A black and white image of a stadium grandstand full of spectators at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Olympic flags and those of competing countries fly overhead.
A brief introduction to Historic photography

12 Things to Know About the ‘Austerity Games’: The 1948 London Olympics

Find out more about the cash-strapped London Olympic Games of 1948.

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’.

A poster for the Olympic Games.
A 1948 London Olympic Games poster. Source: Creative Commons.

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.

A black and white photograph of a massive torch being lit.
British athlete John Mark lighting the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games. The relay of the Olympic flame was first performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to spread German influence internationally. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A black and white photograph on a postcard of a stadium.
A historic postcard of the former Empire Stadium, Wembley, with its famous twin towers, later known as Wembley Stadium. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A black and white photograph of a theatre with a sign reading 'EMPRESS HALL'.
Empress Hall in Earl’s Court, London, which was demolished in 1958. © Historic England Archive. CC47/01019.

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.

A black and white photograph of an indoor swimming pool.
The Empire Pool (now the Grade II listed Wembley Arena) was used for Olympic swimming and diving events. © Historic England Archive. CC47/00479.

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.

A black and white photograph of several female swimming athletes sitting beside a pool.
The Great British women’s Olympic swimming team, pictured the day before the opening ceremony. © Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum.

The Herne Hill Velodrome had fallen into disrepair after being used as a storage site for barrage balloons during the Second World War.

A black and white photograph of cyclists in a race.
The Olympic sprint semi-final at Herne Hill Velodrome in London. This is one of the oldest cycling tracks in the world, built in 1891 and is still in use today. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A photograph of an outdoor seating stand seen from the side, with a painted sign reading: '1948 - 2012'.
An uncovered grandstand at Herne Hill Velodrome, with a painted sign commemorating the stand’s construction for the 1948 Olympic Games. © Historic England Archive. PLA01/07/0011.

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.

A sepia photograph of buildings in a military camp.
Huts in Richmond Park were converted from a wartime military convalescent camp into the 1948 Olympic Village. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A black and white photograph of a person preparing beds.
Rooms being prepared for competitors at the Olympic Village. © Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum.

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.

A black and white photograph of cars and pedestrians on a road leading towards a stadium.
Spectators walking along the Olympic Way to watch events at Wembley Stadium. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A black and white photograph of a gymnast.
Helmut Bantz, a German pre-war gymnastic champion. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A black and white photograph of a female athlete running a race.
Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen, who held multiple world records before the Second World War, pictured winning the gold medal in the 100 metres. She transformed the image of women’s athletics. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A photograph of a magazine cover with a black and white photograph of athletes running a race.
The Olympic souvenir edition of Britain’s Picture Post magazine shows the American sprinter Harrison ‘Bones’ Dillard winning the gold medal in the 100 metres. Source: Nicky Hughes.

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.

A sepia photograph of a high jumper.
Alice Coachman wins the High Jump and breaks the Olympic record in 1948 with a jump of 5 feet 6 inches. © Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

A cartoon of pole vaulting.
A Punch cartoon with an advert for Coopers Y-front underwear. Every male British athlete was given a free pair. Source: Nicky Hughes.

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.

A black and white photograph of two footballers in a tackle.
The Olympic football final between Sweden and Yugoslavia at Wembley Stadium on 13 August 1948. Sweden won the gold medal by 3-1. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A black and white photograph of athletes running a race.
The photo-finish of the men’s 110-metre hurdles final, showing Harrison ‘Bones’ Dillard (pictured bottom right) winning the gold medal. Source: Nicky Hughes.

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.

A black and white photograph of an athlete.
Imre Németh from Hungary won a gold medal in the hammer-throwing contest. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A black and white photograph of a man giving a speech.
Neuro-surgeon Professor Sir Ludwig Guttman speaking at the inaugural Stoke Mandeville Games. Source: Public Domain.

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.

A photograph of a display of names.
The 1948 Olympic Rolls of Honour on display at Wembley Stadium. © Historic England Archive. PLA01/07/0014.

Written by Nicky Hughes

Further reading

3 comments on “12 Things to Know About the ‘Austerity Games’: The 1948 London Olympics

  1. Rachel Howard

    The English Heritage book on Olympic sites in Britain is available via LUP here:https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/book/10.3828/9781848020580.

  2. That was really interesting. I hadn’t heard about this event before and I think it’s great to bring these hitherto little known pieces of history to the fore. Excellent! 🙂

  3. David Bowyer

    I was born in 1947 so too young to appreciate the enormous impact that the ‘Austerity Games’ had on sport post WW2. Very interesting – thank you.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: