So the stadiums, and the accommodation blocks, and the McDonalds Restaurant, and the dedicated Olympic-officials-only traffic lanes have all been built and delivered on time and there are nearly enough security guards on site to keep things safe, nearly, not quite, but who’s counting anyway, and so here we are, its been a long time since the decision was announced back in 2005, followed by lots of celebrations in Trafalgar Square and a round of traditional terrorist attacks, carnage and death to mark the occasion, but now we’re here with four days to go until the 2012 London Olympics begin and so for these next few days we will focus solely on the phenomenon that is the Modern Olympics (not to be confused with the Ancient Olympics which were mainly competed naked, something to consider for the next one maybe).
Today we will look back at the last time that London hosted the Modern Olympics, for this is the third time that Londoners have had to walk to work to avoid congested Olympic roads and Olympic public transport although in 1948 it was slightly easier to walk to work given that there weren’t quite so many buildings left in London after the war courtesy of the Germans, its much easier to walk to work when you can just walk over the top of where rows and rows of houses and factories used to be and it was perhaps a little unkind to not invite Germany, nor Japan to the 1948 Olympics just because there had been a smidgen of unpleasantness a few years before.
In 1946 the UK was skint, broke, living beyond means, pockets turned inside out and looking for spare change down the back of the sofa, we’d spent all of our money and savings on a big thing called “the war” and people were still arriving back from it to find their houses missing when the Prime Minister received a phone call from the organiser of the International Olympic Committee to ask if they still wanted to host the cancelled 1944 Olympics, but in 1948 instead, to which the Prime Minister replied, “Sorry old chap but we’re a bit financially embarrassed at the moment, not got two ha’penny’s to scratch our arses with don’t you know, I’m rather afraid that we may have to decline on this occasion”, fortunately though the Prime Minister mentioned this to King George VI (the current Queens father) who disagreed and rather thought that the whole thing would be a splendid wheeze and just what the bladdy cantry needed after six years of blood-letting, he sent the Prime Minister back to his office with cuffed ears and told him to ring the man at the Olympic Committee back, “A-a-and b-b-b-b-b-blaaddy w-w-w-w-well t-t-t-t-t-ell him y-y-y-y-yes, you bloody idiot”, those were his exact words by the way.
And so it was agreed that London would pick up the tab for the 1948 Olympics and the rest of the world breathed a huge sigh of relief for they too were very skint after “the war” and they had all been sitting with their arms crossed in defiance and trying not to catch the eye of the Olympic Organising Committee, and some of them sniggered a little behind their hands at their complicity in getting London to host The Games, for they’d all been pointing at London and whispering to the organisers “Sir, sir, they’ll do it…”
Now history will show that one of the myriad of jobs that a Lord has to do in our democracy is to organise an Olympics when they come around, this year its Lord Coe, formally fastest-man-in-the-world-over-1500m-as-long-as-the-Americans-don’t-turn-up, but back in 1948 the job of organising the London Olympics was given to Lord Burghley, 6th Marquess of Exeter and winner of the 400m hurdles gold medal at the 1928 Olympics when the Americans did turn up – he was the man who raced around the Great Court at Trinity College Cambridge in the time that it took the clock to strike 12 noon, a scene which Colin Welland couldn’t resist writing into his film Chariots of Fire even though he didn’t acknowledge Lord Burghley in it, or in fact, get the story right at all.
So Lord Burghley and some other Lords, Sirs and Colonels , well connected chaps all of them set about organising the second London Olympics with about 18 months notice and a budget of zero pounds.
Its only when presented with those facts that you realise what a bladdy-good job they did too, right from the start their budget was zero, the newly elected Labour Government had allocated all of the money that the USA had lent to us for house building and establishing a thing called “the National Health Service”, which by almost complete coincidence cost the country almost exactly the same amount of money (adjusted for inflation) that the 2012 Olympics have just cost us taxpayers, in fact it was a little cheaper at £7.3bn, amazing isn’t it, a complete free-to-the-end-user National Health Service or an Olympic Games, theres not much to discuss really is there ?
