The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start
Acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford connects the modern Games to their unlikely origin—in rural England
What is known as Wenlock Edge, a great palisade, almost 1,000 feet high, running for 15 miles through the county of Shropshire, overlooks, near its eastern end, the tidy town of Much Wenlock. (Much Wenlock being so named, you see, to distinguish it from its even wee-er neighbor, Little Wenlock.) However, to this quaint backwater village near Wales came, in 1994, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, the grandiose president of the International Olympic Committee.
Samaranch, an old spear carrier for Franco, was a vainglorious corporate politician, either obsequious or imperious, depending on the company, who was never much given to generosity. Yet he found his way to Much Wenlock, where he trooped out to the cemetery at Holy Trinity Church and placed a wreath on a grave there. Samaranch then declared that the man who lay at his feet beneath the Shropshire sod “really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games.”
That fellow was affectionately known as Penny Brookes; more formally, he was Dr. William Penny Brookes, the most renowned citizen of Much Wenlock—at least since the eighth century, when the prioress of the abbey there, St. Milburga, regularly worked miracles (notably with birds she could order about), while also displaying a singular ability to levitate herself. If not quite so spectacular as the enchanted prioress, Penny Brookes was certainly a man of consequence—fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, town magistrate and founder of the National Olympian Association in 1865—which, significantly, he created years before the International Olympic Committee was formed. Still, notwithstanding Samaranch’s homage, Brookes and his little town are seldom cited in Olympic liturgy.
Olympic myth runs rife, too, generously embroidered with Pollyanna. Most particularly, from its inception, modern Olympic advocates have trumpeted that their sweaty contests are much more uplifting—a noble “movement” of brotherhood that will somehow influence us grubby mortals to stop our common carping and warring. Alas, poetry and peace always then fly off with the doves.
Also gospel is it that a Frenchman, venerating Greek antiquity, cowered by German physicality, was the initiating force behind the re-creation of the Games. But that’s only true so far as it goes. The fact is that the modern Olympics owe their birth and their model and, ultimately, their success foremost to England. For that matter, as we shall see, the first London Games, those of 1908, which were fashioned out of whole cloth by a towering Edwardian named Willie Grenfell—or Lord Desborough, as he had become—essentially saved the Olympics as an institution. It’s really quite appropriate that, in a few weeks hence, London will become the first city since Olympia to host the Games three times.
Across the channel, Pierre Frédy was born in Paris in 1863 into the French aristocracy. He grew up as an unapologetic chauvinist, but withal, even as France declined as a world presence, nothing ate at young Pierre more than the fact that Germany had whipped France in the Franco-Prussian War when he had been but an impressionable tot of 7. Pierre became convinced that a considerable reason for France’s shellacking was that the German soldiers had been in much better shape.
This was certainly true, too, as young Germans were assembled to participate in turnen, which were tedious, rote physical exercises that, like eating your spinach, were good for you. But Pierre Frédy’s antipathy for anything Teutonic inhibited him from simply encouraging French leaders to have their youth ape their victors’ physical education. Rather, by chance, he happened to read the British novel Tom Brown’s School Days, and thereupon Pierre, who would ascend to the title of the Baron de Coubertin, had what could only be described as a spiritual experience.
Tom Brown’s was about a smallish boy who goes off to boarding school at Rugby, where he participates in the school’s athletics, which helps him to thrash the big bully, Flashman. Moreover, the climax of the novel is a game—a cricket match. The young baron was hooked. Not only did he want to improve the physical condition of his own countrymen by emphasizing the British way of sport, but he began to conjure up the greater dream of reinstituting the ancient Greek Olympics, thereby to improve the whole world.
The original Olympics had been banned in A.D. 393 by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, but despite the prohibition, Europeans of the Dark and Middle ages kept playing their games. Frivolity by the lower classes is, however, not the stuff of history, saved. Rather, we mostly only have glamorous tapestried depictions of the nobility occupied at their expensive blood sports.
