This is a fascinating exhibition at the British Library which gives an insight into the Olympic philatelic exhibition that has been part of the Olympic Games since 1984. Originally known as Olymphilex, the first exhibition accompanied the Los Angeles Games as part of the Arts Festival, and has continued through to London in 2012 when it was renamed Olympex 2012.

Olympic philatelic collectors are interested in collecting stamps, postcards and letters and other memorabilia that relate to the Olympic Games. The exhibition showcases the work of individual collectors in creating displays through this material to express ideas and histories of the Olympic Games. The exhibition is divided into a history of the origins of the Modern Games, Athens 1896, the three London Games in 1908, 1948 and 2012, individual sporting disciplines, and the Paralympic Games.

The displays relating to the 1908 and 1948 Games are at the beginning of the exhibition, and I found them really interesting as a comparison to the recent experience of living through the preparations for London 2012.  The accompanying free catalogue advises that no official stamps were issued for the 1908 Games, but there is a wealth of information created through displays of postcards. The Games then seem less commercialised, although perhaps this is the softening patina of black and white photography, but I also found it in the simple piece of string that acted as the marathon finishing line tape which the Chief Judge, Mr AJ Eggleston, chose to keep as a souvenir and is on display here - although, the 1908 marathon race itself had a controversial finish, as a contestant from Italy named Dorando crossed the tape first but was later disqualified.

The passions and excitement aroused in people by London 2012 are as evident here; the collector who created the display of the marathon has used a number of postcards to recreate a commentary on the race. I found one postcard particularly resonant, as it is displayed to show the message written on the back, giving an insight into the lived experience of the sender. It was a postcard of Dorando running through the tape and was sent by Little Jack to Winnie. Little Jack asks her if she remembers that Charlie once shook Dorando’s hand, saying that he had not forgotten. You can sense his absolute excitement at knowing someone who had previously met this Olympian and he chose to share that moment with Winnie by sending her a postcard even though he expected to see her later that day.

The displays for the 1948 Olympic Games focus on the history behind the official stamps and were curated by The British Post Museum and Archive. The display shows the different designs for stamps that were submitted for selection, the final choice being made by King George VI. The artwork of the submissions seems to be very reflective of the period - a country emerging from a devastating war - and they are simple and pared down. The images were made of only the colour of the stamp with tonal shading, and they sit in the background of the King’s image. I found the artwork by Abram Games for the 3D stamp particularly striking.  It shows the profile of a man’s face, tilted and with the chin jutting forward, with lines streaming behind to give the impression of a man running and a focused effort into physical endeavour. It is stunning work. Cancelled stamps show the commemorative cancellation mark that was used during the games. Only mail posted in six specially designated post-boxes near Wembley used the mark.

The next part of the exhibition shows displays that relate to different sporting disciplines; the displays were created by private collectors so they’re quite individualistic interpretations.  The texts and images work really well together: I enjoyed many of the minor sports during London 2012 and was drawn to the display on water polo. I learned that the heyday of water polo for Great Britain, a game invented by the English, was in the early 1900s when Great Britain won the gold medal in 1900, 1908, 1912 and 1920. Soon after then, European teams dominated the sport, particularly Hungary, although the winning team this year was of course Croatia. 

This exhibition is interesting; it is densely packed with material relating to the history of the modern Olympic Games and reveals the part Philatelists have had to play in preserving lived experiences that took place through postal communication.    

Olympex 2012: Collecting the Olympic Games, at British LibraryRita Fennell reviews Olympex 2012 at the British Library.3