1948 Olympics: 'We had much more fun and a greater sense of achievement than modern athletes do'
Thursday 07 July 2005
When the Olympics arrive in London seven years from now, they will be unrecognisable from those which took place in and around the old Wembley Stadium in 1948. Like the capital itself, the Games - for good or ill - have been transformed.
The second London Olympics - after those held at White City in 1908 - are now known as the Austerity Games. But while they may have taken place in an era of post-war rationing, they were a Games that enjoyed an abundance of less tangible nourishment - goodwill, idealism and hope.
The ethos of those who took part in the 1948 Olympics was expressed in a letter to The Times by T P E Curry QC. "I did not do particularly well, but in those days it did not matter," he wrote, reiterating the motto of the Games' modern founder, Baron de Coubertin. "My contemporaries and I had much more fun and a greater sense of achievement than modern athletes do."
In the aftermath of global conflict, 1948 saw the emergence of the state of Israel, the breach of the Soviet blockade of Berlinand the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. And with the birth of Prince Charles and the National Health Service, the Games of the 14th Olympiad was a chance for Britain to reassert a sense of buoyancy and frivolity.
In offering to host the 1948 Games, Britain had come to the rescue of the IOC. The 1940 Olympics, which were meant to staged in Japan, were switched to Finland in 1938 after the outbreak of war with China. But the invasion of Finland by the Soviet Union in 1939 saw their cancellation.
By then, London had been awarded the 1944 Games - which were also cancelled - but in 1946 they accepted the task of preparing for what would be the first Games in 12 years.
For all the spirit of the competitors, urged by King George VI to be " second to none", many questioned the wisdom of holding the Games after the 1947 sterling crisis. Others worried there would be a critical shortage of hotel space during July and August, after the introduction of paid holidays.
Japan's last-minute announcement that it intended to take part caused even greater consternation, especially when it was pointed out to Foreign Office officials that the IOC had not actually expelled either Japan or Germany. One official said that the Japanese were "still technically enemies and could never be present at any function where the King was present".
But in the end, neither Japan, Germany nor the Soviet Union took part. Despite this, a record 59 countries appeared. In a Games which cost £750,000, building an Olympic village was deemed too expensive, so athletes were housed in "reasonable (but not extravagant) accommodation". The men were put up in RAF camps at Uxbridge, West Drayton and Richmond. Women were housed in London colleges.
Athletes were given increased rations - equivalent to those for dockers and miners, which meant 5,467 calories a day, instead of the normal 2,600. US competitors received "munificent" supplies, with "enriched white flour flown in daily".
Despite home athletes managing only three gold medals, more than 80,000 spectators a day turned up at Wembley.
Bert Bushnell helped secure one of those three golds in the double sculls rowing, partnered by Richard Burnell. "You talk about magnificence," he recalled. "There wasn't any. After the racing [at Henley] the oarsmen had a dinner, threw bread rolls at each other and then went home."
Britain also won the coxless pairs thanks to Ran Laurie and Jack Wilson, known as the Desert Rats as they both worked for the Colonial Service in Sudan, where Wilson had been injured by a spear two years earlier.
Karoly Takacs, of Hungary, took the rapid-fire pistol gold, 10 years after teaching himself to shoot with his left hand after a grenade had shattered his right arm.
Stan Cox, seventh in a 10,000 metres won by the Czech who was to dominate for the next five years, Emil Zatopek, was only allowed two days off from his job - one for the opening ceremony, and one for the race.
Cox was later told he should have been given fifth place as he had run an extra lap because the officials had been confused by Zatopek overtaking everyone.
But if the 1948 Games saw the emergence of Zatopek, they were dominated by Fanny Blankers-Koen, the 30-year-old Dutch mother-of-two who won gold medals in the 100m, 110m hurdles, 200m and sprint relay, despite Britain's team manager, Jack Crump, saying she was too old.
Audrey Mitchell (née Williamson) took silver in the 200m as Blankers-Koen collected the third of her golds. "She was married and she had children. I wasn't aware of her before the Games," Ms Mitchell recalled. She still has the letter containing the red, white and blue ribbons to be sewn onto kit that had to be made by the competitors. The instructions were explicit. "Shorts should be of black material (sateen or similar), and the inside leg measurement should be at least four inches level across the bottom when worn."
The 200m final, on 6 August, took place in a downpour. "It was desperate weather," Ms Mitchell said. "We arrived at the start very chilled. It was a cinder track, and it retained the water."
Six years before her death at the age of 85, Blankers-Koen was among competitors invited to Wembley for the 50th anniversary of the London Games. She admired the ground where she performed so well and reflected: "I can cry now I sit here, because it was such a nice time. I cry not because it was over, but because of all the memories."
Now widely held to be the model Games in terms of both the competition itself and the wider economic effects of regenerating a deprived area mainly around the Catalan city's waterfront. Some analysts suggested it prompted 50 years of investment in just eight and has been estimated at more than $9bn. It is estimated the Games created 92,000 new jobs at their peak, with 20,000 becoming permanent. Linford Christie became the oldest champion of the Olympic 100m at 32.
These Games are routinely described as the most successful of modern times, almost entirely because of their feel-good atmosphere both on and off the field. The stadium complex and 2,000-dwelling Olympic village were seen as models of regeneration. It all cost £1bn but generated £4.5bn in long-term benefits. Cathy Freeman, pictured, became the first Aborigine to win an Olympic track gold.
...and the losers
Criticised for being badly organised, particularly the transport links,the Games were marred by a bomb attack which killed two people. The legacy for the city has also fallen short with facilities either shut down or not used for the purpose for which they were built. The local economy benefited from visitor spending but it was well below estimates and the Games have done little to solve the city's social problems asno new housing was created and 5,000 homes were demolished.
Greece greeted the news in 1997 that it was bringing the Olympics home with an outpouring of national pride. But the government that trumpeted the win was voted out, in large part due to the fiasco of spiralling costs. Athens delivered a thrilling performance as hosts - marred by the disqualification of the sprinters Kostas Kenteris, pictured, and Katerina Thanou - but it was achieved at a huge cost to the country.
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