We do know, though, that by the 11th century in Scotland, various tournaments of strength were held. These were the ancient forerunners of what became the Highland Games, but it was not until 1612, farther south in England, that the embryonic modern Olympics first made their appearance. This was an athletic festival that was held on the estate of one Capt. Robert Dover, and it included the likes of fencing and “leaping” and wrestling, “while the young women were dancing to the tune of a shepard’s [sic] pipe.” It was even known, in fact, as the Cotswold Olympick Games. Captain Dover was a Roman Catholic, and he devilishly scheduled his festival as a joyous in-your-face exhibition to counter the dour Puritanism of the time. Unfortunately, with his death in 1641 the annual athletic celebration petered out.
The idea of replicating the ancient Olympics had taken on a certain romantic appeal, though, and other English towns copied the Cotswold Olympicks on a smaller scale. Elsewhere, too, the idea was in the air. The Jeux Olympiques Scandinaves were held in Sweden in 1834 and ’36; and the so-called Zappas Olympics in 1859 and ’70 were popular successes in Greece. However, when a butcher and laborer won events in 1870, the Athenian upper classes took umbrage, banned hoi polloi, and subsequent Zappas Olympics were but sporting cotillions for the elite. For the first time, amateurism had reared its snotty head.
Ah, but in Much Wenlock, the Olympic spirit thrived, year after year—as it does to this day. Penny Brookes had first scheduled the games on October 22, 1850, in an effort “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants” of Wenlock. However, notwithstanding this high-minded purpose, and unlike the sanctimonious claptrap that suffocates the Games today, Penny Brookes also knew how to put a smile on the Olympic face. His annual Much Wenlock games had the breezy ambience of a medieval county fair. The parade to the “Olympian Fields” began, appropriately, at the two taverns in town, accompanied by heralds and bands, with children singing, gaily tossing flower petals. The winners were crowned with laurel wreaths, laid on by the begowned fairest of Much Wenlock’s fair maids. Besides the classic Greek fare, the competitions themselves tended to the eclectic. One year there was a blindfolded wheelbarrow race, another offered “an old woman’s race for a pound of tea” and on yet another occasion there was a pig chase, with the intrepid swine squealing past the town’s limestone cottages until cornered “in the cellar of Mr. Blakeway’s house.”
If all this sounds more like a children’s birthday party, Penny Brookes’ games could be serious business. Competitors traveled all the way from London, and, flattered that Brookes had so honored his noble heritage, the king of Greece, in faraway Athens, donated a silver urn that was awarded each year to the pentathlon winner. The renown of Shropshire’s sporting competition under the cusp of the Wenlock Edge grew.
It is of particular historical interest that even from the inaugural Much Wenlock games, cricket and football were included. The Greeks had never tolerated any ball games in the Olympics, and likewise the Romans dismissed such activity as child’s play. Although English monarchs themselves played court tennis, several kings issued decrees banning ball games. The fear was that the yeomen who amused themselves so, monkeying around with balls, would not be dutifully practicing their archery in preparation for fighting for the Crown. Even as the gentry migrated to the New World, it continued to disparage ball games in comparison with the savage butchery of the hunt. Thomas Jefferson was moved to say: “Games played with the ball . . . are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” Talk about over-the-top; you would’ve thought Alexander Hamilton was playing shortstop for the Yankees.
But as the 19th century moved along, ball games throughout the English-speaking world suddenly took on acceptance. Cricket, rugby, field hockey and football in Britain; baseball and American football in the United States; lacrosse and ice hockey in Canada; Australian rules football down under—all were codified within a relatively short period. Sorry, the Duke of Wellington never did say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields at Eton, but it was true, especially in upper-crust schools like Eton and Rugby, as at Oxford and Cambridge, that team games began to gain institutional approval. As early as 1871 England met Scotland in a soccer match in Edinburgh.
