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Oh, for the simpler Olympic Games of 1948

In today's dollars, the 1948 London Olympic Games cost about $33 million. This year's tab: about $17 billion. What happened?

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The organizers in 1948 economized out of necessity, given that most skilled labor was rebuilding other parts of London and materials were rationed. The Games' small profit was made mostly on ticket sales.

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There was no Athletes' Village, nor special road lanes for VIPs. After winning gold in the 800 meters, American runner Mal Whitfield, still in his tracksuit, took the train back to team headquarters at nearby Uxbridge air base. He never mentioned his win to an elderly lady on the train who asked if he was an Olympic athlete.

"He was too shy to say anything," says Martin Rogan, ­coauthor of "Britain and the Olympic Games."

Compared with Londoners today, Londoners back then enjoyed amazing access to athletes and events – but at the cost of very few people getting a chance to see the Games.

TV would change all that, and the '48 Games saw the first broadcasts. Over the decades, the broadcasters would inject big money and bigger ambitions into the Games.

"I consider TV coverage overwhelmingly a positive development," says Mr. Wallechinsky, "even though there were some negative things – corporate entities became so powerful. There's only so many people who can fit into the stadium; but when you can have billions around the world watch it, I think that's a good thing."

Most journalists got the news out via a 1948 version of Twitter. US reporters in the press box wrote out short cables, putting each in a can and sending it down a pipe to a waiting Boy Scout. The boy biked the message from the stadium to the media center, where it was relayed by telegraph to a London office, then transmitted via Morse code to the United States.

The BBC had planned to televise only an hour a day of the Games at first, but expanded it to six hours with live broadcasts. So popular were the live broadcasts from Wembley that they helped expand London television ownership from 30,000 to 80,000 sets within a year.

"The communications then and now is probably the biggest single difference," says Mr. Rogan. "That's what has created what we got now. We have to live with that; we can't unpick that."

The massive TV audience attracted not only corporations but terrorists. After athletes were taken hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics, security hardened in ways that make the low budget and informality of 1948 unimaginable.

But despite all the hoopla around today's Games, Rogan argues people can still glimpse Olympic ideals in the athletes.

"These are values that are worth fighting for," says Rogan, "and that's the only reason the concept has survived."


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