National Archives take visitors on Olympic journey

Sketch showing the official route of the 1908 Olympic marathon, from the Royal Box at Windsor Castle to the stadium at White City
Image caption Official route of the 1908 marathon race

Hundreds of documents from the Olympic and Paralympic Games are being placed online by the National Archives.

The Olympic Records website allows visitors to explore material across the whole period from the 1896 Athens Games to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Highlights include records of the 1908 and 1948 London Olympic Games.

Foreign Office concerns over the 1936 Berlin Olympics also feature on the site, as well as hopes of staging the 1984 Games in London.

Sarah Hutton, records specialist at the National Archives, said: "From a brief dispatch in 1896 to the huge online presence today, the records reflect the growth of the Games throughout the 20th century as well as its remarkable survival through two world wars, political turmoil and boycotts."

Rebecca Jenkins, author of The First London Olympics argues that the Olympic Games are a "fascinating reflection of the culture of the time".

She points out that one of the advantages of such a project is what it can reveal about "the people who took part in it and their lives".

The online resource, providing free access to more than 180 documents and 60 pictures, sheds light on the extraordinary history of the Games.

Dispatches from the first 'Olympian Games' 1896

On the 14 April 1896, the British ambassador in Athens wrote in a dispatch that the "Olympian Games" had been a success, in spite of the cancellation of the naval regatta owing to bad weather.

Speaking about the competitors, he wrote: "The Americans were the only good team of athletes and they won the majority of the prizes for which they contested."

The ambassador also praised Greece's management of the games which showed the Greek people in "the best possible light, as competitors, spectators, organisers and hosts".

Marathon map from the 1908 Olympic Games

The 1908 Olympic Games were due to be held in Rome but the Italians relinquished the task following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906. London had to take over the event with less than two years to prepare.

The sketch of the marathon route from Windsor Castle to the stadium at White City has been made available by the National Archive.

Extending the course to the stadium's finish line in front of the royal box lengthened it by 385 yards (352m). This was to become the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42.195 km).

The Daily Mail reported that it would be "the greatest long-distance race ever held… exciting enormous interest all over the world" and 2,000 police were drafted in to supervise the event.

The warm weather conditions and lengthier route resulted in a dramatic finish. Despite leading the race as he entered the stadium, Italian runner Dorando Pietri was disqualified for being helped across the finish line after collapsing near the end.

Political tension at the 1936 Berlin Games

Documents highlight the pre-war tension overshadowing the 1936 Olympic Games. While Berlin had been selected to host the Olympics several years before the rise of Nazi Germany, the 1936 Berlin Games sparked considerable political turmoil, with several nations threatening to boycott them altogether.

Although the Nazi regime attempted to highlight white racial superiority at the event, this was thwarted by the success of black athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals.

Documents also show that the Foreign Office expressed concern over the prime minister's attendance at an Olympic Dinner and the American team refused to give the Olympic salute because "it was the same as the Hitler salute".

However, the British embassy in Berlin reported that the press would not be allowed to "breathe a hint of this sporting storm in a tea-cup".

Hospitality at the 1948 "Austerity Games"

The 1948 Olympic Games were nicknamed the "Austerity Games" as London was suffering from the effects of the World War II, with rationing still in force.

Files show that the Games were run on a minuscule budget and athletes were requested to provide their own food and sports equipment. Temporary accommodation was provided for athletes in schools and parks.

Image caption London took over the 1908 Olympic Games, intended to be held in Rome after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius

Despite the shoestring budget, records reveal the willingness of the host city to make the competitors feel welcome. Officials researched the diets and customs of different nationalities, requesting that concessions be shown to France and Spain who wished to bring wine into the country.

Official documents state that "the point is, of course, that for such competitors, wine is part of their normal diet, and in their view at any rate, is a food-stuff".

Janie Hampton, author of The Austerity Olympics says documents show London did its best "to make every nation at home", in spite of the restrictions.

Fruitless plans to host Games

Records show that Councillor Roland Freeman proposed that the 1984 Olympics could be hosted in the run-down London docklands, when its most prominent competitor was thought to be Tehran, Iran.

A feasibility study was conducted in 1979 to look into the idea of constructing a national stadium on Royal Victoria Dock which could seat 70,000 people.

A new national lottery was another idea floated to assist with the financing of the event. But a note from Michael Heseltine to Mrs Thatcher implied the bid would make "no sense" economically.

Yet archive documents show that the unsuccessful Manchester bid for the 2000 Olympic games received strong government support. £53 million was provided to improve facilities before the nomination and an additional £2 million was allocated to support the bid.

Shots of the city taken on a clear day were taken to "scotch the myth of Manchester weather", but the Games were eventually awarded to Sydney.

Commenting on the material, Hugh Robertson, Minister for Sport and the Olympics, said that as London 2012 draws near, the documents "give us a chance to look back and appreciate how the Olympic movement has evolved over many years".

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