De Coubertin was beguiled by this English devotion to sport. Himself a little fellow (see Brown, Tom), invariably put out in a frock coat, the baron was, however, utterly naked of either charm or humor. Rather, he was distinguished by a flowing mustache that was a thing of majesty and affectation. Yet those who personally encountered him were most entranced by his dark piercing eyes that lasered out beneath heavy eyebrows. Like his eyes, the baron was concentrated of mind. He was unswerving, and his resolution showed. When he met Theodore Roosevelt, the bully president felt obliged to declare that he had finally actually encountered a Frenchman who was not a “mollycoddle.”
Richard D. Mandell, the premier Olympic historian, has written that de Coubertin sought out fellows of his own wealthy, classically trained bourgeois ilk—“most were congenial, well-meaning second-rank intellectuals, academicians and bureaucrats.” Still, few of them bought into de Coubertin’s Olympic dream. For that matter, some found it absolutely screwball. Notwithstanding, the baron was indefatigable; in today’s world he would have been a lobbyist. He was forever establishing shadow committees with impressive letterheads and setting up meetings or higher falutin gatherings he billed as “congresses.” Apparently, he always traveled with a knife and fork, constantly holding forth over dinners, entertaining, pitching...well, preaching. “For me,” he declared, “sport is a religion with church, dogma, ritual.” Ultimately, his obsession with Olympism would cost him his fortune and the love of his embittered wife, and at the end, in 1937, his heart would, appropriately, be buried in the beloved past, in Olympia.
But for his present he inhabited the soul of England. He journeyed across La Manche, and with his connections and facility for name-dropping, he made all the right rounds. Even better, there was the glorious pilgrimage to Rugby, to bond with the fictional Tom Brown, to grow even more enamored of the English athletic model. Ironically, too, that was really something of a Potemkin arena, because unlike the German masses at their boring exercises, it was only the British upper classes who could afford the time for fun and games. After all, the “lower orders” could hardly be trusted to act upon the field of play in a proper sportsmanlike manner. The original British definition of amateur did not simply mean someone who played at sport without remuneration; rather, it was much broader: An amateur could only be someone who did not labor with his hands. When the Crown began mustering its youth to serve in the Boer War, it discovered that large numbers of Englishmen were in poor physical condition. De Coubertin, though, ignored the actual for the ideal.
In 1890, he journeyed to Much Wenlock, dining there with Penny Brookes. For perhaps the first time, the baron was not required to proselytize; good grief, he was a downright Johnny-come-lately. Why, it had been a decade since Penny Brookes had first proposed that not only should the Olympics be reinstituted, but they should be held in Athens. Talk about preaching to the choir. One can plainly see the young Frenchman beaming, twirling that fantastic mustache, as the old doctor told him how “the moral influence of physical culture” could actually improve the whole damn world.
Then de Coubertin hied to the Olympian Fields and saw the Games for real. Yes, it was only Much Wenlock, one little town in the Midlands, and the Olympians were mostly just Shropshire lads, but now it wasn’t a dream. Right before his eyes, the baron could see athletes running and jumping, with laurel wreaths placed upon the victors’ brows and brotherhood upon the horizon of sport.
Alas, Penny Brookes died in 1895, the year before de Coubertin had persuaded the Greeks to hold the first modern Olympics. Those Games were popular in Athens, too, but little attention was paid them elsewhere. Despite all his schmoozing in England, the baron hadn’t been able to break into the Oxford-Cambridge inner circle, and only six British athletes entered the lists at Athens. Moreover, when two servants working at the British Embassy registered for a bicycle race, English society really looked down its noses at this Much Wenlock knockoff. There goes the neighborhood.
The Greeks urged de Coubertin to make Athens the perennial Olympic home, but he foresaw, correctly, that the Games needed to be a roadshow to gain any sort of global foothold. But beware what you wish for; the next two Olympics were nothing short of disaster. First, as a prophet without honor in his native land, de Coubertin could only get Paris to accept the 1900 Games as part of its world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle Internationale. The events were scattered over five months and were barely recognized as a discrete tournament. Included was a competition for firemen putting out a blaze, ballooning and obstacle swimming races.
