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As the UK prepares to stage the Olympic Games for the third time this summer, historians, journalists and commentators are paying ever more attention to the two previous occasions when the country hosted the event. Both were in London, in 1908 and 1948, and, as many articles already published have shown, both were packed with interesting incidents, personalities and spectacles. Without doubt, however, it is the 1948 games that has attracted more of the attention to date. And one reason for that is its timely association with austerity.

The austerity Olympics of 1948: famous for being staged on a shoestring. Source: BBC

As fate would have it, we too are holding our games in the shadow of austerity: this time brought on by one of the deepest peacetime recessions in history, not a devasting world war. In contrast to our forebears, however, our iteration of the Olympics will be a lavish affair: planned before the bust; budgeted on a multi-billion-pound scale; and explicitly intended to showcase the very best that public subsidies and global brands working together can buy.

People often point to the even more expensive efforts that China made when it held the games in 2008, as evidence that Team GB is somehow doing things on the cheap this time. But don’t be fooled. The 1948 games cost about £800,000 to prepare for and stage, equivalent to around £20 million now, while this time taxpayers are forking out upwards of £11 billion, an increase of some 55,000%. And that’s before corporate contributions or broadcasting rights are factored in.

There are other major changes: the definition of fitness has altered fundamentally, for instance; so too the meaning of competition. And one more, less visible change I discovered recently while doing a spot of research is the vastly increased involvement of central government in the games of today.

Though we don’t have a big empire anymore, and the Cold War which was then just starting is now long finished, the issues facing Britain today are arguably just as complex as in 1948: recession, unemployment and social unrest at home; the Arab Spring, Iran and the Eurozone crisis abroad, to name but a few. However, while historians will struggle to find much mention of the Olympics in the Cabinet archives of 1948, future students of 2012 will no doubt be left struggling under the weight of games-related material.

Ministers have been deeply involved in the planning of these games at every stage; prime ministers no exception. Since we were awarded the event, there has continuously been a designated Olympic minister with Cabinet status; it was a post which even the fiscally-constrained Coalition agreed to keep after Labour’s 2010 defeat. At a recent senior government meeting, it was reported that attendees, including the PM and the Chancellor, discussed in detail the content of the Olympic opening ceremony, agreeing to increase funding after draft plans appeared too Spartan.

A quick trawl of the archives shows nothing of the sort in 1948. Indeed, during the whole of the period from the end of the Second World War through to 1949, there appear to have been just ten references to the Olympics at Cabinet. Most of them related to the supply of accommodation for visiting athletes, and precisely none dealt with trivialities such as the opening and closing ceremonies. Likewise, there are only three Cabinet memoranda on Olympic themes: two from 1946 and one from 1947. In their different ways, all three make clear that, while the government sincerely wanted the games to succeed, it did not see itself as responsible for them.

Accordingly, there was no 1940s equivalent of the mighty Olympic Delivery Authority, but rather, representing government, only the quaintly named Inter-Departmental Committee on Catering, Holiday and Tourist Services. And, as is already well known, the accommodation that the state provided was in the form of spare, soon-to-be-decommissioned military bases, not new blocks of flats.

Unlike today, nobody was planning to profit from Olympic accommodation after the event. Source: BBC

But I did find one important continuity between then and now in the papers. Rightly or wrongly, in 1948 as today, officials and ministers expressed a belief that the games would be good for tourism. In 1946, the Cabinet was advised to retain the services of someone ‘with imagination and ideas’ so as to maximise these putatively great benefits. In 2012, of course, far more has been possible, including a worldwide advertising campaign and multiple adjunct festivals and cultural events whilch will run in parallel with the games. I do not know if the hopes for a tourism boom in 1948 proved justified (answers, please!), but I am aware that experts are already casting doubt on the prospects for a bumper 2012.

To give a flavour of the then government’s approach to the 1948 Olympics, I have reproduced below an excerpt from the first of the three memoranda I just mentioned. It dates from 6 April 1946 and was authored by Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in Clement Atlee’s Labour government. I think the document has a lovely nonchlanace about it: something I dare say is lacking from many similar documents today. In particular, its author clearly finds it easy to keep the games in perspective. But then again, unlike his successors today, he can. Neither he nor his colleagues were going to have that much to do with them, and the expectations of participants and viewers alike would be that much lower than now.




It is proposed that the next series of Olympic Games meetings should be held in this country in 1948.

[1.] Lord Portal and Lord Burghley, the President and Chairman of the British Olympic Association, informed me recently that the International Olympic Association were proposing to offer the Games to this country in 1948, and asked whether this would meet with the approval of His Majesty’s Government. I told them that I should welcome the proposal, since I consider that, apart from the honour conferred by the invitation, the occasion would provide an excellent opportunity for an organised drive to attract tourists to this country. The International Olympic Association have now accepted a formal invitation issued, according to the customary form, by the Lord Mayor of London.

2. When the Olympic Games were last held in this country in 1908, they were organised by the British Olympic Association, which represents the governing bodies of the various sports. The responsibility for organising the Games should again be left in the hands of the British Olympic Association, who will presumably be willing also to bear the financial responsibility. Some Government machinery will, however, be required to assist the Association in obtaining the various facilities required for competitors and visitors. The Government are also interested in exploiting the opportunity for attracting tourists to this country in connection with the Games.

3. For these purposes I propose than an Inter-Departmental committee should be appointed, composed of representatives of the various Departments which can assist in seeing that the Games are turned to good account in the development of the tourist trade […] At a later stage it would probably be useful to set up a small executive agency, working under the authority of the Inter-Departmental committee, to handle day-to-day business and to maintain contact with the British Olympic Association.

[…] 5. It would also be useful to associate with the official Committee a small advisory body containing a few of the leading personalities in the catering and entertainment world and headed by someone with imagination and ideas. This advisory body could put forward suggestions for exploiting all the practicable means of accommodating and entertaining visitors to the country in connection with the Games, and would also serve as a channel for communicating to the Government any special difficulties confronting the catering and entertainment trades in providing for the expected tourist traffic.

6. The Games will last for about six weeks, and the International Olympic Association are likely to propose that they should be held in July and August. This is the peak of the holiday season; and, as a result of the introduction of holidays with pay, the pressure on hotel accommodation in the holiday season is likely to be much greater in 1946 and subsequent years than it was in the years before the war. It would be preferable, therefore, that the Games should be held earlier, e.g. in June. I propose, subject to the views of my colleagues, to make this suggestion to the Olympic Association.

E. B.

Foreign Office, SW1, 6 April 1946.

Addenda: I am grateful to Professor J. R. Bale for bringing to my attention the fact that, as well as being cheap, the 1948 games actually turned a profit, of just under £30,000.

Tom Peck, Olympics news correspondent at the Independent newspaper, pointed out to me yet another interesting difference in scale between then and now. Whereas journalists, known as ‘pressmen’, had just 600 seats set aside for them in the austerity games, more than 10,000 representatives of the profession will be present this time.