Researchers reveal the real austerity Olympics: The political refugee games of 1948

view gallery VIEW GALLERY


It was the real austerity Olympics. Whilst the rest of the world's top athletes were asked to bring their own towels and handed out Horlicks tablets by the authorities in London 1948, the spirit of the Games was being enacted in even more Spartan surroundings than the bombed out British capital.

Hundreds of competitors who had been denied permission to travel after being caught in Cold War limbo put on their own show of sporting prowess in the displaced persons camps of occupied Germany.

Despite widespread food, clothing and transport shortages and with just a shoestring budget they took part in dozens of events, even casting their own medals, making their own uniforms and organising opening and closing ceremonies.

Until now the Displaced Person Olympiad as it is known has been an almost entirely overlooked episode in post war sporting history remembered by the dwindling few that took part and captured in handful of fading photographs.

But the work of British academics and colleagues in the United States and Ukraine is shining a spotlight again on the extraordinary determination of those that took part.

“Since their countries no longer existed – or existed in a form they loathed – the displaced persons (DPs) found in the Olympiad a means of asserting their national identity,” explained historian Professor Peter Gatrell of the University of Manchester. The Olympiad was conceived by a hitherto little known organisation called the International Committee of Political Refugees and DPs with support from the local YMCA and YWCA.

The athletes were primarily from countries of Eastern Europe who had been used as forced labourers by the Nazis. Among them were men and women from Ukraine, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania as well as Czechs, Hungarians and Yugoslavians whose homelands were now on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Many of those in the camps had fled the advance of the Red Army as it headed West and had good reason to fear Stalin’s revenge.

But sport was not just a way of passing the time as they waited to start new lives in Britain, the United States or Canada – a wait that continued until 1960 for some.

It was also a chance to show the world these forgotten people still existed and were also in good physical shape.

Men’s volleyball was the first event and held at the Mittenwald Camp in Bavaria between 26-27 June with Ukraine triumphing after seeing off Hungary and Yugoslavia.

Other events included basketball, boxing, tennis, table tennis and football – a very popular pursuit in the camps where dozens of teams vied against each other in a thriving league competitions.

But the highlight of the games came at the Nuremburg stadium – scene of Nazi rallies before the war – when athletes battled it out on track and field.

Dr Jennifer Carson, also of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester said organisers even produced a commemorative stamp showing the Olympic rings to celebrate what was going on – something which could well find them in breach of the International Olympic Committee’s tough rules on branding today

“Organising the games was an amazing achievement in the most trying of circumstances. They had little money, transport and accommodation – and food was in short supply,” she said.

With the exception of a handful of outside observers, including a Ukrainian journalist who noted the “physical and moral spirit” of the competition, little is remembered of the victors or those that took part, said Prof Gatrell who studies refugees in the modern world.

“The Olympiad was soon forgotten. Many of the participants eventually resettled and got on with their lives, and the vision of a ‘free’ Eastern Europe faded. With the collapse of Communism, however, the history of life in the DP camps is gradually being rediscovered by the children and grandchildren of the DPs,” he said.

One of the few survivors is Mykola Kasian, 89, goalkeeper of the Ukranian national football side who helped his team to 5-1 victory against Lithuania in the final in Munich.

The match was watched by 6,000 people. “They came from all over,” recalls Mr Kasian who now lives in Philadelphia where he went on to become one of US soccer’s most successful referees.

“When we finished our game they ran on to the field and put you in their arms.”

“We lived in a camp and there was nothing to do. There was no work for us so we practised from early morning until late in the evening. It was our life,” he said.

Apart from the Latvians winning the gold medal in basketball he said he has forgotten the rest of the results although he has kept in touch with his two fellow surviving teammates after arriving in the United States in 1949, one of whom now has Alzheimer’s.

“To win that medal was a real joy and a thrill. For sportsmen at such a big event if you take place that is really something,” he added.

According to Prof Gatrell Mr Kasian’s experience is not unusual among displaced people.

“Sport continues to be a vital part of the social world of refugees in camps around the globe, for example in the huge Dadaab complex in Kenya. As in 1948 sport demonstrates that many refugees are far from helpless, but are well organised and keen to demonstrate their athleticism as well as their national identity,” he said.

Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits