London wins Olympics… no not that one

Paris. 6 July 2005, and after a gruelling four-round ballot of the International Olympic Committee, Moscow, New York City and Madrid are eliminated and London wins the final round by a margin of four votes over Paris – the 2012 Olympics are coming to the East End of London. Sebastian Coe was the hero of the day, but his recents travails make 2005 seem a very long time ago.

As we approach Brazil’s beleaguered games – Will visitors brave the Zika Virus? Will the stadia be finished? Will there be any Russians there? – we revisit a piece we first published back in 2005, looking at how London won the Olympic Games. No, not that one, the first post-WW2 Games in 1948. Run on a shoestring, with the British team bringing their own sarnies, it was a very British, cut-price, make do and mend, triumph. And almost certainly, nobody was on drugs…

So, after a solid year of campaigning, the British Olympic Bid team won the Games for London, bringing the World’s greatest sporting jamboree back to the capital. With the Olympic stadium and village on our very doorstep, and some aquatic events taking place on the River Lea, the Games promise to change the East End for ever. It’s a far cry from the stripped-down Games of 1948, the last time London hosted the Olympics.

It was three years since war had ended and Europe was still in rubble. There hadn’t been an Olympics since 1936, when Hitler had staged his showpiece Games in Berlin … the games that were to demonstrate conclusively the superiority of the Aryan athlete over other races. Hitler had made the Games the most expensive ever, spending an estimated £7m on facilities, sprucing up Berlin and removing all overt signs of persecution of German Jews.

A black sharecropper’s son from Alabama was to spoil the Fuehrer’s party of course. Jesse Owens won the men’s 100 metres sprint, the long jump, the 200 metres, and was part of the 4 x 100 metres men’s relay team. Hitler refused to present medals to African-Americans, and left the stadium in disgust.

And that wasn’t the end of Hitler’s disruption of the Olympic Games, with both the 1940 Games (planned for Tokyo) and the 1944 Olympiad (awarded to London) being cancelled because of World War II.

Much of London was in ruins, and many of the athletes who would have been competing had been killed or wounded in the War. But London rose to the challenge, hosting a no-frills games.

The centrepiece was Wembley Stadium — the world famous football ground is currently being rebuilt of course. Wembley effectively underwrote the Games, with little prospect of money from a cash-strapped Government. The perimeter turf was stripped away to reveal the old cinder athletics track, dating from the Empire Games of 1924. The emergent running strip was given a top dressing of cinders, collected from the fireplaces of Leicester (why Leicester there is no record) and the runners were ready to do their stuff. The mind boggles at the thought of modern athletes placing their expensive Nike-clad toes onto such a track.

Germany and Japan were not invited to take part; Russia was, but declined. School buildings were pressed into services to house athletes; Government buildings were converted into administrative offices and what would now be called ‘media centres’. And those few Londoners lucky enough to have a black-and-white telly could watch the Games live (there were no recordings then). This was the first Olympiad to be broadcast on TV.

Go back to the previous London Olympics, held at a new 68,000 stadium in Shepherds Bush. Amidst long-departed events such as Lacrosse and Powerboating, there were continual arguments: American flag-bearer Ralph Rose refusing to dip the Stars and Stripes to the King and Queen; Finnish athletes refusing to march under the flag of Russia; and fist fights breaking out in the stands; and constant controversy over decisions by the British referees in cycling, wrestling and athletics. This was the games when the marathon distance was raised from the old standard 25 miles to 26 miles, 385 yards. The extra 2km was added to take the starting line back to Windsor Castle, so the Royal Family could get a better view.

Again, London had been awarded the Games at a time of turmoil. Rome was originally down to host the 1908 Olympics, but withdrew after Mount Vesuvius erupted and threw the country into chaos.

The 2012 Olympiad may be a considerably slicker and more sophisticated event than its predecessors, but perhaps, like the budget-basement games of 1948 it will have a broader reach than just sporting excellence. Then, the Olympiad was one of the first opportunities since the War for London to mount a public celebration. East Enders will be hoping that the Olympics now heralds a financial shot in the arm for their part of London … with the rise of London’s new financial district at Canary Wharf, maybe the power really is shifting to the east.

David Beckham was in no doubt about the value of an Olympics in the unlikely setting of the Lea Valley: in the afterglow of the bid win, he was wistfully remembering boyhood days canoeing on the River Lea. “I grew up in the East End of London, I’ve got friends who have got children in the East End of London,” he said. “It is going to regenerate so many things in London, in the whole country.”2


About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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