When the opening ceremony lights up the sky on July 27, London will become the first city in the modern world to host three Olympic Games. Last time, amid the rubble of World War II, it was a very different world looking on
Nobody had any money, and not much to eat, but the Games were very exciting for London,” remembers Gez Mould.
“They were held during the school holidays, and lots of athletes were accommodated at my school, so we used to hang around to get their autographs. Our area was full of bomb sites, where buildings had been destroyed; the whole country was wrecked and trying to recover, and the Games gave people some hope.”
Mould was aged 14 last time the Olympics came to the capital on July 29, 1948. He lived four miles from the Empire Stadium in Wembley, where the greyhound track around the football pitch had been hastily converted into a running track made of crushed cinders from household fireplaces. Road access to the stadium was built with wheelbarrows and shovels by German prisoners of war.
“My school had a grass track for the athletes to train on,” Mould recalls. “There was a kitchen and primitive showers, and they moved bunk beds into the classrooms for the athletes. They were all men – the women were somewhere a long way away. The beds came from air-raid shelters down in the underground stations during the war – the platforms used to be lined with beds. They used old Army lorries to ferry the athletes to Wembley.”
“I had just started cross-country and was getting interested in running, but we couldn’t afford to go to the Games, even though they were supposed to be cheap. Down our road, there was one lady who had a nine-inch black and white TV, and she got all the children into her house to watch. So I saw [Emil] Zátopek, and Harrison Dillard win the 100m, and Mel Whitfield against Arthur Wint in the 800m. It was exciting after all the blackouts and bombings.”
The war may have ended, but the world and the Games still had to survive a time of dour austerity. Food was rationed to 2,600kcal a day, which was increased for the selected British team just a few days before the Games to an allowance of 3,900kcal.
Visiting teams brought donations – Denmark brought eggs, China oiled bamboo shoots, New Zealand condensed milk and mutton fat. America brought 15,000 bars of chocolate, something children like Mould hadn’t tasted for eight years.
Times were hard, but the British public rose to the occasion. “During our whole stay people knocked themselves out to make us welcome,” said US team nurse Dorothy Whitley in her account of the Games.
“When we saw the enthusiasm, we changed our minds about the blasé English. They sweated out some of the hottest days on record, and then stood dripping wet in the rain to see the greatest sportsmen of the world perform.”
It was a time of patriotism and hope, overlying deep relief that the war was over. As the British team entered the stadium for the opening ceremony, a member of the diving team reported that the burly 6ft 4in wrestler marching next to him had “tears running down his cheeks. There was this amazing roar. We wept our way round the stadium. It was the emotion after the war.”
Through the deprivation, the athletes, organisers and fans were forging a new world, and not always in ways they understood at the time. A Dutch athlete in a white blouse and orange shorts showed that a woman – and a mother – could be an Olympic star.
Fanny Blankers-Koen won gold in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay. The rules inexplicably prohibited entering more than three individual events, although she was also world record-holder in the high jump and long jump.
Changing the world
Another sign of things to come was Zátopek’s 48-second victory margin in the 10,000m. Contorted and rolling, the ‘Czech locomotive’ lapped almost the entire field. As the crowd chanted “Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek!”, they were watching something historic. From that moment, no distance medals would be won without the intense training and commitment that Zátopek, in those still-amateur days, inspired runners all over the world to adopt. The old notion of ‘no running in winter’ and fear of ‘going stale’ were scattered among the grains of cinder that Zátopek’s spikes flung behind him.
In the marathon, Belgium’s Etienne Gailly – a good cross-country runner but marathon novice – had a lead of 41 seconds at halfway, lost it, but remarkably hung in and finally surged to the front again. He entered the stadium first, but so exhausted he was barely jogging, and was overtaken by Argentina’s Delfo Cabrera and Britain’s Tom Richards.
The message was that marathons would now go to runners with track speed and performances. Cabrera had won national titles from 1500m up. The next two Olympic champions – Zátopek and Alain Mimoun – both medalled on the track in London.
Overall, the 1948 Games were a major communal achievement, cobbled together on a shoestring budget at two years’ notice, the first sports festival for a traumatised world. Sometimes, sport enables the world to rise above its problems, as happened in 1948. If a 14-year-old boy looks back in 64 years’ time and remembers it doing so again this summer, that may matter more than who wins the medals.