From 1908 to 2012: Continuity and change in london olympic narratives

John D. Horne*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Citation (Scopus)


On 6 July 2005, on a humid night in Singapore, the IOC was about to announce the result of a two-year battle between candidate cities to stage the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It was 7.46 p.m., and just after midday in London. The envelope was opened, and IOC President Jacques Rogge announced the winner. In the final round of voting, London had beaten Paris by 54 votes to 50. For much of the long race Paris had been a strong favourite, with the bookmakers’ odds favouring Paris right to the end, but the IOC had voted, and now London was to stage the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. How this came to pass has been subject to much scrutiny since, but one insider, the director of communications for the London 2012 bid, Mike Lee, considered that a defining feature of Sebastian Coe’s speech in Singapore was that its narrative was ‘more about the Olympic movement than about London’ (Lee, 2006, p. 183). By stressing both the importance of ‘legacy’, a discursively polysemic notion that emerged in IOC circles following the onslaught against its integrity in the 1990s about a set of (largely vague) benefits left behind after the sports mega-event has ended, and the potential role of London as a global media centre to help ‘the IOC transmit the call for more young people to take up sport’ (Lee, 2006, p. 183), the London bid team were able to win over the required number of delegates with a script in which ‘London’, ‘Englishness/Britishness’, ‘sport’, ‘the world’ and the future of ‘Olympism’ could be brought together. In this chapter I want to consider in broad-brush fashion how these elements – London, Englishness, sport, the world and Olympism – have been constructed in narratives associated with the three London Olympic Games over time. The London Olympic narratives have been constructed over a period of some 100 years by both participant (e.g. government and Olympic officials) and non-participant (e.g. the media and historians) narrators, whose perspectives tell the story through the use of certain consistent features of communication. The focus of this chapter is neither to document the bid process in detail nor account for all the individuals or organisations involved in the building and organising of the Games (both of which are dealt with elsewhere in this collection), but to offer reflections on the framing and promotion of the dominant narratives, or stories, about the Games, and in passing to exemplify two themes in Roche (2000). First, he notes the ways in which international expositions and other megaevents reflect the development of capitalism, nationalism and imperialism. Second, he regards them as important focal points in the emergence of an international dimension in modern public culture. Clearly there is a potential contradiction here, indeed a contradiction manifest in the person of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, whose life project was the establishment of the modern Olympic Games. De Coubertin was a committed internationalist who inscribed internationalism into the founding documents, practices and rituals of the Olympic Games. He was also a patriot who was concerned about the poor physical state and indiscipline of French youth, and worried about the decline of his country and its eclipse by the rising power of Germany. The tension between nationalism and internationalism continues to be a significant feature of the Olympic Games. Mega-events are rarely simply the realisation of a clear blueprint from a commanding designer; rather they are the outcome of competing intentions, interests, preoccupations and strategies. Hence different contemporary and historical narratives also reflect back on them. Where mega-events are concerned, a study of the relationships between national politicians, local politicians, sports administrators, builders, architects and town planners is often instructive. Another of the most striking features of mega-events – in the UK and I suspect elsewhere – is how rarely they utilise the sites of previous events, almost as if they wanted to avoid taking on the ideological detritus of a former conjuncture. In 1908 the London Olympic Games had close links with and shared a site with the Franco-British Exhibition (or Trade Fair) in Shepherds Bush, West London. The 1924 British Empire Exhibition shunned the option of the White City site from 1908, and established itself at Wembley Park, North-West London. In 1934 the Empire Games used the stadium and a newly constructed Empire Pool at Wembley, yet used White City for athletics. In 1948 the hastily arranged and financially pressed London Olympic Games did utilise the Wembley site originally constructed for the Empire Exhibition of 1924, but just three years later, in 1951, the Festival of Britain rejected both Wembley and White City and based its major attractions in Battersea Park and on the South Bank in Central London. The Millennium Dome, rejecting all other available options, was built on a derelict industrial site in North Greenwich. In many cases the sites subsequently suffered years of decline, neglect and decay. The White City stadium was demolished in 1985 and there is no easily visible memorial proclaiming its moment of glory as ‘The Great Stadium’ of the 1908 Olympic Games. The original Wembley Stadium has been demolished but rebuilt and reborn, and the Empire Pool survives, renamed Wembley Arena and recently renovated. The rest of the site has been crumbling for years, and is only now undergoing substantial redevelopment. Very few traces of the Festival of Britain remain. But, after the 2012 Games for which facilities are currently under construction around Stratford in East London, a vast privately owned shopping mall, alongside the Olympic Park, will also become the beneficiary of the massive public investment in infrastructure. I focus in the next three sections on narratives about the three London Olympic Games of 1908, 1948 and 2012, but have also included mention of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, the stadium of which was subsequently used for the 1948 Olympic Games.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games
Subtitle of host publicationVolume One: Making the Games
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781136477522
ISBN (Print)9780415671941
Publication statusPublished - 2012 Jan 1
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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