Recent Olympic Games have seen host countries pouring massive amounts of money into making their games bigger, better and showier than the last. Beijing cost billions. The opening ceremony alone cost $100 million and lasted four hours.
Next year it’s London’s turn. And it’s a recession. Which is why many commentators have been recalling the last London Olympics – the Austerity Games of 1948 – and suggesting we emulate that. After all, they even made a profit.
I think they have a point. For me, opening ceremonies are what the fast forward button was created for. I want to see the 100 metres, not an artistic interpretation of synchronised swimming without the water. And am I the only one who longs for the day someone introduces a shark into the synchronised swimming pool?
Like many Brits, I have the fear that we are going to try to outdo Beijing and fail in a spectacular display of bad taste – four hours of cockney pearly kings, beefeaters, and loveable chimney sweeps, all dancing their hearts out to Mary Poppins songs.
Which is why the 1948 Austerity Games appeals so much. It was three years after the war. We still had rationing. Bombsites were everywhere. Millions were homeless. And yet we volunteered to stage the games to cheer everyone up.
And the competitors were expected to muck in as well – like bringing their own towels. We’d provide the bed linen and all British athletes were given a free pair of underpants. But that’s as far as it went. Competitors even had to bring their own food. And a worldwide ‘Feed the Athletes’ campaign brought tons of food in from countries where food was no longer rationed.
But for style, I think we should also look at the 1908 London Olympics. Nowadays we’re used to seeing people running marathons. They run and, along the way, take on water. They need it. In 1908 the idea of having strategically placed tables along the route filled with water bottles hadn’t occurred. Gentlemen drank champagne, not water. So…
Yes, the runners were fortified with refreshing glasses of champagne or brandy along the route. I expect you’re thinking – What? Won’t that dehydrate them even more? Or make them slightly drunk?
You’d be right. And there was another wrinkle – up until 1908, the marathon distance had been 25 miles. But we Brits wanted the race to be run from Windsor to White City and that was 26 miles. And Queen Mary wanted the race to end underneath the royal box, so they added another 385 yards around the stadium track.
For one competitor those extra 385 yards would be to too much.
The race began at Windsor on a warm July day. The runners were much taken by the free drink. So taken was Canadian Tom Longboat – the pre-race favourite – that he passed out after 17 miles (surfeit of champagne.) Next went the man in second place, South African, Charles Hefferon, who stopped to take an extra glass of champagne from a well wisher and succumbed to dizziness after 18 miles.
The Italian Dorando Pietri, who had eschewed champagne in favour of brandy, took the lead and was well ahead after 25 miles. Then came the extra mile and 385 yards. By the time he entered the stadium he was paralytic – and singing snatches of light Italian opera. So confused was he, that he ran (staggered) the wrong way around the track, fell down five times, was helped up five times, occasionally carried, and then escorted over the line to rapturous cheering.
Except from the American who came second and ran the right way around the track. Effect number two of all that champagne and brandy – a fight broke out. You cheated. I won. Oh no you didn’t. O sole mio…
The American was eventually given the gold medal but such was the feeling of injustice that a special medal was presented to Pietri by Queen Alexandra. And Irving Berlin wrote a song about him. He may not have won the race over 26 miles and 385 yards, but he won the hearts of the world. He’d been first to the stadium and run the last few miles whilst paralytic, and everyone knew how difficult that was.
Here’s a video of the 1908 marathon. I leave you to decide who won.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .