London's Olympic History

Stumble this
 
 
 
 
Previous image

London 1908

London 1908 and 1948 Olympic Games posters

Next image
London 1908
London 1908
London 1908
London 1948
London 1948
1948 'Paralympic Games'
1948 'Paralympic Games'
 

 

This is not the first time the Olympics have been staged in London – in fact, come July 2012, London will become the first city to host the modern Olympic Games for a third time after previous efforts in 1908 and 1948. What's more, the Paralympic Games have their origins in England after a spin-off event during the 1948 Games – all of which underlines London's rich pedigree as an Olympic city.

 
 

London 1908

Amid volcanic explosions, London steps in to save the day

 

Truth be told, London was never meant to host the Olympic Games in 1908. The huge volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 1906 saw the Italian government pull Rome from hosting the Games amid fears of spiralling costs and, at the 11th Hour, London stepped in to save the day. The new 68,000-capacity White City Stadium, considered in the day a technological marvel, was built at a cost of £60,000 – compare that to the £537m spent on the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford! – and the organising committee held a further budget of £15,000. The hastily built stadium had a 535m track (three laps to the mile) inside which there was a swimming pool and raised platforms for wrestling and gymnastics.

The 1908 Games started in spring and ran all summer, from 27 April to 31 October, with 22 nations contesting 22 sports, including events long gone from today's Olympic programme – such as Polo, the Standing Long Jump and Tug-of-War. One similar venue to the London 2012 Games was used, with the All England Club in Wimbledon hosting the Tennis (or Racquets) competition. The spirit of the Games was evident in the Tug-of-War final, which saw a team of Liverpudlian policemen beat the Americans, while there was controversy in the 400m after a lane dispute saw three US runners boycotting a re-run of the four-man final, allowing Briton Wyndham Halswelle to win the only ever Olympic walkover in history. Halswelle that ends well, as they say.

One history-changing moment occurred during the London 1908 Games involving the Marathon event, which until 1908 had habitually been a race of 25 miles – the exact distance between Athens and Marathon in Ancient Greece. There was a slight snag, however, for the London 1908 Games: the race was to start at Windsor Castle and end at the White City Arena, a length of 26 miles; what's more, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – who had set the route in the first place – stipulated that the race was to finish under the Royal Box at the stadium, adding on a further 385 yards. As a result, the modern-day Marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards was born – although it was not to the liking of all competitors. Italian confectioner Dorando Pietri was leading the race as it entered the stadium, but he collapsed five times on the closing lap in the uncharacteristically hot British summer sun. It took him 10 minutes to complete the final 350 metres, and he only completed the race after bring practically dragged over the line by race officials. Pietri was disqualified after the American team of the runner-up lodged a complaint – although he did pick up a silver cup as consolation prize awarded by the Queen one day later.

Incidentally, the host nation won 99 more medals than their nearest opponent in the overall medal table, the USA. Great Britain's tally of 146 medals included 56 golds.

 
 
 

London 1948

Austerity Games improve worldwide morale

 

After a 10-year hiatus following the Berlin 38 Games and subsequent World War Two, the Olympic returned with a backdrop of worldwide reconciliation. Dubbed the Austerity Games in British folklore, London 1948 was held on a shoestring: no new venues were built; instead of an Olympic village, athletes were lodged in RAF camps in Richmond and Uxbridge (men) and London colleges (women). Due to strict post-war rationing in Britain, all participants from the 59 nations involved were asked to bring food. Rumour has it, the French provided the celebratory champagne and the Americans flew in flour and steak. Like working dockers and miners, home nation athletes were allowed double rations (around 5,500 calories a day).

Wembley Stadium was the main venue used for the Games following a sunny opening ceremony on 29 July in which 2,500 pigeons were released into the sky as a symbol of peace. For the first time at the Olympics, swimming events were held undercover, at the 8,000-capacity Empire Pool – the site of the modern-day Wembley Arena. Interestingly, the pool was longer than the standard 50m Olympic requirement and so a platform was constructed across the pool which both shortened it and housed officials. Earls Court, which hosts the Volleyball in London 2012, was the venue for boxing, weightlifting, wrestling and gymnastics. Another Olympic first came with the live televised coverage of the Games on the BBC.

London 1948 had its fair share of stand-out heros and heroines: Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old Dutch mother of three dubbed "The Flying Housewife", won four gold medals in athletics; in the decathlon, American Bob Mathias became the youngest male to win a gold medal at the age of 17; Hungarian Karoly Takacs won a shooting gold medal after teaching himself how to shoot with his left hand after having his favoured right-hand amputated following a grenade accident during the war; British weightlifter Jim Haldaway took bronze in the lightweight class despite weighing just four and a half stones when he was freed from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp; while France's Micheline Ostermeyer, a concert pianist, picked up gold medals in the discus and shot put.

Forty years on from their steamrolling showing in the 1908 Games, the home nation did not fare as well when the Olympics returned to London. Great Britain sank to 12th in the medal table, picking up just 23 medals – and only three golds – while the USA took the plaudits with 84 medals, including 38 golds.

 
 
 

1948 'Paralympic Games'

Modern Paralympics are born at Stoke Mandeville

 

Not far away from London, in the Buckinghamshire town of Stoke Mandeville, a small sporting competition involving 16 British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries took place at the same time as the 1948 Olympics.

Organised by Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish neurologist who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed are considered to be the first ever Paralympics. The Stoke Mandeville Games returned on a yearly basis, and in 1952 they became the International Wheelchair Games with the arrival of Dutch athletes. In 1960, the Games took place in Rome and were no longer reserved solely for war veterans.

By now the Stoke Mandeville Games had grown considerably: Dr Guttmann took 400 athletes to the Italian capital to compete following that year's Summer Olympics in Rome. The "Parallel Olympics", or Paralympics, were born – and have since taken place the month after every Summer Olympics since.

Usually held in the same city or nation as the Olympic host, in 1984 the Paralympics returned to Stoke Mandeville in a duel event co-hosted by New York.

 
 
 
 
Call now: hotel deals 0207 420 4960