London has hosted the Olympics twice before, in 1908 and 1948. For both, the Olympic movement was grateful to London for filling in when other candidates were thin on the ground, a debt London hopes the International Olympic committee will make good for 2012. In 1908 London came to the rescue when Rome dropped out following a serious eruption of its nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius, while the 1948 games were the first after the ravages of the Second World War when many other cities were devastated.

Though much smaller than the gargantuan mega-circuses of more recent times, the 1908 Olympics managed to host over 2,000 athletes from 22 competing countries. As one of the first of the modern Olympics, London 1908 was in on plenty of the rule-making that still governs the games today.

Among things sorted out as a result of the 1908 games were the exact length of the Marathon (which is still 26.2 miles, the distance between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium), the establishment of the International Amateur Athletic Association and the organisation of the whole event around national teams.

One event that didn’t make it beyond 1908 was Tug of War, which is a bit of a kick in the teeth for all those who have since taken part in the event at school sports days. By 1948 the Olympics had grown substantially. This time around there were more than 40,000 competitors from 59 countries and the main stadium was switched from one west London venue to another, White City to Wembley. (Wembley, the best stadium in the world in its day, was demolished a few years ago – a new version is to be opened next year.)

Despite all those big numbers, one name is usually associated with the 1948 games, Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Dutch woman athlete who won four gold medals in various sprints. Starting blocks and photo-finishes were used at an Olympics for the first time in 1948, as well as broadcasts to home TV sets.

Past Olympic bids for London 

London wins the right to gold the 2012 games, it’ll be 64 years since the big show was last in town. Why haven’t we come close in that achingly long interim? London was not considered at all in the 30 or so years after 1948, for the simple and just reason that it had recently hosted an Olympics. By the 1980s, noises were being made that London should have another crack at the thing, so a bid was made to hold the 1992 games.

Ignominy, disaster and shame followed as centuries-long big-city jealousies helped Britain’s Olympic committee pick the country’s ordinary second city, Birmingham, as its representative in the bidding auction. Unsurprisingly, poor old Birmingham was more or less laughed out of the process in favour of beautiful Catalan capital Barcelona.

Eight years later, London was again overlooked by its own kith and kin when Manchester got the nod. Again, a fair dollop of hubris convinced many from England’s interesting, if conventionally ugly, northern city that it stood a chance against Sydney, one of the world’s most naturally spectacular places. Lessons were learned. Parliament commissioned a report and the great and the good of the land finally reached a conclusion already obvious to most of us – Britain would only stand a chance of hosting the Olympics if London was its candidate city.