July 26, 2010


When London last staged the Olympics in 1948, money was so tight, athletes slept in military huts and leftover food went to local hospitals. There was no showpiece stadium or aquatic centre, no sleek athletes' village smelling of fresh paint and new upholstery.

London's 1948 Olympics instead had to make do and mend, just as the country had done during World War II - was still doing, in fact, as food, clothing, construction materials and petrol were rationed. The city was a bomb site, many of its buildings pockmarked or toppled in the Blitz, the rubble simply brushed into piles.

Organised in less than two years and with a budget of £730,000, it was a pared-down and practical affair. Medals were made of oxidised silver instead of gold. And because of food rationing, competing countries contributed provisions. "The Dutch sent over 100 tons of fruit and vegetables for all the teams. Denmark gave 160,000 eggs. Czechoslovakia gave 20,000 mineral water bottles," recalled Olympic librarian Sandy Duncan in a documentary on the BBC Archive website.

"We let everyone know we couldn't build anything new. We could improve the facilities that existed in London and elsewhere, but we could do no more."

It was the first summer Olympics to be held in 12 years, the last being the 1936 Games in Berlin, used by Hitler for propaganda purposes. The 1940 and 1944 events were cancelled as war ravaged Europe and the Pacific.

Athletics took place at Wembley, then the Empire stadium, a venue already 24 years old. To cater for human, rather than greyhound racers, its track was relaid with cinder shortly before the opening ceremony. At the nearby Empire Pool, the black-out paint on the windows - which prevented light spilling out during wartime air raids - had to be scraped off before it could stage the aquatic events. Boxers shared the venue, with a ring erected over the water.

With accommodation in short supply due to wartime bombs, male athletes were billeted in private homes and at former military camps such as the Army convalescent centre in Richmond Park. For the women, space was found in nursing and college dorms. Bed linen and blankets were provided, but athletes had to bring their own towels.

To save money on food and accommodation - on which organisers spent a total of £164,644 - local athletes stayed at home. Star hurdler Maureen Gardener, who won silver, travelled by Tube between her home in Snaresbrook and Wembley stadium. Fellow commuters recognised her, and encouraged her to stretch out across the seats to rest. British athletes had to make or buy their own uniforms, although one sponsor provided the men with free Y-fronts, with 600 pairs given out in all.

The opening ceremony itself - "one of the most impressive ceremonies ever televised," said the Radio Times - was a modest affair, with a trumpet fanfare, 21-gun salute and the release of several thousand homing pigeons. But the cannons were held up in traffic and only arrived in the nick of time. As for the pigeons, held in trackside cages for several days, half had expired in the heat.

As the athletes picnicked outside, national differences were thrown into stark relief. The British team had extra rations and food parcels from Australia, but the Americans had fresh fruit, meat and bread flown in daily.

"As the procession moved off, we found this picnic area where the Americans had been," recalled Gwen Dance, who worked nearby. "And there we found what they had left. Huge cheeses, huge hams, sweets, cookies, you name it, it was there. For the first time in my life, I became a scavenger."

Adorning the stadium was a sign quoting Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founding father of the modern Olympics: "The important thing is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." - Megan Lane, BBC.
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