London's Olympics: Political Games

David Runciman compares the 2012 games with the London Olympics of 1908 and 1948 to see what they reveal about the changing relationship between politics and sport over the last century.

The closing ceremony of the London Olympics, August 14th, 1948. Getty Images/PopperfotoCertain Olympic games are indelibly associated with politics. Berlin 1936 will always be seen as an extension of Nazi propaganda. Munich 1972 was overshadowed by the kidnap and murder of 11 members of the Israeli team by the Palestinian group Black September. Cold War politics dominated the Olympics of the early 1980s: Moscow 1980, which the Americans boycotted in protest at the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and Los Angeles 1984, which the Russians boycotted in revenge. We have got used to the idea of the Olympics being co-opted by politicians and terrorists to send a message that goes well beyond sport. The 2008 games in Beijing were just the latest example: no one who watched could have been in any doubt about China’s sense of its rising status and power. London 2012 promises to be no different. Vast government resources have been expended to ensure the games cast Britain in the most favourable possible light and, above all, to ensure that they are not hijacked by terrorists.

By contrast, the London games of 1908 and 1948 rarely feature in stories of political Olympics. They seem to belong to another world, one in which sport was far removed from politics. For these earlier Olympics there was little security, minimal political oversight and practically no government expenditure. But the impression that they were therefore non-political events is quite misleading. Like all Olympic games they were shot through with politics. The three London games tell a different story from the familiar one about the increasing politicisation of the Olympics, revealing instead something of the changing relationship between politics and sport over the last hundred years. In 1908 sport was seen as an extension of politics. In 1948 it began to be seen as an alternative way of doing politics. In 2012 it sometimes looks like a way of avoiding politics altogether.

The 1908 London games were shaped by political circumstances from the beginning. They took place where they did because of one of the most significant political events of the new century: the Entente Cordiale, signed between Britain and France in 1904. To celebrate this new amity between old enemies the Hungarian-born entrepreneur Imre Kiralfy (1845-1919) decided to hold a giant Anglo-French exhibition and he built a miniature city in west London to house it. He called it the White City and it opened for business in the spring of 1908. On the same site, at the request of the British Olympic Association (BOA), Kiralfy built a large sports stadium to host the Olympic games.

London had got the games at short notice when Rome, the scheduled host city, pulled out. The reason the BOA had to turn to a businessman like Kiralfy was because asking for government assistance was out of the question. As the chairman of the organising committee, Lord Desborough, said at one of the banquets held to celebrate the games:

It is a well-known and generally accepted maxim of English life that undertakings such as these should be carried out by private enterprise, and without help of any sort from the government.

Taxpayers could not be asked to contribute a penny, but private individuals were expected to help out. This included members of Parliament, 30 of whom made personal contributions of £30 each. Sports clubs and newspapers were also asked to send in what they could to defray travel, accommodation and entertainment expenses. However the £60,000 cost of the stadium was covered entirely by Kiralfy, who would get 75 per cent of all gate receipts.

The stadium was built to seat 68,000 spectators, with standing room for 28,000 more. But during the first week of athletic competition, ticket sales were disastrous. Attendances were well below 10,000 and on some days fewer than 4,000 spectators showed up. This was partly due to the weather, which was very bad for July. However, it was also down to the high price of the tickets, which at up to £1 a seat (equivalent to over £100 today) were out of the reach of most ordinary spectators. This was not simply a misjudgement by the organisers. The early 20th century was a time of deep social and political anxiety about the role of the ‘crowd’ and this included the sports crowd. The organisers of these London Olympics were not entirely sure whether they wanted people watching or not.

Evidence of the political anxieties surrounding sports crowds is provided by C.F.G. Masterman’s classic study The Condition of England, published in 1909. Masterman, a Liberal politician, does not mention the Olympics but he does write at length about another sporting event of 1908, the FA Cup final, which took place at the end of April between Wolves and Newcastle United at the old Crystal Palace, attended by 75,000 people. Masterman described:

A crowd of adult citizens in number some five times as great as the total Boer commandoes which had defended a country half the size of Europe.

He went on:

The irresistible query suggested by the sight of that congestion of grey, small people with their facile excitements and their little white faces influenced by this artificial interest is whether in a day of trial similar resources could be drawn from them, of tenacity, courage, and an unvarying devotion to an impersonal ideal.

