CAMBRIDGE LETTER: Will London 2012 be remembered for idealism and hope, like the 1948 Olympics Games were?
By the time you are reading this, the 2012 Olympic Games will be under way in the U.K. With any luck, the focus of comment and discussion will be the Games themselves, rather than the series of controversies, confusions and complications that have dominated the news headlines in the weeks leading up to this major international event. We have had arguments about local traders throughout the country using the Olympic logo (not just the official sponsors of the Games). We have heard many complaints about the supply of tickets. We have had complaints also about arrangements for dealing with traffic.
Above all, there has been a massive crisis over the provision (or lack of provision) of security staff by the firm G4S which, only days before the opening, admitted that it was unable to provide the staff it had promised. Extra police had to be drafted in from forces outside London, and 3,500 soldiers had to be provided also.
There is no doubt that these issues, and particularly the failure by G4S, will have to be investigated in due course, and questions about the use of commercial organisations for major national security tasks will be discussed at length.
That is for later. For the present, it is the Games themselves that will, rightly, be at the top of the news agenda.
Hope for the economy
By any standards, the 2012 Olympics are a massive event. More than 10,000 athletes, from 205 countries, will be taking part. International public interest is, obviously, great. There is clearly a great hope that the long-term benefits to the U.K., as the host country, will also be great (though the experience of other recent host countries is not wholly encouraging). To put things in some sort of context, Britain, like its European neighbours, is struggling to emerge from a long and deep recession.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding real concerns, staging the Olympic Games must be recognised as an important and significant opportunity for the host nation — and should be, and doubtless will be, a matter for celebration.
People of my generation can, of course, remember the last occasion on which Britain hosted the summer Olympics, and that memory provides another fascinating context. The year was 1948. The Second World War was not long over, and Britain was still suffering greatly from its effects. To put it bluntly, Britain was broke. Food rationing was still in force (because there was not enough food to enable it to be ended). Not surprisingly, the 1948 Games came to be known as the Austerity Games. No new venues were built for the games and there was no Olympic village; athletes were housed in existing accommodation. The Attlee government earmarked just under £750,000 for the Olympics (compare the sum of about £11 billion which the 2012 Games are likely to cost). As a concession, the rations for the U.K. team were increased to those of a heavy industrial worker while the Games were on. Many teams from other countries brought their own food.
I will mention one other piece of context: in 1948, 59 nations were represented by 4,104 athletes. The comparison with 2012 is clearly dramatic.
I confess that I do not have any very clear memory of what public reaction to the 1948 Olympics was like, but what I do recall was that most people saw it as an event well worth staging, not least as a demonstration that the austerity and gloom of the immediate post-war period was not going to be permanent — and that the end of the war was certainly a good reason for the sort of celebration that was simply impossible during the war.
At the back of many people’s minds, I suspect, there was another significant fact. Because of the war, there had been a 12-year gap between the previous games and those of 1948 and those 1936 Games had been hosted by Hitler’s Germany, and used as a public relations vehicle for his Nazi policies. By 1948 Nazism had been defeated — and significantly,
Germany and Japan, because of their roles in the Second World War, were not invited to participate.
In spite of the austerity, the 1948 Games, in the words of The Independent, “while they may have taken place in an era of post-war rationing, they were a Games that enjoyed an abundance of less tangible nourishment — goodwill, idealism and hope”.
It would be good to believe that the 2012 Games will also be remembered for goodwill, idealism and hope.