London is a place steeped in history, from every churchyard, pub and palace to every theater, park and monument.
So it is only fitting that London is the first city to host the modern Olympics three times.
Only in London would the British Library display the marathon finish-line tape from the 1908 Games while across town, Christie’s in South Kensington is auctioning off a 1908 gold medal won by rower Raymond Etherington-Smith in a dramatic race during which the Belgian eights capsized. Suggested price: $10,000.
In London, the past matters, even if the present bears no resemblance to it.
The mix of old and new will be the overriding theme. The Games open Friday with a ceremony modeled on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest in a new, environmentally conscious stadium on land reclaimed from an industrial waste dump.
Competition venues include the iconic Lord’s Cricket Grounds and the All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon village.
Old and new: Beach volleyball players in bikinis spiking balls at Horse Guards Parade.
The Olympics have survived all sorts of turmoil, as has London, and the 1908 and 1948 Games illustrate how the institution of the Olympics has changed, as has the great capital.
In 1908, the Games were reassigned to London from Rome after Mount Vesuvius erupted and Italian authorities decided they could not spare funds to stage the sporting spectacle.
The postwar 1948 “Austerity Games” were held in a city still recovering from bombardment. Athletes brought their own food rations and stayed in military barracks.
The 2012 Games are being held in a city that lobbied for the Games before terrorist bombs killed 56 on the public transport system in 2005 and before the populace was reeling from the global economic crisis.
The Games are altogether different now. Or are they?
A closer look
In 1908, the stadium, which was to be used for the Franco-British Exhibition, was built at a cost of $120,000 and it contained a track, a 100-meter swimming pool, a cycling oval and seats for 66,000. It was a Games with no budget, whereas the budget for 2012 is $15 billion. About 2,000 athletes from 21 countries competed, compared with 10,500 athletes from 204 countries today.
For the first time, women competed, although modern Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin objected. Among the 37 female athletes was Wimbledon champ Lottie Dodd, who won a silver medal in archery. Great Britain won more medals — 146 — than any other country for the first and only time.
The 1908 Games featured the first elaborate Opening Ceremonies. Athletes could only compete for their home country. The U.S. team, made up of many Irish-Americans from New York who were pro-independence for Ireland, refused to dip the flag to the king. It was the first of many rows between Great Britain and its former colony. Olympic politics had arrived.
In the 400-meter run, the British claimed American runners blocked Lt. Wyndham Haleswelle and asked for a re-run. The Americans refused, so Haleswelle won the gold medal by jogging around the track by himself.
For the Americans and the British, the Olympics were a clash of ideals.
“The Americans came with the concept of modern sport while England was still obsessed with the concept of the gentleman sportsman,” said Rebecca Jenkins, author of The First London Olympics: 1908. “The Americans felt the Olympics weren’t about rules of fair play but about winners and losers because they came from the strenuous life of Roosevelt’s America. They didn’t understand each other and got up in each other’s noses.”
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 don’t 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 didn’t 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 that’s different about the Olympics is the $6 billion in sponsorship and TV money.
“The athletes haven’t 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 can’t 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 wouldn’t mind seeing a movement embracing history.
“We don’t 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.”