If it is possible, though, the subsequent ’04 Games in St. Louis were even more a travesty. Again, the Olympics were subsumed by a world’s carnival—the Louisiana Purchase Exposition; “meet me in St. Loo-ee, Loo-ee, meet me at the fair”—and about the only competitors to show up were homebred Americans. Mud fighting and climbing a greased pole were highlighted Olympic events. Three strikes and de Coubertin would’ve been out after 1908, so he reached back into Classical history and bet it all on the Eternal City. Explained he at his oracular best: “I desired Rome only because I wanted Olympism, after its return from the excursion [italics mine] to utilitarian America, to don once more the sumptuous toga, woven of art and philosophy, in which I had always wanted to clothe her.” In other words: SOS.
But the Italians began to get cold feet after they heard about the Missouri farce, and when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, they used the disaster as an excuse to beg off. The baron had only one card left to play, but, mercifully, all the years of kissing up to the Brits paid off. On November 19, 1906, London accepted the challenge to host the IVth Olympiad, which would open in July of 1908, only 19 months hence. There was no stadium, no plans—not much of anything but Lord Desborough, the intrepid Willie Grenfell, knight of the Order of the Garter, member of Parliament, squire of stupendous Taplow Court—a man who had climbed the Matterhorn, swum the Niagara rapids and rowed across the Channel. Now he volunteered to take charge of the floundering Olympics.
At 6-foot-5, Lord Desborough was a giant for that time. If he didn’t know everyone worth knowing, his wife did. Ettie, Lady Desborough, was the queen bee of what was described as “The Souls” of London society, entertaining at Taplow in an arc from Oscar Wilde to the Prince of Wales to Winston Churchill. Ettie’s biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines, also describes her as at once a prude and an outrageous flirt (adulteress?), especially with gorgeous younger men who were referred to as her “spangles.” Her favorite word was “golden.”
And why not? In 1906, when Lord Desborough took on the rush job to save the Olympics, Ettie was at the height of her social powers and her beautiful children—Julian and Billy and the girls—were curly-haired, blond angel dolls, as was their London still the largest and most influential city in the world. Britannia ruled the waves. And Lady Desborough had the time for her soirees and her spangles because her husband was invariably otherwise occupied. It was said that once he sat on 115 committees, simultaneously.
No doubt the main reason Lord Desborough managed to get London to help him save the Olympics was simply that everybody both liked him and appreciated his devoted efforts. The beau ideal of the English athlete at that time was not to concentrate on one sport (for goodness’ sake, it’s just a bloody game), but if you do chance to succeed, appear to do so effortlessly (gentlemen do not strain). With his rowing and swimming and fencing and tennis, his Lordship was, as Gilbert and Sullivan might have had it, the very model of a modern English Olympian. Empire magazine summed him up as “tall, well set up, a commanding presence, yet utterly devoid of arrogance or side, which frequently causes Englishmen to be detested by the foreigner.” Certainly (not unlike de Coubertin) it was his dogged personality more than his charm that trumped. When the quick-witted Ettie had chosen Willie Grenfell over other younger, more socially eligible rivals, her cousin observed: “He may be a little dull, but after all, what a comfort it is to be cleverer than one’s husband.”
On Lord Desborough pressed. His most magnificent achievement was the construction of the Olympic stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. From scratch, he raised the funds, and, for £220,000, had a 68,000-seat horseshoe ready for track, cycling, swimming, gymnastics and sundry other events in barely a year and a half’s time. So, on July 13, 1908, before a packed house, more than 2,000 athletes of 22 nations marched—and athletes marched in file, then, “formed up in sections of four,” eyes right—past King Edward, dipping their flags before the world’s grandest monarch in what was simply called the Great Stadium. All else had been prelude Only now had the modern Olympics truly begun.
Medals were presented for the first time. All measurements (except for the marathon) were made metric. Regulations for all entrants—and all, by god, true-blue amateurs—were strictly defined. Even the first Winter Olympics were held late in October. The Baron de Coubertin’s buttons burst. Stealing the words from an American clergyman, he made the sappy declaration—“The importance of the Olympiads lies not so much in winning as in taking part”—that has evermore been trumpeted as the real meaning of the movement, even if nobody this side of the Jamaican bobsled team really believes it.
