Tag Archives: The British Olympics

Ways With Words Festival, Dartington

I’ve just been booked to speak at the Ways With Words festival at Dartington Hall in Devon. I’ll be part of the panel for The Telegraph Debate, called ‘The Olympics: What Do They Mean For Us?’, which will start at 8pm on Tuesday 10 July. Liz Hunt of the Telegraph will be in the chair, and I’ll be joining Adharanand Finn, Guardian journalist and author of Running With The Kenyans, and Telegraph journalist Max Davidson, author of  It’s Not The Winning that Counts and Fields of Courage. Visit the festival’s website for full details.

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Olympic event at West End Lane Books, West Hampstead

One of the most intriguing of the many pre-Coubertin Olympics that I came across in my work for The British Olympics was held in West End, Hampstead, in 1799. Thanks to and article by local historians Marianne Colloms and Dick Weindling, we have a poster for a Grand Fete at West End which included a revival of the Ancient Olympic Games. To find out more about this obscure festival, come along to a talk that I’m giving with Played in Britain editor Simon Inglis at West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, West Hampstead on Wednesday 4 July. The talk starts at 7.30. Places are limited, so please book ahead. You can book by phone on 020 7431 3770, or by email on info@welbooks. co.uk.

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The British Olympics at the Brympton Festival, 22 April

I’m giving a talk on my book The British Olympics at the first Brympton Festival of Literature, Music and Art, which will be held at the stunning Brympton House at Brympton D’Evercy near Yeovil in Somerset. My talk, which will start at 5.00pm on Sunday 22 April, will cover the history and heritage of the Olympic Games and their British forerunners. It will be my second literary festival, after my talk at the Guildford Festival in 2011, and it looks set to be a fascinating and entertaining weekend of talks, events, sport, food, and music.

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Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering

Olympia Gardens, built on the first site of the Morpeth Olympic Games

On Sunday 15 April, I’m giving a talk on the Morpeth Olympic Games as part of the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering. The Morpeth Olympic Games started in the 1870s, and had taken on the name ‘Olympic’ by the early 1880s. They took place over two days each year in the Northumbrian town, with a programme of athletics, wrestling, and quoits, and their prize purses were the best in the north-east. They lasted until 1958, with breaks only during the two would wars. For me, they are a fascinating example of a sporting festival called the Olympic Games that had nothing to do with what the International Olympic Committee started in 1896. Unlike the Wenlock Olympian Games, they are not part of the British back story of the modern Olympic Games: their professionalism and prize money made sure of that. Yet they co-existed with the IOC’s Olympic Games for 62 years, and are a reminder that the name ‘Olympic’ has historically meant many different things.

My talk will take place at Morpeth Town Hall, starting at 6pm on Sunday 15 April. It will be followed by a rare screening of some archive film of the Morpeth Olympic Games and other scenes from local history, run by Keith Hartnell. These events are just part of a whole festival weekend.

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London Parks and Gardens Trust

Last night, I gave a talk for the London Parks and Gardens Trust at the delightful Garden Museum in Lambeth. The well-attended talk was on London’s Parks and London’s Olympic Games. I used the Olympic park at Stratford as my starting point, and then went back to look at the ways in which London’s past Olympic and Olympian games had used London’s parks and open spaces. From Baron de Berenger’s Olympic Festival at Cremorne Gardens in 1832 and the National Olympian Association’s first National Olympian Games at Crystal Palace in 1866, I moved on to White City and Wormwood Scrubs in 1908, and Richmond Park in 1948, before ending with the mixed legacy that 2012 is creating: on the one hand, it is creating new parks and gardens; but on the other, it is having an impact on Hackney Marshes and Greenwich Park. The talk was followed with some lively discussion. I’d like to thank Katy Myers of the London Parks and Gardens Trust for organising the evening.

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Hampshire and the Olympic Games

On Friday 2 March 2012, I’m giving the Annual Local History Lecture for the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society. The title is “Hampshire and the Olympic Games: a local history of a global event”. There will be refreshments form 7.30 pm and the lecture will start at 8pm at the Hampshire Record Office, Sussex Street, Winchester. The evening will include an opportunity to buy signed copies of The British Olympics. There is no charge, but spaces are limited so if you wish to book, please contact Gill Rushton, c/o Hampshire Record Office, Sussex Street, Winchester, SO23 8TH.

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Olympic events at the Bishopsgate Institute

From April to July 2012, the Bishopsgate Institute in London is hosting a series of talks and events on the Olympic Games, called Capital Games. They start on 29 April with a guided walk around the Lower Lea Valley, and end on 4 July with a talk about the legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games. The speakers include academics,  journalists,  London guides, and sports policy makers.

