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  • Britain and the Olympics: Local, National, and Imperial
  • Matthew P. Llewellyn

On July 6, 2005, during the 117th annual session of the International Olympic Committee held in Singapore, delegates voted to award the 2012 summer Olympic games to the City of London. In defeating a highly favored Paris bid, the British capital realized the unrivalled prospect of hosting the summer games for the third time since Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s 1896 revival of the Olympic games. As the cradle of modern sport, Britain played a pivotal role in the establishment of the modern Olympic movement. Viewing Britain’s sporting traditions as the keystone of her empire and inspired by the nation’s amateur sporting ideology, the passionate Anglophile Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894.

Britain’s Olympic legacy extends far beyond Pierre de Coubertin’s efforts in the 1890s to revive the Olympic games. Evidence has clearly shown that in spite of his own historical account and a strong tendency for personal aggrandizement, Coubertin was not the first to conceive of the Olympic revival idea. On the contrary, a number of sporting events that were called “Olympic” (or variants thereof) had flourished throughout Europe since the seventeenth century. The British themselves boasted a long series of pre-Coubertin “national” Olympic events, nostalgic interpretations of the games of Greek antiquity, dating back to 1612 and Robert Dover’s “Cotswold Olympick Games.”

While the British made significant contributions to the pre-Coubertin Olympic movement, they also appeared to play a prominent role in reviving and sustaining the modern Olympic games: the City of London hosted the games on two separate occasions, in 1908 [End Page 1] and again in 1948. Looking beyond the traditional scholarly gaze on the Olympic host city of London, historian Martin Polley examines the historical role that the English county of Hampshire played in hosting the sailing and motorboating events in 1908 and the modern pentathlon, equestrian, and association football events in 1948. Polley explores these events, looking at the geographical and socio-economic reasons why the Olympic games came to Hampshire, the levels of local interest that these events inspired, and their legacy. Advocating for localized histories of a global sporting mega-event, Polley insists that such an approach offers a more diverse and nuanced understanding of Olympic history. Moving beyond the host city and the main hub of sporting activity, the Olympic Stadium, and into the ordinary communities that staged Olympic events, Polley illustrates the “diverse ways in which past Olympic games actually worked.”

From the local and peripheral, historian Peter J. Beck examines the national implications of Britain’s hosting of the 1908 and 1948 Olympian spectacles. As the bid leaders for the 2012 Olympic games regularly sermonized, the British were the historical saviors of the Olympic movement, rescuing the Olympics after the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius scuttled Italian plans to host the 1908 games in Rome, and again in 1948, in the immediate aftermath of a long and violent world war. Beck, however, demonstrates that Britain’s supportive role was far more complex and nuanced than Sebastian Coe and the London 2012 bid leaders have claimed. Through a critical analytical lens, Beck presents a revisionist interpretation. He contends that despite the determined efforts by the British Olympic Association (BOA) the attitude of successive British governments, the media and the public proved “indifferent” and “frequently negative.” The increasingly nationalistic, political, commercialized, and professionalized tone of early Olympic festivals failed to appeal to British amateur sensibilities.

Although the Olympics failed to arouse the interest of early twentieth-century Britons, the games did generate considerable excitement across the vast expanses of Britain’s overseas empire. Examining Britain’s “imperial” Olympic legacy, historian Matthew P. Llewellyn explores early British efforts to establish a unified empire team for the 1916 Berlin games. Against the backdrop of heightened Edwardian fears concerning the decline of British national strength, the BOA conceived that a unified Greater Britain team would restore Britain’s self-perceived reputation as the leader of modern sport. As Llewellyn reveals through a detailed analysis of archival and newspaper sources from across the empire, efforts to maintain Britain’s...


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