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Can the Olympics relight its fire? There will be fewer record-breaking performances, but next year's Games may rediscover their true spirit

The Olympic flame is passed at the 1948 Olympiad. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty

The Olympic flame is passed at the 1948 Olympiad. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty

April 3, 2020   7 mins

For all those involved, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics is a cruel disappointment: years of targeted dreaming and dedication, turned in an instant to dust. I’d use the word “tragic” if it weren’t so needed elsewhere. Yet one day, I suspect, we may look back gratefully on this delay.

The last called-off Games were those of 1940 (slated first for Tokyo and then for Helsinki) and 1944 (notionally awarded to London). When peace returned, the world was in ruins. It’s hard to imagine today the ubiquitous desolation and destitution — although perhaps that will soon become easier.

London, still scarred by the Blitz, agreed to host the first post-war Summer Olympics in 1948. Some Britons decried the waste of resources. Yet the Austerity Olympics, as they came to be known, were a triumph. There was no grandiosity, no razzmatazz; no money. Two weeks before the Games began, the main stadium, Wembley, was still being used for greyhound racing; only then was the track hastily replaced with cinders.

There was no athletes’ village — in contrast to the lavish accommodation in Berlin in 1936. Instead, participants were crammed into a scattered assortment of barracks, hostels and schools. Rationing was still in force (although the daily allowance for athletes was higher); the gold medals were made of oxidised silver; the total budget for the Games was £730,000.

Yet the make-do-and-mend approach somehow emphasised what really mattered about the Games. “It was a liberation of the spirit to be there in London,” said Emil Zátopek, the Czechoslovak army officer whose dramatic exploits in the 10,000m and 5,000m made him a household name among British sports fans. “After those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing and the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out. Suddenly, there were no frontiers, no more barriers, just people meeting together.”

Like many middle-aged running enthusiasts, I think of Zátopek as a kind of patron saint of our sport: a man who embodied all the virtues of the long-distance runner, from demented dedication to grace in victory and defeat. I first heard his voice more than 30 years ago, in a documentary about the 1948 Games in which he spoke of his joy at being part of that Olympic rebirth in London.

He reminisced amusingly about his dawn journey, by public transport and on foot, from a barracks in Uxbridge to the school in Northwood where his future wife, the javelin-thrower Dana Ingrová, was staying. The anecdote culminated with one of his medals being dropped in a swimming-pool, and a semi-naked Zátopek being chased away by an enraged headmistress. Nothing was said about medals or times: the memories he cherished were to do with romance and adventure.

Later, I learnt more about this remarkable man: his mind-boggling training routines; his humour and kindness; his courage when the Prague Spring was crushed. Later still, writing his biography, I came across such additional details as the fact that, in 1948, his Communist minders barred him from attending the Olympic opening ceremony. It was a scorching hot day and he had a big race the next day: why jeopardise his chances by parading in the sun?

Zátopek protested: “People at home will ask me what the Olympics were like, and I will have to tell them that I don’t know, because I was sitting in the shade.” The minders insisted. So Zátopek, a self-taught polyglot, persuaded the Danish team to let him enter the stadium with them, before shuffling forward (since the nations were ordered alphabetically) to join his fellow Czechoslovaks. Some athletes wept as they marched around the track, overwhelmed by this final proof that the six-year nightmare of war was over. Had Zátopek’s priorities been more ruthlessly focused (in the modern way) on competitive advantage, he would never have shared that experience.

Four years later, Helsinki hosted the Games. Finland had recovered well, but the world’s wounds had festered. The Soviet Union insisted on a separate athletes’ village for the nations of the Communist bloc. Barbed wire and armed guards defended the special compound at Otaniemi from Western intrusion. Fraternisation was strictly forbidden.