It is a poignant passage given what was to happen six years later. It is also a striking inversion of one of the best-known images of August 1914, from Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV:

Those long, uneven lines/Standing as patiently/As if they were stretched outside/The Oval or Villa Park ... Never such innocence again.

Larkin saw photos of the men queuing to join up and imagined crowds outside Villa Park, home of Aston Villa football club. Masterman saw the photos of the crowds outside Crystal Palace and thought of the difference between these grey people and the Boers.

The organisers of London 1908 shared many of Masterman’s concerns. Desborough argued in a speech before the games that sport had two purposes: ‘athletic’ and ‘social’. By social he did not mean the comradeship of the crowd. He meant the comradeship of the sports club and particularly the people who gave their time and money to putting on events. The Olympics, he said, offered a chance for people to participate by making donations. He made no mention of spectators. The fiasco of the prices reflected this. They had been set not according to ticketing for mass sports events like the Cup Final, but at rates comparable to the Eton-Harrow cricket match at Lords, where prices were kept deliberately high to ensure that ordinary spectators did not get in the way of the sport’s primary social function, which was as a meeting place for the elite.

The Olympic movement had been established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1894 as a consequence of his anxieties about the state of French manhood in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and what he saw as the role of British public school sports in physically preparing the nation. When we think of his famous motto for the games we see it as emphasising ‘not the winning but the taking part (le combat)’. But just as important for Coubertin and Desborough was an implied message: ‘the taking part not just the spectating’.

Kiralfy was different. He was a showman who couldn’t afford to be associated with an empty stadium. Accordingly, after a week of poor attendances he dramatically lowered the prices and turned to his primary ally in promoting his exhibition, the Daily Mail, which chivvied its readers to attend. The Mail provided a new gloss on the Olympic spirit by claiming that watching was one of the ways of taking part. If people did not start coming, the paper wrote, ‘the foreign Press would go to their homes with the news that the British race is showing strong signs of deterioration … that we are decadent alike in sporting instincts and in physical endowments’. It helped that the sun came out. After that the crowds picked up and by the second week of the games the stadium was full.

Masterman had another worry about big sports crowds. He feared that they represented the Americanisation of British life. Americans were destroying the ideal of amateur sport through the practice of ‘training’ their athletes. This turned them into an elite and everyone else into voyeurs (or as they came to be known, ‘fans’). Masterman called the American approach ‘gladiatorial’ and thought it a clear sign of decadence. The difference between British and American attitudes to sport ran through the 1908 games and generated real animosity. The Americans were disgusted by the British pretending to believe in fair-play, when it was clear British judges were biased in favour of their own athletes. The British were disgusted by the Americans pretending to be amateurs, when it was clear their athletes were being trained and looked after as though they were professionals. Each thought the others were hypocrites.

This Anglo-American antipathy overshadowed the crowning event of games: the marathon. By the time it was due to be run at the end of the second week, the stadium was full to bursting. Crowds also lined the route in hundreds of thousands as the runners made their way from Windsor to West London. This was a more acceptable kind of mass sporting event, like the Tour de France (which had started in 1903) or the Derby, where boisterous crowds were part of the spectacle. The British press handicapped the race like the Derby and worried about the ability of British runners to compete with the well-trained Americans.

Dorando Pietri about to break the tape in the 1908 Olympic marathon. Getty Images/PopperfotoBut they paid little attention to the Italian runner Dorando Pietri, who entered the stadium first. It was a warm day and Dorando (as he was generally referred to), exhausted, collapsed in delirium after trying to run the wrong way around the track. He was helped to his feet by British officials and half pushed, half guided over the line. The Americans, whose runner came in second, were appalled by this obvious discrimination. They protested and had Dorando disqualified. The American athlete Johnny Hayes, who came second, was promoted to winner. For the Americans it was another example of attempted British duplicity. For the British, Pietri was the moral victor: it was a triumph for the plucky underdog against the overweening Yanks. He became the darling of the popular press, in large part as a stick with which to bash the Americans.

But what really divided the British and the Americans, as so often, was the question of Ireland. The British Olympic Association had decided that Irish athletes would have to compete under the British flag, which also allowed the Russians to insist that Finland, then part of the Russian empire, compete under the Russian flag. The Irish were outraged, the Finns were outraged and the Americans were outraged. After the games were over, Desborough declared that one of their successes had been the way the British decision had persuaded teams to pull together. In this he included the Americans and he said he was delighted by the way athletes from Chicago and New York and San Francisco had put aside their local rivalries to represent their country so proudly. He was being thoroughly disingenuous. In reality, one of the few things that had brought the predominantly Irish-American team together was their disgust at the way the British had treated their Irish athletes.

