Following the end of the Second World War, the first Olympic Games were held in a bomb-scarred London from 29 July to 14 August 1948.
Britain was in an economic slump and had huge war debts. Many people were unemployed. Housing was in short supply, while food, clothing and petrol were rationed. International tensions were also high as the Soviet Union tightened its recent blockade of West Berlin.
This Olympic Games (officially known as ‘the Games of the XIV Olympiad’) was therefore dubbed the ‘Austerity Games’.
Despite the challenges, and in the context of continuing post-war global tensions and initial hostility from the press, more than 4,000 athletes competed from 59 nations in 17 major disciplines. The USA topped the medals table, with Great Britain coming 12th.
84,000 enthusiastic spectators packed Wembley Stadium for the opening ceremony in 30°C heat, and 7,000 pigeons were released into the sky above London. The games were hugely popular and considered a triumph of international cooperation.
Here are some interesting facts about the 1948 Olympic Games.
1. Britain didn’t build any new venues
Following the enormous cost of the Second World War, it was judged that there was no money or time to build new venues before the games started. Instead, existing London sites had to be repaired and reused, or events had to be moved elsewhere.
The Empire Stadium in Wembley, which opened in 1923 by hosting the FA Cup Final, became the main venue for the games. The stadium was repaired, and its greyhound track was dug up, creating a new running track using cinders from domestic fireplaces in Leicester.
The Empress Hall in London, initially a theatre, became the centre for boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and weightlifting. It was adapted from an ice-skating rink and could hold 8,000 spectators.
During the games, Harold Sakata won a silver medal and later moved to Hollywood, becoming world-famous as ‘Oddjob’ with his killer bowler hat in the James Bond film, ‘Goldfinger’.
The Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena) was designed by Evan Owen Williams and built in 1934 for the Empire Games, the forerunner of the Commonwealth Games.
Nearly 500 swimmers and divers competed from 37 countries, and 111 of them were women. The two USA teams dominated with 8 gold medals.
This Olympics was the first time many Britons had seen American women in person, having only previously viewed them in glamorous Hollywood films.
The Herne Hill Velodrome had fallen into disrepair after being used as a storage site for barrage balloons during the Second World War.
Its weed-filled and cracked track was repaired and resurfaced for the Olympics. There was no floodlighting, so car headlights were sometimes used to illuminate the track as dusk fell.
2. The Olympic Village was a collection of wooden huts in Richmond Park
The 1948 Olympic Village had room for around 1,600 male competitors, while others were housed in RAF camps, colleges, schools and hostels. Female competitors were mainly accommodated in London colleges.
Caterers across the various sites dealt with many national dietary differences. Some teams brought their own chefs. Hundreds of students were employed as dishwashers and cleaners at multiple locations.
The authorities, mindful of sensitivities in London where many were left homeless following Second World War bombing raids, ensured that the village’s accommodation was plain and decent, not luxurious.
Transport was logistically hugely complex. Competitors were mostly bussed around to the 67 training centres and 30 Olympic venues, while others had to make their own way by public transport but were given free passes.
British competitors, on occasion, were forced by unsympathetic employers to take unpaid leave from their jobs to compete.
3. German prisoners of war played an important role
After the end of the Second World War, there were still around 400,000 German prisoners of war held in Britain, mainly working on the land. They were gradually repatriated, but some remained. The Ministry of Labour decided they should be put to work clearing street litter.
This resulted in a huge backlash from the press and the public, with talk of a ‘slave squad’. The government swiftly did a U-turn and allowed German prisoners of war to be employed in building work, including constructing the Olympic Way, a new approach road linking Wembley Park station to the stadium.
In post-war Britain, prisoners of war had some freedom of movement. Helmut Bantz, a former Luftwaffe pilot who was shot down and became a prisoner of war in Leicester, was incredibly fit from working on a farm. He visited the British Gymnastic Championships in Leicester, where he met and astonished the coach of the Olympic gymnastic team by going through a perfect impromptu routine.
