The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start

As London gets set to host the XXXth Olympiad, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford connects the modern Games to their unlikely origin—in rural England

As the Games return to London, it's worth remembering that they may not exist at all were it not for the perseverance of the Brits. (John Ritter)
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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.”


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