The 1908 games were full of political controversy, yet it was not stoked by politicians. No member of the British government attended the games in any capacity, not even the opening ceremony, which was presided over by the king and queen. The sporting authorities and competitors managed to create all the political conflict by themselves. As the gossip magazine The Bystander put it more truthfully when the games were over:

More bad blood has been caused between otherwise friendly nations by the late Olympic Games than by all the diplomatic incidents in the last ten years together . . . The only consolation is that, for some reason or other, we do not seem to have fallen foul of Germany.

The political circumstances of the 1948 games were, for obvious reasons, entirely different. The country was recovering from war and had little appetite for renewed international rivalries. The Olympics were intended to symbolise a fresh start. Nevertheless, there was one striking similarity between 1908 and 1948. The BOA accepted that it was politically impossible to expect any government subsidy to cover the cost of the games. At one meeting of the BOA it was suggested that a request be made for a surcharge on a special set of Olympic stamps, allowing the public to contribute in that way. The chairman of the organising committee, Lord Burghley, rejected the idea on the grounds that it was ‘against British principles’.

This time round, however, there was some government oversight. Philip Noel-Baker, Minister for Commonwealth Affairs, was made Olympics liaison. His main job was to help with the logistics of accommodation and transportation. There was no question of an Olympic Village. The government’s primary contribution was to offer old army camps in which athletes could stay, at places like Uxbridge and Richmond. The BOA had hoped this might include paying to refurbish them. But the Treasury would only cover improvements that could be justified to the Ministry of Defence. The BOA had to pay for partitioning of the dormitories into separate rooms, for the creation of communal facilities, for wear and tear, for breakages and for all equipment, including towels, which the BOA decided it could not afford. In the end athletes had to bring their own towels and, for those who forgot, a small number were available to rent by the day.

Despite this penny-pinching, the Labour government was very keen for the games to take place. In 1947, at the height of the postwar sterling crisis, there had been mutterings in the press about whether hosting the Olympics at all was a good idea when the country was so obviously strapped for cash. The Evening Standard wrote in a leader:

Sane opinion will marvel at the colossal thickness of hide which permits its owners, at this time of crisis in the nation’s serious affairs, to indulge in grandiose and luxurious schemes for an international weightlifting and basketball jamboree.

Unused to criticism, the BOA wrote to ministers asking if it should call the games off. Absolutely not came the reply from Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison, via Noel-Baker.

The government wanted the games for two reasons. First, to bring in foreign currency and tourism. The organisers were encouraged by Noel-Baker to issue tickets to hard currency countries like the US and the Scandinavian nations rather than the bankrupt states of mainland Europe. In the end two thirds of press passes went to journalists who might spend dollars, which caused considerable resentment among the rest. Second, the aim was to combat the impression that Britain had been shattered by the effort of winning the war. This would be achieved by putting on successful games with a minimum of fuss.

What counted as success? First of all there needed to be big crowds. Wembley stadium, which could hold 90,000, was sold out throughout. The weather helped: the opening ceremony took place on one of the hottest days in London for nearly 40 years, when temperatures reached 95°F. But even when it rained the stadium was packed to the rafters. What also helped was the changed attitude to crowds. The Berlin games had tested to destruction the idea that spectators had to be up for the fight. Now the gentleness of the audience and their relative detachment from the athletics was a bonus. Many observers remarked on the jollity of the London crowds in 1948, in their pastel shades and improvised sunhats, friendly, non-partisan, absolutely nothing like the Nazis.

Uncomfortable memories of the Berlin games also helped deal with another anxiety, which was the underperformance of the British team in London, where it won only won three gold medals. Though some in the press claimed this was demoralising and a clear sign of undernourishment, Noel-Baker put a different gloss on it. He liked to repeat the story of a Swiss visitor who told him that at the Berlin games he had heard either Deutschland Über Alles or the Horst Wessel song played 497 times, whereas at the London games the British national anthem was only heard five times, once at the beginning, once at the end and three times in between. Sensible, un-histrionic failure, after Berlin, was presented as a mark of success.

