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London's Olympic History

Kinesiology professor Don Dengel gave U students an action-packed preview of the 2012 games—and a look back in time

WHEN THE 2012 OLYMPICS OPEN JULY 27, London will become the first city to host the games for the third time.

London first rolled out the Olympic carpet in 1908, when the British Empire was at the peak of its power. The second time, in 1948, the city was reeling from the devastation of World War II.

“Those two years were certainly unique points in history,” says kinesiology professor Donald Dengel, an Olympics history enthusiast who worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee in the 1980s.

seminar students Jacki Rowland, Allison Schumacher, and Afton Goebel
Seminar students Jacki Rowland, Allison Schumacher,
and Afton Goebel. Photo by Jacki Rowland

In January, Dengel led 25 students to London for a chance to explore the Olympics’ impact. During a three-week global seminar, they got to visit not only 2012 venues under construction but also venues from 1948 and even a couple still standing from 1908. The class opened a window on a fascinating mix of sports, facilities, history, and sociology.

“Some things don’t change,” Dengel says with a chuckle. “1908 had a drug scandal! And a political protest! Our flag bearer refused to dip the flag for British royalty—Ralph Rose, an Irish American, supposedly did not dip the flag, as a protest to England’s involvement in Ireland. To this day, we do not dip our flag.”

The 1948 games in London were the first since 1936 in Berlin. Post-war Britain was still rationing food, and the XIV Olympics came to be called the Austerity Games.

“Teams were asked to bring their own food, towels, donated equipment,” says Dengel. “It was probably, in that sense, what the Olympics were supposed to be—sport to mend fences. But Japan and Germany were not invited to the 1948 Olympic games.”

That year, in track and field, a 30-year-old mother of three from the Netherlands was the first woman to win four gold medals. And, to coincide with the Olympics, a physician organized the 1948 International Wheelchair Games; almost all the competitors were veterans.

“Fannie Blankers-Koen set the tone for women’s athletics for the next century,” says Dengel. “The ‘wheelchair games’ went on to become the Paralympic Games.”

The 2012 Olympics promise to transform London not just for a few weeks but for decades to come. Green building techniques and “legacy” development planning helped to win the city’s bid.

From facilities to music

Dengel’s seminar attracted students from seven U colleges, including one from the U of M Crookston. Their fields ranged from engineering and management to music. They attended lectures, wrote papers, interviewed people, and trekked around London daily.

“It was really cool being able to go to all of the amazing sporting and Olympic venues around London,” says Hannah McMahon. “We got to visit the 2012 Olympic Park, which very few people get to see before the games.”

Wembly Stadium
Wembley Stadium, backdrop of the 1948 Olympics, was
rebuilt in 2007 to incorporate many energy-saving features.
The new Wembley will host Olympic events this summer.
Photo by Hannah McMahon

Wembley Stadium, built on the site of the old Wembley stadium that played a prominent role in the 1948 Olympics, was a favorite. Another was Wimbledon. An unexpected highlight was an interactive visit to BBC studios on the site of the 1908 Olympic stadium.

Students learned first-hand that “not everybody is Olympic-excited,” Dengel says.

Jeff Sarberg says writing a paper about the impact of politics on the Olympics and visiting the 2012 venues deepened his critical interest. This time, he’ll pay more attention to things he didn’t notice or care about before.

“The whole experience will make these upcoming games more personal.”
— Jeff Sarberg

When the 30th summer Olympiad is over, London’s new venues will be resized, adapted, and even moved for long-term use. Redeveloped areas will transition into new neighborhoods.

The seminar was so successful that Dengel decided to lead another group this winter to observe the continuing effects of the 2012 games on the city of London. In the meantime, he’ll teach a freshman seminar this fall, KIN 1905: The Impact of 1908, 1948, and 2012 Olympics on London.

INSPIRED BY COLLEAGUES—Dengel got the idea for the London seminar from conversations with colleagues in the U.K. He traveled last year with support from the Jack and Marty Rossmann Faculty Development Award, which recognizes a tenured faculty member who has demonstrated an exceptional level of creativity and productivity in scholarship, teaching, and service, and who shows great promise of continuing such achievement.

Read more about Dengel’s global seminar.

Story by Gayla Marty | Spring / Summer 2012



This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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