Lording it: London and the getting of the Games

[This entry comprises extracts from the beginning and the end of the first chapter of Alan Tomlinson and John Sugden (eds), Watching the Olympics: Politics, Power, and Representation (Routledge, publication July 2011)] [i]


In 2012 London will become the only city to have staged the Summer Olympic Games more than twice (the so-called interim Games in Athens in 1906 are largely dismissed from recognised and authoritative records of the Games). For much of the 2012 bidding process up to July 2005, it seemed that Paris would win the race to be a three-times host, especially as its two previous Games were in the first quarter of the twentieth century, in 1900 and 1924. Athens, arrogantly and incorrectly assuming a sentimental vote for the centenary 1996 event, eventually hosted its second Games in 2004, and thereby helped precipitate its country’s economic crisis. Los Angeles, with a half century between its 1932 and 1984 events, is the only other city to have held the Summer games twice. Others have tried including Tokyo and Berlin. Some major cities have sought the Games but without success: New York, Istanbul, Madrid. The latter, along with Chicago and Tokyo, lost out in the final bidding round for the 2016 Games, awarded in October 2009 to Rio de Janeiro. Much has changed since Los Angeles laid down its ultimatum to the IOC for the 1984 Games, effectively rewriting the rules of engagement for any host city, allowing levels of commercialisation of the event not previously seen: the sponsoring of the Olympic torch relay being one particularly controversial initiative. And since then, television rights, sponsorship programmes, and the attraction of hosting an event claimed to deliver the world’s largest-ever television audience have sustained the Olympics through crises of corruption (by officials and administration), cheating (the use of banned drugs for performance-enhancement), and economic volatility. It is remarkable that, for all these problems, the Olympics continues to stimulate bidding wars. What draws cities, states, and corporate allies in to this dynamic and towards this aspiration, and how is the prize won? It is these simple questions that underlie the consideration in this chapter of London’s successful bid for 2012, and the wider mechanics of the bidding process. As a prelude to this it is illuminating, for the purposes of comparison, to reflect on the city’s previous Summer Olympics.

London 1908 and 1948


The first modern Games were held in cities on the basis of the networks of the founder of the modern Olympics as we know them, Pierre de Coubertin, and the pragmatics of innovation: make the event and then document its history. They were small-scale: Athens 1896 involved a mere 245 or so competitors from 14 nations, competing in 43 events. Paris in 1900 had double the number of nations and a little over 1,000 competitors competing in 75 events, but the transatlantic venue of St. Louis 1904 exposed the European anchorage of Olympian internationalism, more than halving the number of competitors, at a Games that spread out over four and a half months and was the least representative of any in the history of the event, with just 7 European countries participating (Wallechinsky and Loucky 2008). Chicago had actually been awarded the event, but the organisers of the 1904 World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition) gained the support of US president Theodore Roosevelt to get this decision reversed. De Coubertin had little option than to accept this. With such a fragmented, scarcely international event — Tswana tribesmen at the Fair as part of a Boer War exhibition were hauled in to compete in the marathon and add international spice — the Olympic initiative looked to have derailed. Greece organised its own Athenian Games, what has become known as an ‘interim’ Olympics for 1906, with 20 nations and 847 athletes, and planned four-yearly celebrations intended to dovetail with the Olympics. Rome (chosen over Berlin: see Revue Olympique 1904: 72 for an account of this decision at the fourth session of the IOC in London) had been allocated the 1908 Games, but a fragile national economy, competing city factions across the country, and lack of support from the national Italian government in 1906 caused De Coubertin to doubt the strength of the commitment.

            British fencer Lord Desborough (see Box 1) had competed in Athens in 1906, doubling up as King Edward VII’s ‘British Representative … on the same auspicious occasion’. With the uncertainties in Rome, and the future of the De Coubertin project in doubt: ‘It was therefore with every prospect of success that the suggestion was made that the Games of 1908 should be celebrated in England … Lord Desborough was able to carry out that suggestion, not only because of the personal influence he possessed, but also because the Central Organisation from which the management of these games might be created had already come into existence in this country’ (Cook 1909: 19).