These games also marked an important shift in the role of the crowd in making sport a participatory experience. They were the first games to be televised. Though the numbers who could watch were relatively limited – there were around 100,000 television sets in Britain by the end of 1948 – demand from those who had access to the coverage was high and the BBC scrapped its usual schedule to add extra hours, a total of 56 by the end of the games. The full stadiums made a huge difference to the appeal of the games on television. It was clear that the viewers at home needed the crowds in the stadium to help them feel involved.

The great success of the 1948 games, however, lay in the fact that they were so non-political. There was no political event, no symbolic gesture, no controversy, no bust-up for which the games are remembered. This was a surprise. After all, it was an extremely dangerous time in world affairs, probably the most politically charged circumstances in which any Olympics have taken place, Berlin 1936 notwithstanding. The first half of 1948 saw the assassination of Gandhi following the partition of India, the birth of Israel after the first Arab-Israeli War, the Berlin Blockade, armed conflicts in Indonesia and Malaysia, a peacetime draft in the US and elections in Italy that the Communists might have won. Before the games started, Harold Abrahams (of Chariots of Fire fame and the grand old man of British athletics) wrote that there were bound to be international incidents overshadowing the games as at all other Olympics and these must just be ignored. The journalist James Cameron, writing in the Daily Express in February 1948, said of the Olympics that ‘they now rank a close second to the United Nations as promoters of international misunderstanding and ill-will’.

That they were both wrong was not just luck. The games were specifically designed to be non-political. There was no German team – the Germans were not invited on the grounds that de-Nazification had not reached the point where they could be allowed to form an Olympic committee. The same applied to the Japanese who also were not there. There was no Soviet team in 1948. The organisers might have welcomed them but Stalin wasn’t interested. It was only after the games had proved a success that he recognised their propaganda potential and he sent a Soviet team to Helsinki in 1952, where the USSR won 22 gold medals. There was no Palestinian team at London 1948 but also no Israeli team on the grounds that the state of Israel had been formed too recently to have a recognised Olympic association.

So the 1948 games were a showcase for a new British vision of the role of international sport, completely different from 1908: as something deliberately neutral, jolly, pragmatic, non-controversial, a spectacle of ordinariness. This was sport as a kind of escape from politics, an extension of the British keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality. The British government, though mainly hands-off, saw the advantages of being associated with an event like this. Unlike in 1908, the Prime Minister Clement Attlee attended the opening ceremony, where he made a short speech. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did not come: he was in the Commons on the same day making a statement on the Berlin crisis. Attlee recognised that it was worth putting in an appearance at Wembley to show that crisis was not the only game in town.

London 2012, by contrast, will be awash with politicians. Everyone who is anyone will want to attend the opening ceremony. These games have been heavily overseen by politicians from bid to delivery. Politicians will claim credit for anything good that happens, particularly if the British team wins plenty of gold medals (large amounts of public money have been spent to ensure this). Likewise, it is the politicians who will be held responsible if something goes wrong, at least until they can find a suitable scapegoat.

But does that mean London 2012 is going to be more political than London 1908 or 1948? Perhaps, if measured by the involvement of politicians. Yet in another sense, these games reflect the way vast sporting events have come to squeeze out political argument. The Olympics have become a vehicle for conformity, not disagreement. There is little sense that sport is an extension of politics. It is a vast business with a life of its own.

Take the bid itself, to which Tony Blair’s government committed so much time, money and political capital. Partly the reason there was so little political opposition to the 2012 bid is that the process demands there is none. The International Olympic Commitee (IOC) is looking for unanimity of political and public opinion. The official bid document for London 2012 stated:

Support is unanimous among the major parties at both national and city level. The governing Labour Party said: ‘The whole Government has backed this bid... (and) everyone, from the Prime Minister down, will be working hard to make it happen.’ The opposition Conservative Party said: ‘We strongly believe that a London Olympic Games will bring incalculable benefits to this country in terms of investment, tourism, regeneration and, most of all, British sport’.

The unelected IOC set the agenda; the elected politicians do what they are told. But above all it is the scale of London 2012 that makes it different from 1908 and 1948. What is involved politically to get the Olympics and to deliver them makes it almost impossible to question whether they are worth it or what they are for. We are pretty broke now, as we were in 1948. But the costs in 1948 were so tiny that it was still possible to have a political argument about them. Now the figures are so huge it is difficult to know where to start.

David Runciman is Reader in Political Thought at the University of Cambridge and author of Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 2008).