What became known as ‘The Austerity Olympics’ were held in 1948, with a still Blitz-scarred London the host city; they were they first Olympic Games staged since the notorious Nazi propaganda-fest of Berlin in 1936 and the amateur age of athletics was more evident than ever, with male competitors housed in RAF and Army camps while female competitors made do with ladies’ colleges, and both sexes were restricted to a diet of rations; there was no room for millionaire prima-donnas in 1948. No new venues were built to hold the 19 sport disciplines in the schedule, but the capital could boast the likes of Wembley Stadium, the Empire Pool, Earls Court and various football grounds. Cost-cutting was paramount, though from all accounts it was a successful tournament and a positive return to sporting normality after the war years.
The 1948 London Olympics was the fourteenth modern tournament since the event’s official revival fifty-two years previously, and like many of the great global events that continue to the present day it had relatively humble beginnings. The football World Cup, inaugurated in Uruguay in 1930, was similarly small-scale with many of the leading European nations – including England – failing to participate. One only has to consider the length of time it took to travel from Europe to South America by sea in 1930 to understand the reluctance of the FA to take part in what many regarded as a minor tournament that would probably end up as a quickly-forgotten one-off. Television, let alone satellite technology, was in its experimental infancy, so looking ahead to a future whereby events in every corner of the planet could be beamed into living rooms around the world was pure sci-fi.
The first Eurovision Song Contest was held in Switzerland in 1956, the debut venture into Europe-wide broadcasting attempted at a time when the continent was bitterly divided and lingered in the shadow of the Second World War. Just seven nations participated in what became an annual event rather than the four-year schedule of the Olympics and World Cup, and although the number of competing countries fluctuated for the first thirty years of its existence, the line-up averaged no more than 20-21 nations until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc saw a sudden increase in the amount of participants during the early 1990s.
Like the Olympics and World Cup, the Eurovision Song Contest has swollen way beyond its initial origins and the cost of staging a competition with such a huge worldwide television audience and the need for it now to be held in a massive venue capable of holding thousands rather than the old theatres has presented many host nations with a financial headache. Identical problems on an even bigger scale have afflicted those cities selected to host the Olympics, with Rio the latest host city to find itself confronting difficulties as a result of winning the bidding process.
A serious economic crisis is facing the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro, with the Governor declaring a financial emergency at the weekend. Coming at a time when this summer’s Olympics are less than fifty days from opening, the denials that this calamity will affect Rio’s ability to host the contest suggests there has been a good deal of head-burying on Copacabana beach. Coupled with concerns over the Zika virus, the last thing Brazil really needs at this moment is an influx of upwards of 500,000 visitors expecting a grandiose festival of sport when the future of Rio’s public services is balanced on a perilous knife-edge.
There is an argument that an Olympics or a World Cup brings in corporate investment and raises the morale of the nation, but it’s rare for financial benefits to filter down to the masses, and Brazil in particular has long had an infamous problem with poverty that it’s hard to see being solved by hosting its second major sporting event in two years (the World Cup was held there, of course, in 2014). Commercial pressures and the increasing power of sponsorship on the part of multi-national brands marketing each competition with tie-ins and cash-ins that saturate coverage are a long way from the amateur ethos of 1896. Even the money spent on merely the opening ceremony is staggering – an alleged $100 million for Beijing in 2008. In the same way that a so-called musical event like Glastonbury has become just another corporate carnival a long way from the purpose behind its distant founding, the Olympics appear to have little to do with Pierre de Coubertin’s vision anymore.
One has to ask if such major mega-events that have outgrown their original remit are worth the expense and the crippling cost of their aftermath when they last no more than three weeks at the most. Also, considering the recent corruption revelations of football’s world governing body FIFA and not dissimilar accusations being levelled at the Olympics’ equivalent the IOC, the question arises as to whether or not they need to go back to basics and simply start afresh on a more affordable scale than they have gradually acquired, though with the obscene amounts of money invested in them, it’s difficult to envisage that ever happening.
The modern Olympic Games have now reached the ripe old age of 120; the World Cup 86; the Eurovision 60; and even a relative newcomer such as football’s European Championships tournament is 56 years old. It’s horrific to imagine how much bigger they can become, though will anybody even be able to afford staging any of them fifty years from now – and is it really worth it?
© The Editor