Beckett (2004) summarises: For all his public duties, Grenfell [Desborough] was probably best-known by contemporaries for his sporting prowess. He had represented Harrow at cricket and Oxford in fencing, athletics, and rowing. He made two appearances in the university boat race in 1877 and 1878: the first was a dead heat and the second a victory for Oxford. He won the Thames punting championships for three successive years (1888–90), stroked an eight across the channel, sculled the London–Oxford stretch of the Thames in a crew of three in twenty-two consecutive hours, and rowed for the Leander club in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley while an MP. Having won foils at both Harrow and Oxford, Grenfell also represented Britain, and became founding president of the Amateur Fencing Association. He twice swam Niagara, crossing the pool just below the falls, and he ascended the Matterhorn by three different routes. In one eight day period he ascended the Matterhorn, the little Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, the Rothorn, and the Weisshorn. On one occasion he was lost for three days in the Rocky Mountains. He was also a keen horseman, hunter, and fisherman. He went big-game shooting in India, Africa, and British Columbia, and caught tarpon off Florida. He had been master of the draghounds at Oxford and maintained his own harriers at Taplow Court, which had formerly been hunted by King Edward VII as prince of Wales. An excellent whip, he was president of the Coaching Club and the Four-in-Hand Club. One of the conservators of the Thames, he was the founding chairman of the Thames Salmon Association. Three times acting president of the Life Saving Society, he was also president and chairman of the Bath Club from 1894 to 1942. At various times Desborough was also president of both the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Lawn Tennis Association as well as being president of the Olympics held in London in 1908. He was chairman of the Pilgrims of Great Britain from 1919 to 1929 and president of the Amateur Athletic Association from 1930 to 1936.’ See too Rebecca Jenkins (Jenkins 2008: 4-5), on Desborough as a symbol of the contemporary ideal of amateur all-round excellence. He was also a student at Balliol College, Oxford, personifying in its athleticist and sporting version what incoming British prime minister Herbert Asquith called in 1908 the Balliol man’s ‘tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority’ (Matthew 2004). Baker (2008: 89) notes that Desborough at one particular point of his busy life is said to have sat on 115 committees.


The fourth IOC session in London in June 1904 proved palatable to all concerned: meetings with sportsmen C.B. Fry and W.G. Grace; the Lord Mayor’s reception in Mansion House; dinner at the Corporation of Fishmongers’ splendid hall by London Bridge; visits to the MCC/Lord’s and the Toxophilite Society; a reception hosted by the Prince of Wales in Marlborough House; and a detailed tour of the palace of Westminster. All this made favourable impressions on both sides. In under a year, the British Olympic Association had been formed (May 1905) at a meeting at the House of Commons, with Lord Desborough as its President. This was the ‘Central Organisation’ to which the 1908 report referred. The following year Desborough was lobbying in Athens, Rome was abandoned (the tragic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in April 1906 provided a rationale for Rome/Italy’s withdrawal), lobbying within the IOC for Budapest was proving relatively ineffective (IOC minute, 1905). So London’s first Olympics was handed to it on a silver platter, with the Games planned as a core element of the Franco-British Exhibition, whose ‘organisers … were powerful advocates of the Olympic Movement and intended to make the Games the centrepiece of the festival’ (Miller 2008: 58).

            Desborough was a typical champion of the amateur and athleticist ideal. Under his leadership London gained the1908 Games via a combination of networking (three Great Britain members on a small and malleable IOC), backroom diplomacy, get-up-and-go confidence, and a degree of hauteur characteristic of the sporting elite of the time. This aristocratic networking included use of the stateroom in Lord Howard de Walden’s yacht moored in Athens’s Bay of Phlerum (Kent 2008: ch. 2).


Another prominent English Lord played a central role in securing London’s second Olympics. David George Brownlow Cecil, sixth Marquess of Exeter, or Lord Burghley (see Box 2), had been a prominent Olympian in the 1920s (the model for the aristocratic Lord Lindsay in the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire), and was chairman and chief executive of the London Organising Committee.



Janie Hampton writes: ‘In the chair was 43-year-old Lord Burghley, formerly a Conservative MP and Governor-General of Bermuda, who had won a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he owned a pack of fox hounds and had recently divorced his wife, the daughter of a duke. “On the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary, for the gratification of H.G. Wells and Lord Camrose he ran 400 yards after dinner, in evening dress, round the upper deck in 58 seconds”, wrote the Observer … Handsome and articulate, calm and genial, Burghley successfully torpedoed opposition to the Games with charm and persuasion’. (Hampton 2008: 27)