There was, however, one sticky wicket: The British forced the Irish to be part of their team. Since there were a great many Irish-Americans on the U.S. team, some Yanks came over carrying a chip on their shoulder for their cousins from the ould sod. Anglo-American relations were further aggravated because a prickly Irish-American named James Sullivan had been appointed by President Roosevelt as special commissioner to the Olympics, and Sullivan was convinced that the referees, who were all British, must be homers. Then, for the opening ceremony, someone noticed that of all the nations competing, two flags were not flying over the Great Stadium—and wouldn’t you know it? One of the missing standards was the Stars and Stripes.
(The other was Sweden’s, and the Swedes were even more put out, but never mind.)
Sullivan, who could be a real jerk—four years later, he distinguished himself before the Stockholm Games by unilaterally refusing to let any female Americans swim or dive because he thought the bathing outfits too provocative—went out of his way to protest something or other every day. He started off, for instance, by claiming that the victorious English tug-of-war team wore illegal shoes. And so forth. For their part, the British grew increasingly irritated at the American fans, whose raucous cheers were hysterically described as “barbarous cries.”
Controversy continued to ensue, invariably somehow involving Americans. The ’08 marathon, for example, does surely still boast the most botched-up finish in Olympic annals. Now, at the first modern Olympics, the marathon, starting in the real namesake town of Marathon, had been run into Athens for 24.85 miles, but at the London Games the distance was lengthened to 26 miles 385 yards, which it remains, officially, to this day. The reason for this curious distance was that the race was started at Windsor Castle, so that Queen Alexandra’s grandchildren would have the best vantage.
It was an uncommonly hot, steamy day, but the largest crowd ever to see an athletic event in the history of humankind lined the streets. And here came little Dorando Pietri, a candy maker from Capri, down through Shepherd’s Bush, first into the Great Stadium, where the huge throng awaited. Unfortunately, as the Times of London described it: “A tired man, dazed, bewildered, hardly conscious...his hair white with dust, staggered on to the track.” Pietri not only would fall, but twice turned in the wrong direction, and only made it through those last 385 yards because, in a convoy of suits, helpful British officials held him up and escorted him home.
Naturally, upon review, Pietri was disqualified. However, sympathy for the little fellow knew no bounds. The queen herself presented him with a special loving cup, hastily, lovingly inscribed. Not only that, but, sure enough, the runner who first made it to the finish on his own and thus was fairly awarded the gold by default, turned out to be an American of Irish stock. He had a nerve. You see, during these Games the British themselves took all the gold medals in boxing, rowing, sailing and tennis, and also won at polo, water polo, field hockey and soccer (not to mention their disputed-shoe-shod triumph at the tug-of-war), but the Yanks had dominated on the track, and thus it was deemed bad form for the barbarous Americans to revel in their man’s victory over the brave little Italian.
But that brouhaha could not hold a candle to the 400-meter final, when three Americans went up against the favorite, Britain’s greatest runner, a Scottish Army officer named Wyndham Halswelle. Down the stretch, one of the Americans, J. C. Carpenter, clearly elbowed Halswelle, forcing him out to the very edge of the cinders. Properly, the British umpire disqualified Carpenter and ordered the race rerun.
Led by the obstreperous Sullivan, the Americans protested, lamely, and then, in high dudgeon, also ordered the other two U.S. runners not to enter the rerun. Halswelle himself was so disillusioned that he didn’t want to run either, but was instructed to, and, good soldier that he was, he won in what is still the only walkover in Olympic history. It left such a bitter taste in his mouth, though, that he raced but once more in his life, that only for a farewell turn in Glasgow.
Notwithstanding all the rancor, Lord Desborough’s ’08 Games absolutely did restore de Coubertin’s Olympics, establishing them as a healthy, going concern. Still, simple success as a mere sports spectacular is never enough for Olympic pooh-bahs, and Lord Desborough felt obliged to bloviate: “In the Games of London were assembled some two thousand young men... representative of the generation into whose hands the destinies of most of the nations of the world are passing....We hope that their meeting...may have a beneficial effect hereafter on the cause of international peace.”