I’m involved with the event on Thursday  7 June, when I’ll be joining Matt Rogan, author of Britain and the Olympic Games: Past, Present, Legacy, and David Miller, author of London 2012: The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC 1894-2012, for a talk entitled “The Past and Present London Games”. We will be comparing and contrasting the 2012 Olympic Games with 1948,when public debt in Britain was higher that today and athletes were on rations, and with 1908, which saw the Games held at the world’s first purpose-built Olympic stadium. We will also take a look at the National Olympian Games of 1866 to see how far they were a template for Coubertin’s version of the Olympic Games.

You can book tickets for this and the other events here.

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Olympic History event for Anton Junior School, Andover

In January, I’m running a couple of events on London’s Olympic history for the children at Anton Junior School in Andover, Hampshire. We’ll explore the history of the 1908 and 1948 Olympic Games, comparing costs, venues, sports, and the countries involved between these Games and 2012, and there’ll be a special word on Andover’s brief moment of Olympic glory, when the 1948 torch relay went through the town on its way from Wembley to Torquay. Then I’ll set up a creative writing project for the Year 5 and 6 children, getting them to write stories based on moments from Olympic history. Anton Junior School has already done a great deal of work on the Olympic Games, with an innovative scheme of work for Key Stage 1 and 2, and I’m looking forward to working with the dynamic teaching team in developing this work.

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Japanese newspaper interview

On Wednesday, I’m being interviewed by Yasuaki Hiramoto of the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun for an article on London’s Olympic history. Mr Hiramoto is in London for a series of interviews on all aspects of the Olympic Games in the build-up to 2012. Watch this space for a link to the interview when it is available.

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8,000 runners, 1,000 towns, and a lot of history

John Mark lights the flame in the Empire Stadium at the end of the 1948 Olympic torch relay

The big Olympic story in the UK this week has been the unveiling of the torch relay route for 2012. The organisers have promised that it will pass within 10 miles of 95% of the country’s population, and that more than 1,000 towns and cities will witness the spectacle on their streets. The announcement has led to a flurry of tweets and press releases as individuals, community groups, and local authorities have expressed their delight at being included or their regret at being passed over. I’m in the former group, as my home city of Winchester is on the route. ‘Excited to hear that Winchester is on the 2012 Olympic torch relay!’, local sports activists @WinchesterFit have tweeted: ‘But what will the city’s Olympic legacy be?’

Legacy is one thing: history is another. 2012 will be the third Olympic torch relay to go through the UK, and each one has its own story and context.

A German postage stamp from 1936

The first was not in 1908, when London held its first Olympic Games, but in 1948. The torch relay was created by the organisers of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as a way of stressing Nazi Germany’s love of classical antiquity. A flame was lit in Olympia from the rays of the sun, and then a relay team of runners carried it from Greece to Berlin. Leni Riefenstahl included spectacular footage of it in her film Olympia, and the idea caught on. So when London hosted the first post-Berlin Olympic Games in 1948, the planners had to deal with this interesting legacy. They decided to keep the torch relay, and to hold it as a celebration of peace.

Easier said than done: the original route had to be changed because of the Greek Civil War. The final route went through Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France again, and then from Dover to Wembley via Canterbury, Guildford, and Windsor. A second relay then took the flame from Wembley to Torquay for the sailing events. This, then, was a relay of reconciliation after the war – seen most obviously in the inclusion of Italy. It was a symbolic act which served to reclaim the Olympic Games from any lingering vestiges of what the Nazis had done to them. It also served to promote the Games, with huge crowds turning out to watch the relay go by.

Britain’s second Olympic torch relay was less comfortable. For 2008, the organisers of the Beijing Olympic Games decided to send the torch around the world, and not just on a direct line from Greece to China. This presented opponents of China’s government – human rights campaigners, pro-Tibet activists and others – with the chance to protest in ways that would not have been possible if the relay had been a purely Chinese affair. In Britain, the torch made a brief but notorious appearance in a 30 mile relay from Wembley Stadium (home of the 1948 Olympic Games) to the O2 Arena in east London, close to the 2012 Olympic Park. For most of us, the abiding memories are not of hope and reconciliation, but of a series of often uncomfortable runners surrounded by blue track-suited Chinese security men running past protesters. Here was a torch relay that was supposed to be a propaganda coup for a dictatorship, but ended up creating far more publicity for the dissidents and opponents of that regime. Beijing’s official website, incidentally, still refers to the relay as a ‘four-month-long Journey of Harmony’. I’m not sure if many Londoners remember it that way.

And so to 2012. This will be the most inclusive torch relay yet, involving 8,000 runners, many of whom are being nominated for their inspirational stories and community roles. It will take in Northern Ireland even though no Olympic sports will happen there, as well as England, Scotland, and Wales. This is the torch relay of the era of devolution and equal opportunities.

Each of these torch relays tells a story. Just as the torches are designed anew for every Olympic Games, so the meanings that the planners attach to the relay itself change over time. The stories are not always heart-warming, as witness the propaganda aims of two dictatorships in this history, but they are certainly worth studying.

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