Burghley’s words at the closing ceremony of the London 1948 Olympics, displayed on the stadium scoreboard, evoked quintessential Olympic and Coubertinesque ideals: ‘The spirit of the Olympic Games, which has tarried here a while, sets forth once more. May it prosper throughout the world, safe in the keeping of all those who have felt its noble impulse in this great Festival of Sport’ (Organising Committee 1951). Burghley was president of the British Olympic Association for 30 years from 1936, and his idealism was based on the principles of tolerance, understanding, friendship (and an associated cultivation of cross-cultural relations among young people) as essential to the post-war world order. London had in fact been allocated the 1944 Games before the war (Tokyo was to have hosted the 1940 event) and in November 1944 Burghley and fellow British Olympic Association stalwart Lord Aberdare, along with a third member Sir Noel Curtis-Bennett, issued a statement that the first post-war Games should be in London. In October 1945 Burghley travelled to Stockholm to meet the vice-president and acting president of the IOC, Sigfrid Edström, a fellow veteran Olympian and long-term president of the International Amateur Athletics Association. From his base in Sweden Edström had sustained IOC contacts throughout the war, and after the death in 1942 of incumbent president Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, he became IOC president by acclamation in 1946. He had already written to Lord Aberdare, in May 1945: ‘[Avery] Brundage [then president of the US Olympic Committee] and I have agreed that we shall have the next Games in London’ (Phillips 2007: 6). Burghley’s trip to Sweden was mere protocol, and was followed up by a formal letter from the Lord Mayor of London seeking approval to stage the Games; in March 1946 a postal vote formally ‘allotted’ (Burghley’s words, see Organising Committee 1951: 17) the 1948 Games to London.

            Forty years on from London’s first Olympics, the second was landed without an open vote (there’s little evidence of voting in the ‘postal vote’ referred to by Burghley); by agreement among networks of elites (McWhirter 2004); with the promise of the restoration of Olympian idealism; and with an assumption that even in the havoc and the austerity of the post-war context (Bolz 2010; Hampton 2008), Britain could do it, could step in and save the day.

London 2012

Sixty years after Burghley’s securement of what he saw as London’s right, the Games had to be worked-for in a completely different kind of bidding process. Soured by revelations of corrupt administration and unethical practices by bureaucrat and official alike (Jennings 1996; Jennings and Sambrook 2000; Lenskyj 2000; Symson and Jennings 1992), the IOC needed internal reform and more transparency in its decision-making processes. Juan-Antonio Samaranch’s successor as IOC president, Jacques Rogge, president from 2001, has established and consistently reaffirmed the restrictions on hospitality and gift-giving that are intended to rid the bidding process of bribery and corruption, and sponsors concerned with the tarnished image of a corrupt IOC at the turn of the millennium have continued their partnerships, though after Beijing 2008 three North American giants — Manulife, Johnson and Johnson, and Kodak — terminated their support. Nevertheless, media rights have held their value, and the outcome of bidding processes can produce responses verging on hyperbole: ‘Rarely in peacetime have Londoners celebrated together with so much emotion at the heart of the city’ (Lee 2006: 192) may be an unsubstantiatable assertion, but there is no doubt that in London and some parts of the UK beyond England’s capital, the announcement by Rogge on July 6th 2005 that London had pipped Paris to get the 2012 Games generated enthusiastic, even joyful, responses. Mike Lee describes the Paris bidding team’s response in Singapore as ‘dumbstruck and dejected’, before the tears started to flow. So how did London do it?

            Lee, the London bid’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs, describes factors crucial to the success of the London bid: a united message emerging under inspired leadership; an emphasis on youth —  and this was brilliantly and pithily evoked in the London presentational video (Tomlinson 2008: 73-4) — and legacy; and the presence of prime minister Tony Blair in Singapore for several days before the vote. But crucially, regardless of the cleaned-up bidding process, and the restraints on favours and incentives, the London bid was anchored in a sustained and intensive process of lobbying, incalculable in terms of visible or actual costs. It is widely recognised that the Paris bid was weakened by internal divisions in leadership, and by the arrogance and assumptions of the country’s president, Jacques Chirac, who arrived at the last minute in Singapore confident that this third successive bid from Paris/France was won, and would deliver him an international success and legacy to match his internal monument, the Millau viaduct at the southern edge of the Massif Central. London played the bidding game more successfully than many had expected: a member of the bid team asked on the journey from the team hotel to the announcement venue, ‘What the hell are we going to do if we win?’; an experienced member of the administration at London’s City hall has conceded that no real budget was done, it was literally back-of-envelope jobs, so convinced was the Mayor of London’s office that the bid would not succeed.

            There are over 100 members of the IOC with voting rights and they constitute a scattered range of individuals, traditionally aristocratic, male, and privileged, though the committee has accepted women members from 1981, and its age-range has been widened by the inclusion of former athletes. The committee is capable of producing surprising results, but at the same time has often rewarded perseverance, awarding the event to a city that has come relatively close in previous bids. In part, this accounts for France’s over-confidence in 2005. But it is widely agreed that the Paris bid took success for granted, neglecting the context of the bidding process. In the central section of the book chapter, I peer more closely at the culture and context of bidding, lobbying, and decision-making relationships and dynamics, on the basis of my discussions with a veteran observer of international Olympic politics.