Luckily for humanity, some athletes had better ideas – as young people often do. Soviet and US shot-putters were soon striking up cheerful friendships. So were the distance-runners of many nations. Australia’s Les Perry dodged his way into Otaniemi and sought out Zátopek, who invited him to train with him and insisted that he stay to dinner. Other Westerners followed, including the Australian trainer Percy Cerutty, who spent so long quizzing Zátopek about his training methods that the gates were locked for the night before he could leave. Zátopek gave him his bed and spent the night on a friend’s floor. Distance-running’s “class of ’52” (Perry, Zátopek, Mimoun, Reiff, Schade, Pirie, Chataway) remained in friendly contact for decades afterwards.

Does any of this have anything to do with sport? Perhaps not much. Yet it matters.

In sporting terms, the 1952 Olympics are remembered primarily for Zátopek’s unique distance-running treble: 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. But their most important gift to the world was the renewed sense they engendered of a worldwide Olympic “family”. By the time Zátopek claimed his place in history by winning the marathon (his third gold, and his first attempt at the distance), his charm and friendliness had already won him the hearts of most people watching.

Rivals from his previous two events – French, Belgian, English – cheered him from the roadside as he approached the stadium. When he entered it and ran his final lap of the last event of the Games, the crowd chanted his name in deafening unison. “At that moment,” said future International Olympic Committee chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was among the spectators, “I understood what the Olympic spirit means.”

Perhaps such pieties seem quaint. By the time Covid-19 has finished with us, their value may be more obvious.

That age of relative Olympic innocence was short-lived. In 1956, in Melbourne, the German businessman Horst Dassler spent the Games quietly handing out Adidas footwear to favoured athletes. In the decades that followed, the virus of money spread. So, slowly, did the virus of unequal kit.

Today we take all that for granted. You cannot expect to be an Olympic champion without marginal advantages: better shoes, better equipment, better nutrition, better scientific and medical back-up, better management, better sponsors and funding. Everyone knows that. What we easily forget is that, when our grandparents were sports fans, most Olympic events were largely a simple contest between human and human.

I love the Olympics. I can retrieve my sporting memories from Games gone by as effortlessly as a poetry professor reaches for quotations. 1968? Bob Beamon, David Hemery, Kip Keino. 1972? Jim Ryun falling and losing, Lasse Virén falling and winning. 1976? Virén’s second distance-running double; disappointment for Brendan Foster and David Bedford; Comăneci, Juantorena. 1980? Coe, Ovett, Yifter, Thompson, Wells. 1984? Coe, Thompson, Sanderson, Whitbread, Moses, Decker-and-Budd. The list goes on. I watched them all, if necessary in the middle of the night.

I was also aware, even in my youth, of a darker chronology: the massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972; the grotesque injustices that provoked and succeeded the podium protests of Smith, Carlos, Norman and Čáslavská in 1968; the political boycotts (and their causes) in 1976, 1980 and 1984.

But I barely noticed another, insidious narrative. In 1968, anabolic steroids were banned. The still-unfinished war between those wishing to gain from performance-enhancing drugs and those wishing to prohibit them had begun. By 1988 (Ben Johnson), chemical assistance was endemic. There’s been a crackdown since, yet some say that 1988’s men’s 100m final in Seoul (in which only one of the first five finishers never tested positive for drugs) has been eclipsed by the women’s 1,500m final at London 2012 as the “dirtiest race in history”.

Meanwhile, money from television and sponsors has swollen the Olympic movement into a grotesquely wealthy, frequently corrupt sector of the entertainment industry, whose priorities could hardly be clearer: to the winner, oodles of glory and cash; to the also-rans, a lifetime of regret.

And today? Artificial assistance continues, but it’s mostly within the rules. That’s why, except when the Games are actually taking place, it’s hard to make sense of Olympic sport’s daily dramas without a decent grasp of such technicalities as ADRVs, TUEs and ABPs (Anti-Doping Rule Violations, Therapeutic Use Exemptions, and Athlete Biological Passports); and wash-out periods and “whereabouts” testing rules; or, beyond the laboratory: Athlete Performance Awards, sponsor hierarchies, IOC bidding processes, lottery funding, UK Athletics’ World Class Programme, Nike’s Oregon Project, World Athletics’ technical rules on carbon-fibre plates in shoes; and much, much more.