But, of course, only six years after the Olympic flame was extinguished, the world fell into the most ghastly maelstrom of killing that any generation had ever suffered. Hardly had the Great War started, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, when Capt. Wyndham Halswelle of the Highland Light Infantry wrote in his diary how his men had bravely moved up the front a full 15 yards against the Germans. This minute gain of ground came at the loss of life to 79 men. Three days later the captain was winged by a sniper, but, after the wound was dressed, he returned to his position. This time, the very same sniper shot him dead in the head. He was 32.
Two months on, Lord Desborough’s eldest son, Julian Grenfell, a poet, fell near Ypres, to be buried close by, with so many others, on a hill above Boulogne. A few weeks after that, not far away, His Lordship’s second son, Billy, was so drilled with machine-gun bullets that his body was rendered remnants and merely left, like so many others, to spoil upon the battlefield. Nobody ever learned the lesson of how ephemeral the Games are better than did Lord Desborough, he who made them forever possible.
London’s first Olympics also left us with the huffy reverberations of a celebrated incident, which is still, a whole century later, proudly cited by Americans. Unfortunately, it really only kinda, sorta happened. All right, though, first the glorious legend:
During the opening ceremony, as the American contingent passed the royal box, the U.S. flag bearer, a shot-putter named Ralph Rose, standing up for his Irish forebears, acting with noble premeditation, did not dip the Stars and Stripes before King Edward as every other nation’s flagman did. Afterward, a teammate of Rose’s named Martin Sheridan sneered: “This flag dips to no earthly king.” And thereafter, at all subsequent Olympics, while all other countries continue to dutifully dip their national standard as they pass the official box, our flag alone forever waves as high at the Olympics as the one Francis Scott Key saw by the dawn’s early light.
Well, as sure as George Washington cut down the cherry tree, it’s a good all-American story. However, comprehensive research by Bill Mallon and Ian Buchanan, published in the Journal of Olympic History in 1999, casts doubt on most of the great patriotic flag tale. Yes, Ralph Rose carried the flag, and while there were not one, but two occasions when flag bearers were supposed to “salute,” he surely only dipped it once—although when asked about it, he denied that anyone had suggested he forgo protocol to make a political point. For all we know, Rose may have just forgotten to drop the flag. Martin Sheridan’s famously jingoistic remark about how the red-white-and-blue “dips to no earthly king” did not appear in print until almost 50 years later—long after Sheridan was dead.
Moreover, at the time, the episode didn’t even rise to the level of a tempest in a teapot. Mallon and Buchanan could not find a single reference in the British press to Rose’s allegedly insulting action, and the New York Herald even went out of its way to write that the crowd’s cheers for the U.S. contingent were “particularly enthusiastic.” Rose’s action set no precedent either. In subsequent Olympics, the flag was not lowered on some occasions—most assuredly not before Adolf Hitler in 1936—but it was politely dropped down on others. Moreover, at various times, other nations have also chosen not to dip.
In 1942, rendering Olympic flag-dipping moot, Congress passed a law that declared “the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing.” That seems terribly overwrought, but it was in the midst of World War II. Ironically, then, Mallon and Buchanan concluded that the last U.S. Olympian known to have dipped the flag was Billy Fiske, a two-time bobsled gold medalist, who lowered the standard at Lake Placid, New York, in 1932 before the American official who opened the Winter Games, the governor of New York, one Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Coincidentally, Fiske himself is surely more identified with England than any other American Olympian in history. He was born in Brooklyn, but his forebears were English, from Suffolk. He had won his first gold, driving the bobsled, in 1928 at St. Moritz when he was only 16, and then he matriculated at Cambridge, where he read economics and history before coming back to the States to repeat his victory in the ’32 Games, when he also proudly dipped the flag before FDR.
But Billy Fiske would return again to England.
