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A Better Understanding

30th July 2019

When we share people's stories with the world, we open the door to real empowerment

Seven summers ago Britain basked in the glow of an Olympics that exceeded all sporting and cultural expectations. In the defining image of the Games, Mo Farah, a Somalia-born immigrant and practicing Muslim, was hailed as a national hero after two thrilling track victories. In that moment Britain fleetingly became what many of us have always wanted it to be. No longer the wealthiest or most powerful nation on earth, but the happiest and most inclusive.

Eleven million tickets were sold for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. For many buyers it was a once in a lifetime experience. Certainly very few would have attended the previous London Games, but in its own way that was just as memorable.

On this day in 1948, the 14th Summer Olympics opened at Wembley Stadium. The ceremony consisted of an athletes’ parade, the release of a flock of pigeons and a 21 gun salute from the Royal Horse Artillery. A speech from Lord Burghley, a former gold medallist, offered London as a "warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low." As a spectacle it hardly compared with what we’ve grown accustomed to since, but no words of welcome could have struck a better note.

This became known as the Austerity Games, and was the first event that saw food rationing applied to competitors and fans. Other landmarks were more stirring.

Alice Coachman, the world’s greatest high jumper, became the first black woman to win a track and field gold medal. Coachman, who passed away just five years ago, had been a champion in waiting throughout the war years and seized her moment in style. Her impact would continue after her retirement from competition. In 1952 she became a spokesperson for Coca Cola; she was the first African American to earn a commercial endorsement of any kind.

And the undisputed star of the Games was another woman who had waited a long time for the opportunity. Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30 year old mother of two, entered four sprint events. The British athletics team manager, Jack Crump, dismissed her as too old to be competitive. Some male commentators in her native Netherlands suggested that she should stay home with her children. Four gold medals were an eloquent response.

This was also the first Games covered by Agence France-Presse. AFP’s international sports coverage was born here. The agency that had shared news of the liberation of France in 1944 and would go on to open 200 news bureaux in all corners of the world sent four correspondents to London. Information was limited, but it was a start.

Some news has local value only, but events in one country or continent can have a major impact on the lives of those in others. Communicating clearly, conveying the sense and spirit of these events to our neighbours in a language they can understand, is a duty. Sometimes it’s a commercial duty and sometimes a social and moral one.

To empower women and men of all backgrounds and ethnicities, we have to start by telling their story. Just telling it in English isn’t enough; it never was. Tell your story in Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian and you can reach two billion native speakers of those languages. That's quite an audience.   

The event that began 71 years ago today transcended sport. After the propaganda of Berlin in 1936 and the horror of World War Two, London in 1948 was a step back into the light. Yes, it was the Austerity Games. But it was also the Equality Games, where a Dutch mother of two defied convention and took centre stage, and a gifted young American became the first black woman to stand at the top of the podium. And it was the Communication Games, where a pioneering group of journalists shared the news that the Olympics had been given back to the world. A warm flame of hope for a better understanding. Still burning.


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