London's Olympic Games and Parks

By Martin Polley

British Olympics

Martin Polley is a renowned sports historian and author of The British Olympics - Britain's Olympic Heritage 1612-2012 (published by English Heritage, 2011). Details of Martin's work and publications can be accessed at

Olympic Games poster 1908

This summer, some of London's parks and open spaces are serving as venues for the Olympic games and Paralympics. From the triathlon in Hyde Park to the equestrian sports at Greenwich Park, the capital's parks are having their share of the action. The games will also leave a long-term legacy: the 617-acre Olympic site in Stratford will re-open in 2014 as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

In this setting, it is fascinating to look back at London's previous Olympic Games to see what part parks and open spaces played in them.

The modern Olympics started in 1896, and in 1908 they came to London. The British Olympic Association worked with the Franco-British Exhibition in Shepherd's Bush, who paid for the Great Stadium to be built within their grounds, known as the White City. The capital's first Olympics were thus part of Edwardian London's new pleasure grounds, the sports competing for attention with the Flip-Flap and the Scenic Railway. Beyond the Stadium, the Metropolitan Line's recreation grounds at Wembley Park hosted the end of the Marathon trial race, while the full Olympic Marathon route crossed Wormwood Scrubs on its way from Windsor Castle to the Stadium. The planners had to build a temporary bridge over one ditch to make things easier for the fatigued runners.

In 1948, London hosted the Olympics under austerity conditions. With no money for new venues, the planners had to make do and mend, a policy which led to a number of parks taking on Olympic duties. The hub of the Games was in the grounds of the 1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley, with the Stadium, the Empire Pool, and the Palace of Engineering all seeing sporting service. To the south, Richmond Park was the original choice for the road cycling races, but bye-laws prevented this, so the races moved out to Windsor Great Park. Richmond played its part though, as the army offered their convalescent camp for accommodation. With no money for an Olympic village, the 15-acre site near Kingston Gate took in 1,740 male competitors, despite protests from some locals that resources should be given to bombed-out families ahead of overseas athletes. The site has now been cleared, with only a flight of steps surviving, although one of the huts was rebuilt in New Malden and is now the home of the Malden Rifle and Pistol Club.

The Richmond controversy in 1948 is a reminder that the Olympics have not always been welcome in London's parks. In the run up to 2012, this has been most visible in the local protests around the planners' decision to base the equestrian events in Greenwich Park. The preparation for this event has already involved damage to trees and gates, and campaigners are concerned about long-term archaeological and environmental destruction from the sports and the crowds.

Here lies the paradox of London's parks' relationship with the Olympic Games. On the one hand, the Games are creating a new park for London that would not have been commissioned without the Games. On the other, the Games appear to be damaging some of the city's green spaces.

Whatever happens, this year's events are the latest chapter in a long Olympic history.