Olympic fever in Islington a long way from apathy of previous Games in London

You might think the Olympics fever that has swept across London is natural. The biggest sporting event in the world coming to the capital seems an obvious cause for celebration.

But not in 1948 or 1908 – according to researcher Ben Smith from the Islington History Centre, who has found that there appeared to be little excitement for the event in and around the borough.

Mr Smith, who has trawled through the Islington newspaper archives, said: “While people were interested in the games, they didn’t see them as something life changing.”

While Islington Council has pulled out the stops this year with a huge range of free events and celebrations, in 1948 the Olympics didn’t even make council minutes.

As for Finsbury Council, then separate from Islington, the only way they marked the Games was by agreeing to assist in the distribution of the poster, and hanging “the usual display of flags” from the town hall.


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“From the council’s perspective, it was the austerity games. It wasn’t a lack of interest, so much as a lack of money,” says Mr Smith, who has built up a picture of the atmosphere at the previous home Olympics.

“It was so soon post-war you might have thought people would be clamouring for any piece of hope and happiness they could, but there seems to have been some apathy surrounding it.”

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This was despite Highbury hosting Olympic football, and training for diving taking place at Ironmonger Row Baths in 1948.

As for the athletes themselves, Islington boasts a good history of medal winners, but their lives would have been miles apart from the celebrity and intensive training of modern stars.

“They were very much amateurs. People would see their heroes in the streets.

“Even up to the 1968 Olympics they were just students, or working class people who were very good at sport. There were no million pound sponsorship deals.”

Among the borough’s Olympians is George Mackenzie, of Calabria Road, Highbury, a wrestler at five Olympics who carried the GB flag in 1952.

Islington has a rich history in Olympic wrestling, sending eight wrestlers to the Paris Games in 1924 and two, plumber Ron Grinstead, of Essex Road, and clerk Roger Till, of Finsbury Park, to Mexico in 1968.

The 1968 Games was the borough’s best, with fencer Peter Jacobs, of Prebend Street, and swimmer Roddy Jones, of Highbury Hill, also taking part.

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