With no budget at all the assembled Lords had to give notice to the rest of the world that, actually, don’t come here with high expectations, so the first thing they did was come up with an ace advertising slogan – “London 1948” it read “The Austerity Games”, there, that should grab their attention, we’ll sell loads of tickets with that snappy slogan.
They had to use whatever sports stadia still existed in London after the Luftwaffe had had their sport, luckily the Luftwaffe must have been blind as bats (are bats blind, I thought they had excellent night vision), anyway, blind as very blind things, blind as a mole, yes that will do apart from the fact that moles don’t fly, but anyway, Wembley Stadium was still standing and no-one had booked it for a football final or a Bruce Springsteen gig or anything during the Olympics, so their Lordships nabbed it, just walked in and declared “We’re having this, alright ?” because you could do that just after the war if you were a Lord.
“But wait” one of them declared, “this here stadium, its a football stadium, we need a stadium with a running track” and so they had a meeting and after five minutes the solution was at hand, they ripped out the first twenty rows of terracing, flattened what was left, lifted part of the pitch and got the city of Leicester to donate all of its ash from all of its coal fires – this is true by the way, councils collected the ash from your fires in those days, for, erm, stuff – and they used Leicesters ash for a new running track, some of which was on the football pitch but the Wembley owners daren’t say anything for these were Lords and they had powerful shit in their armoury, The King for one thing.
Those Lords commandeered 27 other sporting grounds and buildings with lots of space including The English Channel, Arsenal, QPR Fulham and Tottenham Football Clubs and The Kings own back garden in Windsor Great Park, 27 stadiums that the Germans had missed bombing and all nabbed for free for the twenty different sports – I think we’ve missed a trick here, or maybe Lord Coe just doesn’t have the same gravitas as Lord Burghley, after all Lord Burghley had actually beaten the worlds best when he won his gold athletics medal.
The Games opened on the 29th July 1948 in the sort of ceremony that we should adopt theses days, for far too long is spent arseing about with arty farty displays that have nothing at all to do with sport – a military band played for the crowd at 2pm, at 2.45pm the King and Queen took their seats and the teams paraded into the arena, all the while the King sat looking worried, checking his speech for words that started with B’s and W’s and wishing that he’d never suggested these b-b-bloody games in the first place, one day he thought, one day someone will make a film of the arse I’m going to make of this speech.
An hour later he was done, a Wing Commander of the RAF ran into the stadium, lit the torch with some rizla’s and a splash of petrol and that was that, the King left for a good lie down and the Games began.
The British athletes who competed at the 1948 Olympics were not of course paid for their efforts for the British part of the games was under the auspices of the AAA, the first of those “A’s” being for the word “Amateur”, you’ll have to explain that word to the current Olympians but suffice to say that the 1948 British Olympians made their own way to the venue, they stayed for free in military barracks or university halls of residence and they were given the material (on ration) and an instruction sheet on how to sew up a pair of shorts and a running vest – absolutely true story.
The runners ran on Wembley’s cinder track in shoes that had nails sticking out through the soles for better grip and no-one gave a flying one about which logo was on them and a 30 year old married-with-two-children Dutch sprinter named Fanny – we still think thats a funny name in this country – won four gold medals and was prevented from winning a fifth and sixth (she would have, they were the long jump and high jump and she was world record holder in both) because the organising committee wouldn’t let women enter more than three individual events because it wasn’t the done thing for ladies.
After the old Empire Stadium at Wembley was demolished a few years ago only one venue from the 1948 games still remains in use today – the Herne Hill Velodrome, but Lord Coe decided to build a new one anyway, its not like it was his money or anything is it, and velodromes, well, we’re in dire need of velodromes in this country aren’t we, you have to catch a bus for miles to get to a good velodrome these days – what is a velodrome anyway ?