Looking At Britain’s Real Austerity Olympics: 1948
When London hosted the Olympics in 1948, organizers did it on the cheap – and they made no apologies about it.
“We talk about austerity now, but it isn’t anything like right after the war,” said Janie Hampton, who recounted the joy and sacrifice of athletes in “The Austerity Olympics.” “They had to buy their own shoes, their own kit (clothing).”
The 1948 Games have been recalled often as the global banking crisis and the European debt crisis dogged the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics. As pressures build on Britain’s government to stay within its £9.3bn budget for the games, historians note that London in 1948 spent £730,000 – roughly £20m in today’s money, Hampton said.
But 1948 was a different, more innocent time. Britain’s ability to stage an Olympics before wartime food rationing had ended says a lot about how the UK has often risen from impossible circumstances, banking on grit to make up for what it may lack in luster.
England was only barely ready for the Olympics in 1948, coming so soon after World War II. London itself was dotted by rubble. Milk and meat were luxuries.
“Nobody had cars. Nobody had television. Nobody had traveled,” Hampton said. “It was real austerity.”
Mindful of the scarcities, the Americans flew in steaks and fruit; the French red wine.
But the cash-strapped Brits attempted to make up in goodwill and chutzpah for what they lacked in funds. In interviews with The Associated Press, many athletes who took part recalled those games warmly, not because of the facilities or even the competition, but because of the hospitality of people who had so little themselves.
“I admired the spirit of the people in London,” said diver Sammy Lee, a gold medalist in 1948. “What got me, it was (people asking), ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’”
World War II forced the cancellation of the games in 1940 and again in 1944. But the nearly bankrupt British government agreed to support the games, in part hoping for the hard currency the tourists would bring in.
Distinguished former athletes stepped up to organize, including Harold Abrahams, whose victory in the 100 meters in the 1924 Paris Games became the subject of the Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire.
With no money to build new stadiums, the organizing committee identified structures that hadn’t been bombed that could be transformed into venues. Wembley Stadium, the showpiece for the ceremonies, had to be converted from a greyhound racing track.
There was no athletes’ village for the 1948 Olympics: Competitors stayed in private homes, classrooms and summer camps.
Torchbearers received instructions on how to carry the Olympic flame by reading directions pasted on the side.
John Peake, 87, who played field hockey for Britain, recalls being put up in a military barracks in Uxbridge – 18 miles away. Although the accommodations were hardly luxurious, he remembers getting eggs for breakfast, which was so unusual at the time it was considered exciting.
“Sometimes people ask what it was like,” he said. “It might have been rough, all things considered. But it was improving.”
Many had wondered whether the Olympic movement would continue at all. The war had decimated many countries and much goodwill. The final event before the war – the Nazi-themed 1936 Berlin Games – tarnished most memories of the sporting competition.
London had to give people inspiration – and make the public forget the past. But expectations at the time were very different.
“I don’t think there was any razzmatazz that there is now,” Peake said as he recalled marching into the stadium. “We were the last ones in. We were being boiled in the sun what felt like hours. When everyone was assembled, then of course the torch comes around. That was extraordinarily special. It was really, very great.”
London was the Olympics of Fanny Blankers-Koen, the 32-year-old Dutch mother who won four gold medals after being dismissed by many as too old. Czech distance great Emil Zatopek took gold in the 10,000 meters. Bob Mathias, a 17-year-old from Tulare, California, became the youngest decathlon gold medalist.
Many athletes, having waited out the war, couldn’t wait for their chance to compete. Lee, who spent the war in the military studying medicine, tried out for the team after seeing a poster recruiting potential athletes.
But when he stood on the platform to dive, the sun started to shine – and it was brighter than the water. He had flubbed a dive previously in a similar situation and kept saying to himself “don’t mistake the water for the sky” – an error that would ruin the timing of his dive.
“For 16 years, I’d waited for this moment,” he said. “I was tingling all over. … and for the second time in history, a man walked on water.”
He won gold.
Lee, 91, who lives in Huntington Harbor, California, plans to return to London this summer. And he won’t be alone. Several athletes who competed in London in 1948 will be coming back – anxious to see the city that holds so many memories.
“I’m coming for the diving,” he said eagerly.
This time, he’ll be inside, watching at the swim stadium, a sweeping wavelike building designed to international accolades by architect Zaha Hadid. Lee won’t have to worry about the sun, but he’ll be free to remember the moment he walked on water.
– By Danica Kirka