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?

Action Images/Reuters/File
London 1948: An undated file photo shows the medal presentation for bantamweight boxing at the Empire Pool in Wembley Stadium.

When London last hosted the Olympics in 1948, the Games lacked nearly all the trappings of the mega-event they have since become.

Organizers reused existing venues, such as an old velodrome that had housed aerial defense balloons during the war. It lacked lighting, however, so officials turned on car headlights to see the finish of evening bike races.

Boxing and swimming took place in the same Wembley arena. The swimmers competed during the first week, then a boxing ring was built atop the pool, with no time to drain it.

As London hosts a big-budget modern Games this summer, nostalgia can be heard here for the simpler spirit of '48, one focused more on sport, and without the blown-out public budgets and corporations cashing in on stardom.

"These really were the people's Olympics. There was no element of corporate branding and sponsorship. People traveled around in buses," says Iain Sinclair, a noted east London author. "It's now become so grossly swollen and supporting such a mass of people who view themselves as entitled [to] VIP lanes."

Mr. Sinclair says the Olympics have turned into "an excuse for ripping up tranches of the [host] city and remaking it, and then half of it having to be abandoned later."

While London 2012 can be seen as a slight correction to the massive Beijing Games four years ago, the choice of London over Paris as host suggests the Olympic Committee still loves to see cities spend big and build more.

"It's a bit disturbing London was given the Olympics," says David Wallechinsky, president-elect of the International Society of Olympic Historians. "Paris already had existing venues."

That said, there's a pattern in the run-up to most Games – even London '48 – of complaining about the spending and disruptions, he adds.

"There was a lot of grumbling that we just came out of a devastating war … and we're holding a big celebration three years later," he says. "The day the Olympics begin, all this will fall by the wayside."

The bare-bones '48 Games cost £750,000, or roughly £21.3 million in today's currency (about $33.1 million), and no public money was used. The Parliament's estimate of the price to the public of the 2012 Games hovers at £11 billion ($17 billion).

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.

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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