LONDON — The last time this city had the Olympics, it was 1948, and the country was picking itself up after the second World War. The Games — the first since Berlin in 1936 — had to be staged on a shoestring budget. No new arenas were built. The old Wembley Stadium, which hosted the Opening Ceremony, was a repurposed greyhound track. The hosts were so tight on supplies that athletes were told they should bring their own towels. The nickname “The Austerity Games” was well-earned.
From my spot in the stands at London’s new Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Opening Ceremony, a spectacle by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle that reportedly cost $42.2 million to produce, I wanted to juxtapose what happened in ’48 with what transpired in front of me. (Alex Wolff had SI covered on the ceremony column, leaving me free to meander between past and present … and get transfixed by Boyle’s alien-space-ring invasion that followed his re-enactment of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Those rings were amazing — and very much an anti-austerity feature.)
Excellent source material is available from 1948. I found a PDF copy of the International Olympic Committee’s official report on the Games, which is written, as one would expect, in incredibly stilted language; and I brought along Janie Hampton’s painstakingly researched book The Austerity Olympics, which is loaded with ’48 minutiae.
The IOC report’s description of the start of the ’48 ceremony, which led to widespread fainting in 90-degree afternoon heat:
July 29 was a perfect day with a blazing sun to welcome the teams and the spectators. At 2 o’clock the trumpeters of the Household Cavalry and the massed Drums, Fifes and Pipers of His Majesty’s Brigade of Guards, dressed in Review Order, entertained the crowd for half an hour with their playing, marching and counter-marching. The Stadium was packed with 85,000 people.
Similarity to 2012: a packed stadium. But Boyle eschewed the Fife-and-Drum intro for a countdown in front of a massive re-creation of an English pastoral scene, with 40 sheep, 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese and three sheep dogs. The 1948 ceremony had birds, which we’ll get to later, but they did not exactly have the cash to spend on Boyle’s livestock or the 7,346 meters of actual turf he laid down for the faux-meadow.
In 1948, they went straight from Household Cavalry trumpeters, to IOC introductions, to the parade of athletes, in just one hour. From The Austerity Olympics:
At exactly three o’clock the Guards Band struck up ‘The March of the Gladiators’ and the 3,714 men and 385 women, 100 more than in 1936 and a new Olympic record, began to file in.
There was a bit more build-up to the athlete march this time. Boyle boldly took us through the Industrial Revolution, the two World Wars and the Beatles (with floating Yellow Submarines!) — and then aired an original film of Daniel Craig as James Bond, taking the Queen in a helicopter from Buckingham Palace to the stadium, where she parachutes out. The media guide made note that this was the Queen’s “first acting role.” Does she now warrant an IMDB listing?
But that wasn’t all! A giant Lord Voldemort — a lowlight that looked like something a used-car dealership uses to attract customers — made an appearance during a J.K. Rowling-led tribute to children’s lit. They honored the guy who invented the World Wide Web (thanks, Britain), and video-and-sound checked all the musical guests we’d love to have seen in the flesh or, if not possible, reincarnated as holograms: The Stones, Bowie, Freddie Mercury, the Sex Pistols, Prodigy, etc., etc.:
I would be remiss to ignore the fact that the 1948 ceremony did make one attempt at spectacle. From the IOC report:
2,500 pigeons were released to add yet a further touch of colour and romance to this impressive moment. Three minutes later a twenty-one gun salute was fired outside the Stadium by the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery.
Barely anyone had television in England back then, and the country was so lacking in resources that its citizens were on clothing rations, so a flock of pigeons actually sufficed as entertainment.
In a first-hand account from the The Austerity Olympics, an observer recalled:
“Immediately behind me was a long line of wicker baskets, each one attended by a [Boy] Scout. I was suddenly nearly knocked over by a tremendous gust of wind. The next moment I was engulfed in pigeons, all flapping past me. They were conveying the message to the whole world that the Games were open.”
The book also quoted an account from the Wembley News, which claimed that there were 7,000 pigeons, not 2,500. (Would the IOC really underestimate their own pigeon count?)
The flash of wings was like a snowstorm on that brilliant summer afternoon and as the pigeons swooshed round, seven thousand shadows on the grass added to the thrill of the moment.”
The 1948 organizers made the strange decision to have a total unknown — 22-year-old, non-Olympian med student John Mark, whose image they believed represented all athletes — light the torch. The 2012 committee, in an ode to 1948 and perhaps a letdown for those hoping for a big-ticket torchman, used a group of seven anonymous, young athletes to light the flame. They were said to represent Britain’s hope for future Olympics.
There was less symmetry in the music department. In search of a piece of signature English music to cap off the 1948 ceremony, director Sir Malcolm Sargent went back to the ’30s. From The Austerity Olympics:
The choice made was the English composer Roger Quilter’s 1934 choral setting of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Non Nobis, Domine’ (Not unto us, O Lord). The second verse seemed especially apposite.
Non nobis domine!
Not unto us, O Lord!
And we confess our blame –
How all too high we hold
That noise which men call Fame
The dross which men call Gold.
For these we undergo
Our hot and godless days,
But in our souls we know
Not unto us the Praise!
The 2012ers picked went back to the ’60s — for Sir Paul McCartney, who closed with Hey Jude. Less holy than ‘Non Nobis, Domine,’ but a great deal more catchy.
Hey jude, don’t make it bad.
Take a sad song and make it better.
Remember to let her into your heart,
Then you can start to make it better.
Don’t make it bad, London. Let the Games begin, and don’t let us down.