Posted: 8/15/2008


       After World War II, some sort of normalcy was called for in world sport and so London was chosen to host the Games of the XIVth Olympiad from July 29-August 14th, 1948. It was a time of austerity and 'The Austerity Olympics' is a delightful new book by Janie Harrington, Aurum Press.

       As a young schoolboy I remember going to the local cinema to watch film of the Opening Ceremony and the Marathon. It was shown live on B.B.C. TV but at that time there were only a few black & white sets in the London area. In fact the B.B.C. contributed 1,000 pounds for the rights for radio and television.  The Empire Stadium at Wembley was chosen to host the track & field, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the final day of the equestrian events. The stadium held FA Cup Finals, International matches and, 3-4 times a week greyhound racing and speedway, and while the cinder track was laid down the stadium had to be paid later for the 2 weeks lost revenue.

      Three years after the war there were still German Prisoners of War in Britain and they were used to build Olympic Way, which still stands, to link Wembley Park station to the stadium. Germany and Japan were not invited to join the 59 other countries, but Italy took part. The day of the Opening Ceremony was the hottest on record since 1911 - 93F or 34 C and there was no water for the 4,000 participants as they were brought in by 300 red London double decker buses to march past King George VI, a stutterer and chain smoker who officially opened the Games. He was absent from the Closing Ceremony, being at his estate in Norfolk for the opening of the grouse shooting season!!

    The British government was persuaded that the Games would bring much needed foreign currency from competitors, officials, and hoped for tourists. The budget was set at 730,000 pounds, probably less than London 2012 Chairman Lord Sebastian Coe earns. It was a time of ration books, which I remember using for food, clothes, petrol, building materials and more. Sweden and Finland sent timber for some temporary constructions, which was sold afterwards to cover costs, including a bad check for 270 pounds from Argentina that bounced. 

     Competitors were charged 25 shillings a day for bed and board at a temporary Olympic village, plus free Ovaltine for all.  British competitors were given extra clothing coupons to pick up a team marching uniform and one sponsor provided all the men with one pair of the new Y front underpants. Basic rations for British adults were 2,600 calories a day, 50% more for coal miners, and that's what competitors were provided with.

     Coca-Cola came on board as a sponsor as it did at Berlin in 1936, and was unknown in Britain. Other sponsors included  Brylcreem, Craven 'A' cigarettes, and Guinness. The small New Zealand team took 5 weeks by sea through the Panama Canal, while the USA arrived on the SS America, with women in first class and men in second, apart from USOC Chairman Avery Brundage who come across the Atlantic in a stateroom on the Queen Mary. Black and white Americans mixed on board which was a 'first'. Brundage won the vote for I.O.C. President for the next Games in Helsinki and was not in favour of expanding women's participation. He was remembered for sending food parcels to the German defendants at the Nuremburg War Crime Trials.

     The I.O.C was comprised of lots of royalty and the amateur code was to be strictly enforced. One British competitor was ruled out as a professional because he was a sports teacher.  The equestrian events were held on a military base at Aldershot and only male, serving military officers were allowed to compete. When Sweden won the dressage gold medal somebody complained that one member was Sergeant Gehnall Persson. and the team were stripped of their gold medals and they were given to the French team. Fortunately the rules were changed and Persson went on to win gold in 1952 and 1956.

   The men's soccer tournament was held at Arsenal, Fulham Tottenham, Portsmouth, Brighton and some amateur club grounds and Great Britain was coached by Matt Busby. They were provided with one white jersey and one pair of navy shorts and a local shop contributed red stockings, but the players had to provide their own boots. Team G.B. beat the Netherlands 4-3 in overtime in the first round, France 1-0 in Round 2 and they lost in the Semi-Final 3-1 to Yugoslvia who lost the final by the same score to Sweden.  The USA, coached by Walter Geisler, a later US Soccer President, included future legendary college coach Walter Bahr, and lost its only match 9-0 to Italy in Round 1.

     The heroes of the 1948 London Games were 30 year old Dutch mother of two, Fanny Blankers-Koen who in 1999 was declared the 'Female Athlete of the Century' by the I.A.A.F., five years before her death in 2004.  She held 6 World Records but the rules allowed women to compete in only 4 events and she won them all-100m, 80m hurdles, 200m and 4 x 100m relay.The other was Emile Zatopek the Czech distance runner, who was to continue his dominance at Helsinki 1952