London ended up with the 1908 Olympics after Vesuvius blew its top and buried Naples, and the Italian government concluded that it couldn’t afford to stage a Roman carnival for the planet. The British capital still was rebuilding from the Blitz when it again played host in 1948 and postwar rationing made for an “Austerity Games” where the organizers made do with what was at hand and used German POWs as road laborers.
This week, when London becomes the only city to stage the Games three times, it will have spent nearly $17 billion amid the country’s worst recession in a century. The price for the bid process alone — an estimated $30 million — was more than 20 times the entire cost of staging the two earlier versions. “Expansion is the law of life,” author Theodore Cook declared in the official 1908 report.
The Games have grown geometrically during the past 104 years — from 2,023 athletes representing 22 countries competing in 109 events in 24 sports in 1908 to 4,064 athletes, 59 countries, 136 events, and 19 sports in 1948 to 10,500 athletes, 204 countries, 302 events, and 37 sports in 2012. An event that took less than two years to prepare for in 1908 now consumes seven.
The world also has become a far more complex and contentious place than it was in 1908, when more than a third of the Olympic family’s present countries belonged to four empires — the British, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian. The Great War still was a half-dozen years away and the biggest political ruckus at the Games of the IVth Olympiad was between the hosts and their American cousins, whom they thought were unspeakably crude.
“From the very first day King Edward had taken exception to the American athletes because of their behaviour and their barbaric shouts that resounded through the stadium,” Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, wrote in his memoirs.
The Yanks, miffed that their flag wasn’t displayed above the stadium, refused to dip the Stars and Stripes before His Majesty at the opening ceremonies, where the Finns refused to march behind the Russian flag.
For the first time that year athletes were entered by nation instead of individually, creating a diplomatic headache for the organizers. “The definition of the word ‘country’ also presented questions of no small difficulty,” wrote committee chief Lord Desbrough of Taplow.
The Irish competed as part of a made-up nation called Great Britain-Ireland but fielded their own squads in field hockey and polo. Bohemia had a team. Australia and New Zealand were melded as Australasia. South Africa, which wasn’t yet a nation, won a gold medal.
In 1948, when Germany and Japan were excluded for having provoked World War II, more than a dozen newbies turned up, ranging from Singapore to Syria. This summer virtually every chunk of land large enough to hold a flagpole will be in the parade, including countries that only exist at low tide.
For the first time, all of them are expected to send female athletes, who’ll comprise more than 40 percent of the total. In 1908 only 44 competed, most wearing long dresses and some on skates. This time, there are 36 female boxers alone.
The number of athletes in the Games has quintupled during the past century and the overwhelming majority are allowed to make money from their sport. That wasn’t true in 1908, when the official report devoted a 19-page appendix devoted to a dizzying variety of amateur rules — international, English, Irish, Scottish, American, French, Belgian, Danish, and Australasian.
The gold medalists that year were policemen, mill workers, colliers, and Bloomingdale’s clerks. In 1948, when pros still were banned, the star of the Games was Fanny Blankers-Koen, the “Flying Housewife” with two kids. LeBron James, who’ll be shooting for his third medal this summer, earns enough in one game for the Miami Heat to pay for the entire 1908 Games.
James and every other Olympian will be tested for drugs both before and during the Games, and their samples will be kept for eight years in case future methods can detect banned substances that can’t be identified now.
Though some athletes probably were taking a strychnine-and-cognac combo in 1908 and amphetamines likely were used in 1948, the IOC didn’t even begin checking for performance-enhancing drugs until 1968. This summer, more than 5,000 athletes will be tested for dozens of forbidden substances, ranging from steroids to blood-boosters to growth hormones to stimulants to beta-blockers. Those turning up positive will be stripped of their medals and results, and banned for at least two years.
The Olympic family is far less innocent — or naive — than it was 40 years ago, when Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Munich village and murdered 11 Israelis.
Since then, security has become a vastly extensive and expensive undertaking. London, which was rocked by suicide bombers the day after it landed the Games in 2005, and was shaken by domestic rioting last summer, is spending nearly $850 million on 13,500 armed forces members, 10,000 police, fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, and warships in the Thames. In 1908, police expenses were folded into a general account with equipment and messengers. The total tab was 979 pounds, less than half of what was spent on stationery and printing.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.