forward as they could before they jumped! The Games were hailed a great success, and even returned a financial profit.

Make do and mend Olympics: 1948

The Olympics returned to London in 1948. Despite the Blitz, it was believed to be the only city with the capacity and resources to stage such an event after the devastation wreaked across Europe by World War II. Just as it had done in 1908, London coped with the complicated logistics within an impressively short timescale. As there was little time or money to build a venue, the Empire Stadium and Pool at Wembley, as well as other existing parks and arenas across London, were used to stage the events. Female athletes were now allowed to join the Opening Ceremony, though they made up only 10% of the competitors. Following the march, there was a trumpet fanfare and seven thousand pigeons were released.

The Games were delivered on a tiny budget. Participating countries were asked to bring their own sporting equipment and officials made their own uniforms. There was no Olympic Village (competitors were housed in schools and RAF camps) and athletes were asked to bring their own towels and soap. No telephones were available for competitors to use (local boys on bicycles were employed to relay messages) and there was none of the now infamous post-competition partying: just training and early bedtimes. Petrol was still heavily rationed, so competitors were given passes for the Underground and local buses. Much-needed cash was injected by businesses and companies, such as Coca-Cola and Nescafe, making 1948 Games the first heavily-sponsored international sporting event. Despite the austerity, London pulled off another hugely successful Games.

What next?

The architectural and social landscape of London has changed dramatically since the two earlier Olympic events. The stadium at White City was demolished in 1985, and a Westfield Shopping Centre now occupies the site. The Empire Stadium at Wembley was demolished in 2002 and rebuilt as Wembley Stadium.

The Games have also opened up new opportunities. Following the involvement of disabled servicemen in archery events and wheelchair races at the 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games, the Paralympic Games have been held every year since 1960 and have taken place at the same venue as the main games from 1988 onwards.

We may be experiencing another ‘age of austerity’, but the London 2012 Olympic Games will not replicate the 1948 shoestring budget. Rather, it will cost an estimated £10 billion to stage. High expectations with regard to arenas, accommodation and transport, coupled with modern security concerns, make staging the current Games an even more daunting task than those of 1908 and 1948. However, when the eyes of the world turn to London in July and the Opening Ceremony begins (with, hopefully, more fanfare than a few trumpets and several thousand pigeons!) the indomitable spirit of Londoners will no doubt have created another fabulous event.

Let the (third) London Games begin!

Finding out more…

Westminster Archives Centre has a large range of books on London’s Olympic heritage – including Jane Hampton’s fascinating history – so why not come along to our Archives Searchroom and have a browse? If you’d rather explore the city’s sporting heritage from the comfort of your own home, have a look at our brand new online exhibition, Sporting Stories of our Olympic City.

Stage 5 of the Olympic Marathon: books for children, next.

[Michelle and Judith]


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