London has saved the Olympics twice.
In 1908 the Games were due to go to Rome but a volcanic eruption in Naples crippled the Italian economy. It became apparent that Rome would not be ready to host the Olympic celebrations and the Games were instead reassigned to our great city; London. Despite the short notice the games were exceptionally well organised; for the first time in Olympics history a stadium was purposely prepared for the Games.
The Games were held over six months with the sailing being delayed because our yacht was trying to win the America’s Cup in New York (it was ever thus). So instead of the sailing taking place in March it took place in September. There were two entrants representing USA and UK – and in the race off, you’ve guessed, the GB boat ran aground
There were two innovations that we introduced in the White City games (the stadium was pulled down in the 1988 to make way for the BBC’s new offices). The first was that we froze the swimming pool that stood inside the athletics track and introduced ice dance. This paved the way ultimately for the Olympic Winter Games which
first took place in Chamonix in 1924.
The second which remains to this day is that we extended the marathon from the classical distance of 26 miles (it was named after the alleged activities of messenger Pheidippides who ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to tell of the defeat of the Persians in 490BC) to 26 miles 385 yards. There appear to be different interpretations as to why this extra yardage was added. HRH Queen Mary apparently wanted to see the start of the race from one of her
cottages in Great Windsor Park so her daughters could see it from their windows. Then there was the story that the finish of the race meant that the sun would be in HRH’s eyes and so the finish was moved (simply not true). This writer suspects that the organisers wanted to start the race in the park as it made it simpler to check in the athletes.
London saved the Olympic movement again in 1948. The Berlin Games in 1936 were a disaster. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, took a bribe of £400,000 (today’s valuation) from Hitler to tell the world that the Games should go ahead. They did but not before Hitler had conned the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But it shows you how out of the loop they were when they awarded the 1940 Games to Tokyo with
London pencilled in for 1944. Of course WW2 intervened and there were no further Games until 1948.
In the years of austerity that followed V.E. Day in the UK, it was frankly some kind of miracle that London felt it could answer the call of the world to host the Games in 1948. Those nasty Soviets wanted in but they were only given visitor status and were not finally admitted until Helsinki in 1952 and they were then to dominate them but only because of a state sponsored illegal drug regime introduced for their athletes (ditto East Germany).
For 1948, there were another three innovations – starting blocks for the sprint athletes, photo-finishing system for track events though not yet for swimming and the first "Disabled Games" at Stoke Mandeville for those with spinal cord injuries. Women athletes stayed in central London hotels whilst the men were billeted in Army huts in Hillingdon! The Games were a great celebration for Fanny Blankers-Koen, a Dutch sprinter, who won four gold medals in the 100 yards, the 220 yards, the 400 yards and the 4 x 100 yards.
This brings us to date and in a few weeks time, London will become the first city to have been awarded the Games for a third time (Los Angeles 1934/1984: Paris 1900/1920). It would have been good if we could have re-fashioned the Games for the next 30 years but we have been caught up in the “profit taking-making” which now besmirches the whole Olympic edifice.
The IOC awards the Games but once they have happened they care little for the debts that amount for the host City. Montreal 1976 has only recently paid off her enormous debts. Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 have struggled and indeed Athens current problems may have started there with some extreme creative accounting. Beijing 2008 was a
masterful display for the government there but then will we ever know the true costs? And London…well without a stadium owner after 2012, the stadium will be a £380m white elephant. This should have been resolved before the stadium was built as it was for the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002 when Manchester City moved from Maine Road to what is now the Etihad Stadium.
Derek Wyatt was Chairman of the Parliamentary London Olympic and Paralympic Group from 2005-2010