As the Olympic Movement wants to think that it succors peace and goodwill, so too is it reluctant to acknowledge that even in the Games, bad people up to no good do still muck about. If you’re for the Olympics, nothing much else matters. When the Japanese government reluctantly had to give up the 1940 Games because it was otherwise occupied with killing and raping Chinese, the International Olympic Committee simply decreed that the Winter Games would be returned to Germany, because they’d been so swell there in ’36. This decision was made in June of 1939, only three months before the Nazis invaded Poland.
After the unfortunate hostilities were concluded, the IOC still embraced Nazi and Fascist members. “These are old friends whom we receive today,” the president, a Swede named Sigfrid Edstrom, noted later. And because the show must go on as if nothing was amiss, poor London was the ideal symbolic choice. It was September 1946 when the decision was hurriedly made—again, giving the hosts barely a year and a half to prepare. Not everyone was on board, either. “A people which...is preparing for a winter battle for survival,” the Evening Standard editorialized, “may be forgiven for thinking that a full year of expensive preparation for the reception of an army of foreign athletes verges on the border of excessive.”
London in the peace of 1946 was barely better off than during the war. Never mind that much of it still lay, bombed, in rubble. Citizens were allotted only 2,600 calories per day. All sorts of foods were still rationed; indeed, bread rationing wouldn’t end till just days before the Olympics began. I remember Sir Roger Bannister, the first four-minute miler, telling me that, with no disrespect to Bob Mathias—the 17-year-old American who won the decathlon in London—no English athlete could have possibly enjoyed sufficient nutrition to allow him to achieve such a feat at such a young age.
Olympic village? Foreign athletes were warehoused in barracks and college dormitories. British athletes lived at home or bivouacked with friends. The women were obliged to make their own uniforms (“the leg measurement should be at least four inches across the bottom when worn”). The men were generously issued two pairs of Y-front underpants (“for ease of movement”)—they being a luxury item invented in the ’30s. The Austerity Games, they were called, and they were. At the opening ceremony, Kipling’s poem, “Non Nobis Domine,” was selected to be sung by a huge choir (as the inevitable peace doves fluttered away)—the empire’s great troubadour reminding the assembled “How all too high we hold / That noise which men call Fame / The dross which men call Gold.” The British were proud, but it wasn’t time yet for showing off.
Luckier nations imported their own food. The U.S. team, for example, had flour flown over every 48 hours. The Yanks were shipped 5,000 sirloin steaks, 15,000 chocolate bars and other edible luxuries that Londoners rarely saw, let alone consumed. The Americans promised to hand over their leftovers to hospitals.
The Continent, of course, was in no better shape than England. Greece, in particular, was in the midst of a civil war, which certainly did not stop for the Olympics. The Marshall Plan had just started in April. The Soviet Union was blockading Berlin. Not surprisingly, the only European nation that achieved much success was Sweden, which had remained comfortably neutral during the war. The well-fed United States, of course, utterly dominated the medal count, as it did everything that counted in the world then.
But as London had saved the Olympics by taking the Games in ’08, in ’48, it took the Games on in an effort to salve its own spirit. Above all, King George wanted them. He hadn’t wanted to be king, and then he’d had nothing but war and deprivation to reign over. At least he would have the Games. He only had a few more years to live, too. Nineteen-forty-eight would be the best; not only the Olympics, but his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, would deliver him his first grandchild. And, as a bonus: He who fought stuttering only needed to say this in public: “I proclaim open the Olympic Games of London, celebrating the fourteenth Olympiad of the modern era.”
At least Wembley was intact. Unlike, say, Wimbledon, which had suffered bombing damage, the grand old stadium had never been hit. Three major commercial sponsors volunteered to buttress the government financing—Brylcreem, Guinness and Craven A—a hair gel, a brew and a smoke. Only at first nobody seemed to care about the Olympics. There was no money to spruce up the city and ticket sales lagged. Sports pages continued to pay more attention to horses and dogs, racing. Foreigners were stupefied. Wrote the New York Times: “The British public interest in the games...has been slight, owing to the typical British aversion to advance publicity and American style ballyhoo.”
