‘May the weather be fine, the events well contested and may records be broken.’ With these words, British prime minister Clement Attlee welcomed the competitors to the London Olympics when he broadcast to the nation on 28 July 1948. ‘May they take from Britain happy memories which will be a source of joy to them throughout their lives.’ There was also a deeper message: ‘The world has need today to take every opportunity of spreading more widely friendships between men and women of different nations, and so to increase international understanding.’ For the 1948 Games were also a stark symbol of the international divisions of the immediate postwar era: the defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, were totally excluded from the Games, and the Soviet Union refused to participate.
But for Britain, the 1948 Games were a value-for-money success. Britain may only have won three gold medals, but these were very tough times. The dollar convertibility crisis of the summer of 1947 had led to the tightening of austerity measures that September: the tea ration was frozen, the meat ration reduced to one shilling. The number of days that guests could stay in hotels without surrendering their ration books was reduced from four to two; restaurant allowances were reduced, and the import of luxury foods curtailed. Temporarily, the British Olympic team had its rations increased to those of industrial workers, and athletes had to build themselves up on non-rationed whale meat. Yet, as Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, pointed out on 30 March 2012, the games made a profit of nearly £30,000, with £9,000 of that sum paid in tax to the Treasury. The cost was £732,268, below the budgeted amount of £743,000, while receipts were £761,688.
Attlee’s vision of an Olympics which fostered relationships between people of different nations, which could have an impact on international affairs, has found expression in the 2012 London games. Participants from two countries still technically at war, North and South Korea, have faced each other over the table tennis table without incident, even after North Korea’s women’s football team left the Hampden Park pitch when the South Korean flag was displayed next to their names on the electronic scoreboard. The wider inclusiveness of the 2012 Olympics should also be celebrated. The torch relay has drawn people together in communities all over the country. Oscar Pistorius is the first amputee to take part. In 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport declared that he gains no overall advantage as a result of using carbon-fibre prosthetic limbs, having been born without either fibula. Danny Boyle’s decision to place the National Health Service, which excludes nobody on the basis of wealth, at the centre of his outstanding 2012 opening ceremony was also entirely fitting: after all, Aneurin Bevan’s NHS was introduced just over three weeks before the 1948 Games, on 5 July 1948.
Thus far, it must be said that Tony Blair’s decision to throw his weight behind the 2012 bid has been vindicated. However, despite Britain’s current lofty place in the 2012 medals table, the medal haul of the British team in the 1908 London Olympics may still prove too difficult to match: 56 gold, 51 silver and 39 bronze: 146 in total, nearly 100 more than the 47 won by the United States.
Aneuran Bevan, Clement Attlee, Labour, Labour history, Olympics, Tony Blair