None of this would mean anything without individual human beings willing to devote years of their lives to heroic striving. But it’s easy to lose sight of them.

As a sport-lover, I ought to be glad to see so much money, science and expertise flowing into the Olympics. Instead, I find it harder than before to love the Olympics. London 2012 was beautiful for Britain, obviously; and I’m delighted to hear that the BBC is planning to re-broadcast some of the highlights this summer. Otherwise, however (and I can’t believe I’m alone in this) I’ve increasingly found myself impressed rather than enthralled by these quadrennial spectaculars. Yes, competitors are faster, higher, stronger, and more skilled, than ever before. But what about the sense of the Games as a gathering of the human family?

In the UK, day-by-day media coverage of recent Olympic Games has focused relentlessly on the medals table. To ask what that has to do with the Olympic spirit is to risk being called an unpatriotic killjoy — or worse. Yet perhaps, now, things will change.

If Games of the XXXII Olympiad are indeed held in Tokyo next summer, I imagine that Team GB will struggle to hoover up medals with its usual industrial efficiency. The disruption to athletes’ preparations will have been too huge. Yet imagine how we’ll feel about the fact that the Games are taking place at all. It’s a prospect that feels almost too poignant to contemplate right now, as the wilderness of broken lives around us grows vaster and more terrible. Yet one day this, too, shall pass; and, when it does, sport will have a vital role to play in helping the world to heal itself.

In his speech at the 1948 opening ceremony, the head of the London organising committee, Lord Burleigh, told athletes that they were “kindling a torch, the light from which will travel to the uttermost ends of the earth, a torch of that ageless and heartfelt prayer of mankind throughout the world, for peace and goodwill to all men”

It was all guff, of course. It still is, just as Zátopek’s much-quoted “Great is the victory but greater still is the friendship” was guff and Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part” was guff. But sometimes, in life’s darkest chapters, guff is all you’ve got.

Look at it this way: if Covid-19 hadn’t turned the world upside down and Tokyo 2020 had started in July as planned, which kind of Olympics do you think it would have been? A not-winning-but-taking-part Olympics? Or a win-at-all-costs Olympics? And which kind of Olympics would you expect it to be in 2021?

Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I can’t help suspecting that, next summer, the Olympic movement may find itself remembering something of its true spirit. There will be fewer record-breaking performances, but there will be more gratitude, more joy, more friendship; more sense that, after a long darkness, the sun has come out.

That will be small recompense for the tragedy of Covid-19. Yet it will, even so, be something to be grateful for.


Richard’s biography of Emil Zátopek, Today We Die A Little, was published in 2016 by Yellow Jersey.

Richard Askwith, former Executive Editor of The Independent, is an award-winning author of seven books, on subjects including politics, fell-running and the forgotten Czech sporting hero Lata Brandisová.

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J Cor
J Cor
4 years ago

Maybe we’ll get past this garbage about guys in lipgloss and ponytails ripping up women’s world records across the board in time to keep women’s sports to women as well, instead of ruining them for the sake of mediocre men who can’t keep up with their own.

Martyn Hole
Martyn Hole
4 years ago

The thing that depresses me about the Olympics and other sports are the “governing” bodies such as the IOC and UEFA/FIFA in football. What is particular distasteful are their leadership (for example the odious Blatter at FIFA and the imperious Samaranch at the IOC). If not outright corruption then an abuse of privilege that would put our MP’s to shame.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

They should revert to the original core of about twenty, all male events, to be held stark naked (gymnos) with the exception of race in full armour.

Unlike the original games, women should be allowed to spectate.

A permanent site for them should be established somewhere in Europe, but preferably not in Greece, for obvious reasons.

Separate female games should also be
held, at four year intervals. Ancient sources indicate that nudity was optional, although axiomatic for Spartan women.