Bantz became the secret weapon of the British team by improving their technique. He eventually lived openly with the team in the Olympic Village and was even invited to march with them into Wembley Stadium.
He turned down the offer, thinking it inappropriate to be the only German at Wembley.
4. The games had an elite athlete dubbed ‘the Flying Housewife’
385 female athletes competed in the 1948 Olympics. In comparison, there were 3,714 male competitors. During the games, Fanny Blankers-Koen became a surprise star.
She was a mother of two children, which perplexed many who thought it inconceivable for a mother to be an athlete.
At the age of 30, she was written off as too old, and during the games, she was three months pregnant and trained only twice a week, accompanied by her children. Yet, she won 4 gold medals: the 100 metres, 200 metres, hurdles and the relay.
5. Black American athletes mixed with white athletes for the first time
The Games arrived at a key moment in British history, as just one month before, the Empire Windrush had brought people from the Caribbean to Britain.
The Olympics hosted competitors from 59 nations, and the black and Asian athletes were potentially the first time some Britons had seen non-white people.
In the USA, many areas of everyday life were racially segregated, particularly in southern states, with black citizens excluded from economic or social rights.
Travelling to Britain by ship from the USA and then at the competition itself, many African-American competitors met and socialised freely with white athletes, officials and others for the first time.
6. Alice Coachman became the first black woman to win a gold medal
Alice Coachman became the first black woman from any country to win a gold medal in track and field.
Her gold medal in the High Jump was not just the first to be won by a black woman. She was also the only American woman to win a gold medal in athletics at the 1948 Games.
7. Donations included Y-front underwear
This was a ‘make-do-and-mend’ Olympics, with every penny scrutinised by the organising committee. Competitors even had to bring or hire their own towels.
Dunlop lent tyres to the cycling team, another rubber company donated swimming caps, Finland donated a new wooden floor to the Empress Hall, and Sweden lent wrestling mats. Visiting gymnastic teams brought their own equipment, and footballers had to provide their own boots.
Nations worldwide provided food, including China, whose contributions included bamboo shoots and dried shrimp, coconuts and spices from Ceylon, Danish eggs, Dutch fruit and vegetables, Hungarian poppy seeds and paprika, and Mexican offal.
8. The BBC televised the games for the first time
Most of the population, and the world, would have followed the Olympics on the wireless on the BBC (which was broadcast in over 40 languages), but this was the first time that events could be watched live on BBC television.
However, for the most part, this was only in the London area. The daily viewing audience hit almost half a million.
9. The Olympics saw technological advances
New technology introduced at the Olympics included the photo finish in athletic races, linking the starter’s pistol to an electronic timer and the starting blocks. Before this, athletes simply dug holes in the track to get a grip.
10. Some countries were excluded from the Olympics, while others competed for the first time
The defeated wartime powers of Germany and Japan were not invited to send athletes to the games, but Italy, also once considered an enemy, had signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943 and was allowed to compete. The Soviet Union chose not to participate but sent observers.
The games were also the first to host athletes from Communist countries, such as Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland.
11. The 1948 Olympics gave birth to the first Stoke Mandeville Games, the forerunner of the Paralympics
Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann opened a spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Buckinghamshire, in 1944.
On the opening day of the 1948 Olympic Games, he organised the first competition for wheelchair athletes at the hospital called the Stoke Mandeville Games, where 16 injured men and women competed in an archery event.
That was the day the Paralympic Movement was born.
12. The games witnessed the first political defection
At the end of the games, Marie Provazníková, the Czech President of the International Gymnastics Federation and organiser of the Czechoslavak women’s gymnastic team which won Gold, announced she would remain in Britain.
There had been a coup in Czechoslovakia a few months earlier, and the country had become part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. As a result, gymnastic clubs in Czechoslovakia, traditionally liberal and democratic, would now be replaced by Communist sports festivals.
Unable to accept such a lack of freedom, Provazníková defected.
Written by Nicky Hughes