But then, all of a sudden, blighty: Just as a heat wave swept over the city, London came to life. For the opening day, it was 90 degrees, but 83,000 fans crushed upon Wembley. The muckety-muck members of the IOC showed up in their cutaways and top hats to greet the king, himself resplendent in his Royal Navy uniform. Queen Elizabeth joined him in the royal box, but Princess Elizabeth, five months on, stayed away from the heat. Princess Margaret beamed in her stead.
And almost every day, even when the rains returned, Wembley was filled. The attendance records set by the Nazis in ’36 were topped. Notwithstanding Kipling’s admonition, noise and dross once again prettily bloomed. In November, too, Princess Elizabeth gave to king and nation a son and heir.
This summer of 2012 the Games will begin on July 8. Of course, now, these will be the ones at Much Wenlock. Just because there’ll be some rather larger Games, inaugurating the XXXth Olympiad, starting later in the month, is no reason to call off the older Olympics. Also, a little bit of Wenlock will be part of the London Games, for one of the mascots is, in fact, named Wenlock. It is a hideous one-eyed creature, the less described the better. But it is the thought that counts. Penny Brookes would be well pleased.
The mascot Wenlock will be cavorting on Friday, July 27, when the multitude of Olympic nations march in, passing before Queen Elizabeth. Some, if not almost all, will dip their flags to her, as they did to her father in ’48, her great-grandfather in ’08, as Billy Fiske did to FDR in ’32.
Fiske, the Cambridge old boy, returned to London in 1938 as a banker, marrying Rose Bingham, the former Countess of Warwick, at Maidenhead, in West Sussex. The next year, when England went to war, Fiske passed himself off as a Canadian, becoming the first American to join the Royal Air Force. He was assigned to the base at Tangmere, not far from where he’d been married. His unit was No. 601 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron, and some of the more experienced pilots were initially dubious about “this untried American adventurer.” Fiske, the athlete, was a quick learner, though, and soon earned full marks, flying the little single-engine, hundred-gallon Hurricane. Full out, it could make 335 miles an hour. Sir Archibald Hope, his squadron leader, came to believe that “unquestionably, Billy Fiske was the best pilot I’ve ever known.”
The summer of 1940 might have climaxed with the Games of the XIIth Olympiad, but instead it was the time of the Battle of Britain, and on the afternoon of August 16, Pilot Officer Fiske’s squadron was ordered out on patrol. Fiske went up in Hurricane P3358. A flight of Junker Stukas, dive-bombers, came across the coast down by Portsmouth, the 601 engaged them, and, in a series of short dogfights, shot down eight of the Stukas.
However, a German gunner made a hit on Fiske’s fuel tank. Although his hands and ankles were badly burned, Fiske managed to bring P3358 back to Tangmere, gliding over a hedgerow, belly-landing between fresh bomb craters. He was pulled from the flames just before his Hurricane exploded, but he died two days later. At his funeral, he was laid in the ground nearby at Boxgrove, in the yard of the ancient Priory Church. The RAF band played, and, distinctively, his coffin was covered by both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.
As Billy Fiske was the first American to join the RAF, so too was he the first American to die in the RAF.
The next July Fourth, Winston Churchill had a memorial tablet installed at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It rests only a few steps away from Lord Nelson’s sarcophagus, and it reads:
PILOT OFFICER WILLIAM MEADE LINDSAY FISKE III
ROYAL AIR FORCE
AN AMERICAN CITIZEN
WHO DIED THAT ENGLAND MIGHT LIVE
18 AUGUST 1940
It would be nice if whoever carries the American flag past the royal box come July 27—with a wink and a nod—dips the flag in honor of Billy Fiske, the one Olympian who binds the United States and England. The law says you can’t do that for any “person or thing,” but it doesn’t say anything about honoring a memory. And, should Queen Elizabeth think the dip is for her, fine, none need be the wiser.
John Ritter’s work has appeared in several major magazines.