When Irish-Americans won eight track and field medals, the English were taken aback. Back in New York, the athletes were given a parade.
The idea of the drunken Paddy was still prevalent, Jenkins said. All of a sudden these guys were great American heroes instead of troublesome immigrants.
Dorando Pietri, the doughty little Italian candy maker who looked like Charlie Chaplin, appeared to make history when he won the first Olympic marathon run over the distance of 26.2 miles (because the king wanted it to start at Windsor Castle). But Pietri ran the wrong way and fell four times down the stretch, was helped to his feet by race officials and guided across the finish line. Pietri was disqualified but endeared himself to fans.
British runner Thomas Jack was in the lead at Mile 5 when he stopped at a pub, one of the official marathon refreshment stations where runners could drink Ale or Oxo, a beef extract. Jack gave up shortly afterward.
The most evocative picture is of Dorando at the finish, Jenkins said. The Olympics became more about the ordinary Joe pushing himself to his limits than the Edwardian gentlemen sons of the British Empire.
The Olympics became less of an aristocratic event and more about the medals table. Without 1908, I dont think the Olympics would have survived World War I.
The Olympics survived World War II but only after 12 years without them. The 1948 Olympics were known as the Make-Do-And-Mend Games. In postwar Britain, one of the main advantages of competing was the free uniform, according to the book The Austerity Olympics, by Janie Hampton. The French complained about the food. A major sponsor was Craven A cigarettes. Gender checking was introduced, with officials looking down underpants.
Hampton recounts how a young medical student was sent to fetch a Union Jack flag for Opening Ceremonies at the last minute. The name of this fast runner was Roger Bannister. Harold Abrahams (the Chariots of Fire sprinter) was treasurer of the organizing committee. Weightlifter Jim Halliday was a hero after being imprisoned in a Japanese camp.
Japan and Germany were banned. The Soviet Union didnt show. Four thousand athletes from 59 countries competed.
Decathlete Bob Mathias, distance runner Emil Zatopek and Fanny Blankers-Koen who won four of nine track and field events were the stars.
The Paralympics also were born in 1948 when Dr. Ludwig Guttman, director of the Spinal Injuries Center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, organized an archery competition to coincide with the Olympics for people injured during World War II or confined to a wheelchair.
Nationalism was alive and well, as it was in 1908 and has been in every Olympics dating back to the ancient Greeks.
Like all Olympics they were shot through with politics, David Runciman writes in History Today about the changing relationship between politics and sport. In 1908 sport was seen as an extension of politics. In 1948, it began to be seen as an alternative way of doing politics. In 2012 it sometimes looks like a way of avoiding politics altogether.
In 2012, London is doing what Olympic cities have always done: Vast government resources have been expended to ensure that the Games cast Britain in the most favorable possible light and, above all, to ensure that they are not hijacked by terrorists, Runciman writes.
Jenkins said the main thing thats different about the Olympics is the $6 billion in sponsorship and TV money.
The athletes havent changed but commerce has overtaken competition. Think of the effort and money going into this for two weeks at a time when people are very uneasy about the economy, she said. Every Olympics now has to be about regenerating cities and saving youth. You cant ask that of sport.
The London Games, held in large part to recreate the East End, will be wiping out part of history to write a new chapter. Jenkins wouldnt mind seeing a movement embracing history.
We dont need to pretend the Olympics is the greatest show on earth when good would be good enough, Jenkins said. Part of me wishes it would topple over and go back to Athens.