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


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The Independent Online

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.