Michael Beloff

They are made a spectacle unto the world

Michael Beloff reviews a selection of books on the Olympic Games

In four years London will host its third Olympic Games. It is the first time it will have done so as the winner of a competition between bidding cities as fierce – and some say as suspect – as any that take place in the stadium. Before that London was volunteered as a stage only by default.

In 1908 Italian civic rivalry and the eruption of Vesuvius subverted the chance of Rome. In 1948 the ravages of war postponed the choice of Helsinki. 2012 is the natural date for comparative studies of past London Games; but four writers have chosen to jump the literary gun.

Three concentrate on the Games of 1908. All succeed in destroying comprehensively the illusion that the early games of the modern Olympic movement reflected an age of innocence in which the four horsemen of the athletic apocalypse, corruption, professionalism, nationalism and doping, had not yet impaired Baron de Coubertin’s vision of a revival of the ethos of ancient Greece.

The first London Olympics took place at the apogee of the Imperial era. They were masterminded by Lord Desborough, a gentleman amateur sportsman, whose range of accomplishment makes decathlete Daley Thompson seem like a one club golfer. The menu included real tennis, motorbike racing, rackets and rugby, the pastimes of the rich. The Games were planned on a grand scale; Kiralfy’s White City Stadium featured a swimming pool 100 metres in length, double the standard size. Built in time but at a cost far in excess of the original estimate – twas ever thus – it witnessed an intense rivalry between the US and British teams, in which the former’s superior tally of victories symbolised the shift of the balance of power on the global stage.

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