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The Austerity Olympics

Seventy years ago this summer, war-battered Britain stepped in audaciously to host the 1948 Olympic Games. Barry McLoughlin looks back at London’s ‘shoestring Olympics’

Everyone remembers the London Olympics of 2012… a triumph for British sport and culture, with their captivating opening ceremony and the stunning success of our athletes garlanded with almost 30 gold medals. Less well-remembered are the London Olympics 64 years earlier which were a triumph, too, in their own, much smaller way.

Seventy years ago this summer, Britain came to the aid of the international sporting community to stage the summer 1948 Games – ‘the XIV Olympiad of the Modern Era’.

After a 12-year gap because of the war, these were the first Summer Games since the notorious Berlin Olympics in 1936, and Britain was called on at short notice to fill the breach.

This, though, was a grey Britain battered by six years of total war, struggling with a near-bankrupt economy, rationing and a soaring national debt, and yet also building a Welfare State including the NHS – so spectacularly celebrated in Danny Boyle’s 2012 opening ceremony.

The NHS, subject of a Choice feature last month, was launched less than a month before George VI opened the Games. It was the second time London had hosted the Olympics, having also been the venue in 1908.

In the build-up to London 2012, some commentators were describing it as the ‘Austerity Games’, after the recession following the 2008 financial crash, but a look at the facts shows that the comparison to 1948 was far-fetched.

There were superficial similarities but they were nothing compared with the extent of the challenge facing the organisers three years after the end of the Second World War.

Running from July 29 to August 14, these were the true ‘Austerity Olympics’, put together on a shoestring budget in makeshift venues with a make-do-and mend philosophy.

And despite its down-at-heel air, London 1948 was considered a remarkable success, helping dispel some of the mood of post-war austerity – and it made a profit of almost £30,000 But what a contrast with the slick, multi-billion pound operation of summer 2012, with its global TV coverage, state-of-the-art venues and highly paid superstar sportsmen and women.

In an era before rampant sporting commercialism, the 1948 TV rights were sold to the BBC for £1000.

About half a million viewers, mainly around the London area, watched 64 hours of Olympic coverage. In 2012, an estimated audience of four billion saw around 5000 hours of live programming.

If you wanted to see the Games in person, you could watch the athletics at Wembley with a standing ticket for 3s 6d (17.5p); at the time the average UK wage was less than £10 a week. In 2012, seats for top events at the Olympic Stadium cost from £50 to £700, though prices for some sports were as low as £20 – and the marathon and road cycling were free.

The final bill for the 2012 Games was £8.75bn, almost equivalent to Britain’s Gross Domestic Product in 1948.

By contrast, the cash-strapped postwar Labour government led by Clement Attlee, which at one stage had considered ceding the right to hold the Games to the USA, earmarked just under £750,000 for the 1948 Olympics. Even taking inflation into account, the disparity in spending between the 1948 and 2012 Games was jaw-dropping.

There was even debate over whether a sports festival should take place at all, at a time when many countries were still recovering from the wartime destruction, but the 1948 Olympics were judged to have provided much-needed relief for a demoralised population after years of conflict.

Defeated Germany and Japan were not invited to compete. The Soviet Union also did not participate, but the Games were the first to be attended by communist countries.

The Olympics’ return to London in 2012 made it the only city to host the Summer Games three times.

The London Games lacked the new facilities that had been used previously in Los Angeles and Berlin, but the capital’s sports arenas had, surprisingly, survived the wartime bombing in reasonable condition and were adequate for Olympic competition, though they wouldn’t have met the exacting standards of today’s professional athletes.

The Empire Stadium, Wembley, as it was still known, hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, the track-and-field competition, and some other events. There was no Olympic Village; the athletes were housed in military camps and colleges.

More than 4000 athletes from 59 countries participated in nearly 20 sports. (In 2012, more than 200 nations took part.)

Bad weather and a sloppy track slowed the track-and-field competition, in which the fewest Olympic records were set in the history of the Games.

The women’s competition was expanded to ten events with the addition of the 200-metre sprint, the long jump and the shot put.

The United States won the most medals, 84, and the most golds, 38. The hosts won 23 medals, three of them gold.

Sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of two from Holland – predictably dubbed ‘The ‘Flying Housewife’ – was the standout star of the Games, with four golds. Although she was the world record holder in high jump and long jump, she didn’t compete in these events, confining her triumphs to the track.

Another future giant of athletics, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia – one of the participating communist nations – won the 10,000 metres, the first of four gold medals in his career. Nicknamed the ‘Czech Locomotive’, Zatopek was famous for his rigorous training regime – which gave him a capacity for sustained speed – and his hunched running style.

Bob Mathias of the USA became the youngest gold medallist, in the decathlon, at the age of just 17 – just four months after taking up the sport.

Americans also dominated in the pool, monopolising gold in the men’s swimming and diving events.

The most individual medals were won by Veikko Huhtanen of Finland who took three golds, a silver and a bronze in the men’s gymnastics.

However, surely the most heroic gold medallist was Hungarian pistol-shooter Karoly Takacs. Ten years earlier, his right hand had been shattered by a grenade, and he taught himself to shoot with his left.

A cut-price Olympics

When Britain had first hosted the Games 40 years earlier, in 1908, we had still been an imperial power (although already in decline), the economy was relatively solid and the pound was powerful.

In 1948, by contrast, Britain’s infrastructure was crumbling, pockmarked by bomb sites and burned-out buildings. However, other European countries were in an even worse state and London agreed to host the first Games since Hitler’s carefully orchestrated Berlin Olympics 12 years earlier.

After his landslide election victory three years earlier, Prime Minster Clement Attlee and his reforming Labour government were setting up a Welfare State that would change war-ravaged Britain irrevocably.

Unlike the modern Games, the 1948 edition was relatively low-key: the highlight of the opening ceremony was the release of thousands of pigeons above north London. Not only was there no new Olympic stadium, there was no purpose-built velodrome or swimming pool (the Empire Pool at Wembley was used).

Wembley Stadium itself was converted into an athletics stadium by putting 800 tonnes of cinders over the greyhound track.

Instead of a specially built Olympic Village, RAF camps at Uxbridge and West Drayton were prepared to accommodate 1700 male competitors and 800 officials, while the women stayed at Southlands College in Wandsworth.

The RAF buildings were improved ready for July 1 when they would be officially handed over to the Olympic authorities. The Air Ministry was happy to take the opportunity of upgrading the rather austere accommodation to postwar standards. London-based athletes, meanwhile, were asked to stay at home and commute in.

Organisers provided bedding but asked contestants to bring their own towels. One concession to the UK team was that their rations were increased during the Games so that they were equivalent to those of a worker in heavy industry.

Many teams brought in their own food and, in the case of the French, their own wine as well. With the ‘Iron Chancellor’ Sir Stafford Cripps holding the Treasury’s purse-strings, the government was determined to keep costs down. It scrounged gymnastic equipment, food and mineral water from other governments. The Canadians even donated a couple of planks of springy pine for the diving boards at the Empire Pool.

After several years with little professional football or cricket, there was an appetite for top-level sport, and the Games were largely faithful to the Olympian ideal that it was all about the taking part, not the winning. Spending came in under-budget at £732,000, with income of £762,000. While the taxpayer is still footing the bill for London 2012, a healthy £9000 of the £30,000 profit from the 1948 Games went to a grateful Chancellor.

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