To understand this Olympics, step back into history.

THIRD – TIME HOST: In 1908, London stepped in at the last minute.

THE London Games, the 30th Olympiad, begins this morning, the third time the city is hosting the Games, the only city to do so. There will be 10,490 athletes from 205 nations competing in 26 sports. For the next 17 days we will be watching them trying to be “faster, stronger and higher”, the very spirit when the modern Olympics was resurrected in Athens in 1896. There are those who will excel and others who will flounder, but as Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man responsible for reviving the Games famously said, “the most important thing in the Olympics is not the winning but the taking part.”

It has been 104 years since London hosted its first Olympics (1908) and 64 years since the last one (1948). The 1908 games was the fourth Olympiad since Athens. London then was the centre of the universe. Edwardian England had a lot to prove to the world in terms of superiority and class. The US hosted the third Olympics in St Louis in 1904, understandably under the watchful eyes of the Europeans. Even de Coubertin did not attend but instead sounded the alarm that “the Olympic spirit had not been sufficiently stressed”.

To understand this Olympics, one must go back to 1908. Rebecca Jenkins came out with an incredible book, The First London Olympics 1908: The Definitive Story of London’s Most Sensational Olympics To Date. This is a sporting book with a difference, it dwells not just on history but the people behind the scene and the trials, tribulations and successes and failures of the athletes involved.

The truth is London was not even supposed to host the 1908 Games. The eruptions of Mt Vesuvius in 1906 derailed the Italian plan to showcase Rome. De Coubertin needed a replacement fast or else the Greeks would insist it was their birthright to host the Olympics every four years. After all they did hold their own games in 1906, which is not recognised as part of the four-year cycle by the Olympic committee. De Coubertin found allies in the form of Theodore Cook, Lord Desborough and Robert Laffan, who were instrumental in organising the London Games.

They had no government support (the British leadership believed it should be a private initiative), no stadium and worst, not enough time. It was up to Desborough to make it happen. Lucky for them, there was a Hungarian √©migr√© by the name of Imre Kiralfy. He was a showman with massive ambition. He was planning a Franco-British Exhibition, the biggest ever exhibition in Europe. He agreed to build the facilities for the games, including the stadium. While mindful that all the previous two games were associated with exhibitions, Kiralfy offered the organisers something else — the freedom to manage the Games and no financial worry.

The unpredictable English weather created havoc on the games, especially during the first few days (looks like history will repeat itself). But despite rivalries between nations (especially between the US and Britain) and lots of complaints about fairness and nepotism on the part of the judges, the London games was indeed a memorable one as promised by Desborough. It was also the first to be filmed, when moving pictures were still in their infancy.

by Johan Jaafar.

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