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Prime Ministers and the Olympic Games

Britain has a proud Olympic tradition. Since the revival of the modern Games in 1896, Britain is one of few nations to have sent competitors to every summer Olympics, and this year London has the distinction of being the first city in the modern era to host the Games three times. But the role of Prime Ministers in supporting Great Britain’s Olympic efforts, either personally or with state funding, is only a recent phenomenon.

Tony Blair smiles broadly at the news that London was to host the 2012 Olympics
Tony Blair reacts to the news that London was to host the 2012 Olympics

Most twentieth-century Prime Ministers looked favourably on Britain’s Olympic endeavours. Some played a key part in backing British bids to stage the Games. But others were concerned that they generated unwelcome political controversy, and a few appeared to share the view of the socialist writer George Orwell, that international sport – far from promoting harmony among nations as its proponents claimed – was ‘an unfailing cause of ill-will…. war minus the shooting’.

In the Edwardian period sport was expected to run its own affairs without state interference. When London first hosted the Games in 1908, Herbert Asquith's Liberal government looked on from the sidelines, leaving the British Olympic Association (BOA) in charge of organisation and funding. When teams from over twenty participating nations departed after six months of competition, which then included all the summer and winter Olympic sports, ministers at the Foreign Office (which kept a close eye on the diplomatic impact of the Games) were relieved that nothing had destabilised Britain’s fragile relationship with European neighbours such as Germany. Some track and field events were marred, though, by highly-publicised bickering. The United States complained forcefully about several decisions, notably when British officials disqualified the American winner of the men’s 400 metres for elbowing and ordered the race to be re-run. The other American finalists refused, leaving a British athlete to claim the gold medal by circling the track on his own.

The assumption that politicians had little role to play in the Olympics continued after the First World War. But by the 1930s British governments were increasingly drawn into diplomatic disputes related to the Games, as international tensions mounted. Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics to showcase Nazi ideals, and Stanley Baldwin's National government placed pressure on the BOA to withdraw London’s bid to host the 1940 Games. On hearing that Tokyo was putting forward a strong bid, the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden sought to improve Anglo-Japanese relations, remarking ‘for heaven’s sake let us encourage it. I could even run in the mile myself!’ The London bid was withdrawn and the Games eventually abandoned due to the Second World War.

The first major example of proactive prime ministerial support for the Olympics came in the aftermath of the War. Labour’s Clement Attlee backed London’s bid to stage the 1948 Games, primarily to assist the nation’s desperate drive for economic recovery, and despite the capital being blighted by the effects of the Blitz.  If the government had been indifferent or hostile, London’s bid would have stalled. Although the BOA was still required to cover the bulk of all costs via business and public donations, ministers provided practical and moral support. To avoid the expense of building any new facilities, over 4,000 competitors from 59 nations were housed in make-shift accommodation such as converted military bases, and athletes were accorded the same higher-calorie rations as miners and dockers. The ‘austerity Olympics’ proved to be a triumph of good planning, restoring Olympic idealism with none of the ostentation of the Berlin Games. Attlee attended the opening ceremony at Wembley Stadium but then retreated to play golf in Ireland. At his remote coastal lodge, lacking even a telephone, the Prime Minister, like most of the British people, could only follow the Olympics via the radio airwaves.

The precedent had now been set for Prime Ministers’ involvement in Olympic-related matters. The Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was the first to sense that, in the new age of television, a leader’s public image could be enhanced by association with sporting success. In 1964, he hosted a Downing Street reception for members of the British Olympic team, recently returned from the Tokyo Games – an example followed by many of his successors.

In more sombre vein, it fell to Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath to offer Britain’s condolences after twelve Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian militants at the 1972 Munich Olympics. From the opposition benches, Wilson called for the immediate withdrawal of the British team, but Foreign Secretary (and former Prime Minister) Sir Alec Douglas-Home responded that it was not for politicians to dictate such things: ‘The simple fact is that the decision to remain in Munich was for the British Olympic Committee and not for the Government. We do not run our sport here by Government decree.’

Douglas-Home’s words came back to haunt Margaret Thatcher, who had little personal or political interest in sport.  In 1980 she became the only twentieth-century Prime Minister to put concerted pressure on British competitors not to take part in the Olympics, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. US President Jimmy Carter was determined that strong retaliatory measures should be taken and Thatcher staunchly supported his plan to boycott the Moscow Olympics in July 1980. But she came up against firm resistance from the BOA, sports governing bodies and individual athletes such as Sebastian Coe (since one of the key architects of London 2012) who opposed the use of sport as a retaliatory weapon and the curtailment of their own Olympic ambitions. Bitter arguments raged for several months. Although over 60 nations stayed away from the Games, a British team took part and performed creditably; Coe was one of five gold-medal winners.

Thatcher’s successor John Major was a passionate enthusiast for sport. He strongly backed Manchester’s bid to host the 2000 Games, and broke with tradition by promising substantial sums of public money for facility development and economic regeneration. Major also pushed hard for the use of National Lottery funds to support Olympic athletes and training facilities on a scale dwarfing anything that went before. Although Manchester was heavily defeated when the 2000 Games went to Sydney, Major’s intervention helped to propel ‘Team GB’ to 10th in the Olympic medal table in 2000, a marked improvement after the humiliation of finishing 36th at Atlanta in 1996. Major’s involvement signified the arrival of a ‘hands-on’ prime ministerial approach to international sport that continues to this day.

After initial hesitancy, and convinced like many that Paris was the odds-on favourite, Tony Blair threw his weight behind London’s bid to host the 2012 Games. It was in the final stage of the lengthy bidding process, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met in Singapore in 2005, that the Prime Minister made his most decisive contribution. Despite having to host a summit of world leaders shortly afterwards, he flew to Singapore and engaged in non-stop meetings to win over crucial votes. The announcement of London’s narrow victory over Paris was greeted as a personal triumph for Blair. The publicity chief for the London bid, Mike Lee, concluded that the Prime Minister’s intervention provided the ‘extra push to get over the line ahead of the French’.

In spite of a prolonged economic downturn and a programme of deep spending cuts after 2010, David Cameron’s coalition stuck with Blair’s final budget of £9.3 billion of public money for staging the Olympics, compared to a total cost of around £750,000 for the 1948 Games. At the time of the 1908 and 1948 London Games, the idea of such lavish state investment in Olympic preparations was unthinkable.  For the last two decades, Prime Ministers have been keen to identify themselves with the perceived benefits – economic, social and electoral – of staging ‘the greatest show on earth’, as David Cameron recently described it. In an age when the Games attract enormous commercial interest and media attention, watched on television by over half the world’s population, modern Prime Ministers are anxious not to jeopardise Britain’s high standing in the Olympic medal table. No twenty-first century Prime Minister has – as yet – run the risk of being remembered as an Olympic party-pooper.

Further Reading

Brendan Gallagher, The Games. Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic Journey to London 2012 (Wiley, 2011)
Janie Hampton, The Austerity Olympics. When the Games Came to London in 1948 (Aurum Press, 2008)
Kevin Jefferys, Sport and Politics in Modern Britain: The Road to 2012 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Rebecca Jenkins, The First London Olympics: 1908 (Piatkus, 2008)
Mike Lee, The Race for the 2012 Olympics. The Inside Story of How London Won the Bid (Virgin Books, 2006)
Martin Polley, The British Olympics. Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612-2012 (English Heritage, 2011)

Copyright . This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.

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