There are threats to the mega-event roller coaster: Athens 2004 was a financial disaster, and the Olympic facilities lie neglected and unwanted beyond the edge of the city; the cost of Beijing 2008 can never be known. But the queue to host ‘the world’s longest commercial’ (Payne 2005: 169) still forms, despite the range of charges that could be levied, during Samaranch’s presidency, against the bidding process: these included prejudice, commercial opportunism, and financial corruption via demands or inducements (Miller 1992: 219). Perhaps some of the worst of these excesses have been reined in to some extent, at least those discernible to the public eye. But who really knows quite what offers might be made, for example, by the likes of Roman Abramovich on behalf of his mentor Vladimir Putin, on the 21st century equivalents of Lord de Walden’s private yacht.

            The London 2012 bidding victory was rooted in lobbying processes and potentially beneficial mutual interests — or at least networks of likely personal advancement and aggrandisement, and an awareness of the importance of knowledge and communication networks.


            In Olympic circles, decisions and outcomes are less about policy than status, power, and prestige. London’s successful 2012 bid combined the entrepreneurial flair and interpersonal skills of Sir Keith Mills with the naked ambition of Lord Coe, to extraordinarily successful effect. Whether the benefits or impact of the event will justify the costs of its staging will not hamper the career trajectories of such operators: the Athens disaster has not curtailed the international profile of numerous of its organisers and leaders; Billy Payne of the widely criticised Atlanta Olympics is comfortable in his role as chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club and the Master’s golf major tournament, and secure in his knowledge that few are interested any longer in the cost and the impact of Atlanta 1996.

            In the aftermath and afterglow of the closing ceremony in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium in 2008, LOCOG’s chairman Lord Coe looked forward to London’s turn (Coe 2008). Asked what effect Great Britain’s Olympic success (4th in the medal table, ahead of Germany and Australia) had on the British public’s support for London 2012, he responded that the vast majority ‘was captivated by Team GB and Paralympics GB’s achievements … the welcome they received during October’s Heroes Parade in London reflected that’. But London is not the ‘vast majority of the nation’. Coe’s abiding memories were of the ‘mind-boggling … spectacular venues’, and the ‘welcome afforded to us by the people of Beijing’. The combination of genuine Chinese hospitality and volunteer grooming will be difficult to replicate in London 2012, when eager volunteers have already been disillusioned by the banal and mundane experiences that it seems might reward their keenness to volunteer. And Coe was most impressed by the ‘attention to detail’ in Beijing, both in the global public eye of the opening and closing ceremonies, and in the background day-to-day business of the athletes’ village; there would be much to oversee in a London with no such command economy and culture on which to depend.

            Getting the Games has been motivated by changing motives throughout the Olympic story. London’s three Lords — Desborough, Burghley, and Coe — were all well-networked former top athletic competitors, but the first two inhabited completely different cultural worlds to that of Coe. Desborough was at his competitive peak before the modern Games were really established, while Burghley and Coe share the distinction of being champions and gold medallists of their time. But neither Desborough nor Burghley had need of a prime minister’s presence in their bidding delegations. Coe embodies a different world from that of the earlier Lords, one in which Olympic hosting is not just a part of the sporting calendar, but a key element in a wider social, political, and economic project.


Sponsors continue to come on board despite world recession and its effects. Joel Seymour-Hide, director of sports marketing consultancy Octagon, trusts in the deep commitment that people have to sports: ‘Sport tends to be relatively recession proof … It’s an irrational love which creates more loyalty and resilience’ (quoted in Black 2009: 40). This is the message from the marketeers, to sponsors ready to associate themselves with the powerful and persistent emotions of such irrationalism. London 2012 had played a memorable game in landing the event, but the burden of delivery is heavy. As Lord Coe gazed upwards, tight-lipped and pensive, at the fireworks at the Bird’s Nest extravaganza that closed Beijing 2008, no prime ministerial heavyweight by his side, he looked as if he were wondering just what he had let himself in for.



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Primary sources

IOC executive and sessional minutes and reports, the Olympic Museum, Lausanne.

[i] This work/chapter draws upon research supported by the British Academy’s small grants scheme for my personal research on “The construction and mediation of the sporting spectacle in Europe, 1992-2004”, Ref. SG47220.

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