Alan Mills – XIV Olympiad

olympic undiesAs Britain and particularly Yorkshire bask in the glow of a successful Olympic Games, it made me think of the last time the games were held in London.

Some people tried to call these (2012)  Olympic Games the austerity games but really, for things been done on a budget, it can’t compete with the post-war 1948 games.

Originally it was planned for 1944 but the war interrupted all that, so when The XIV Olympiad was officially opened on 29th July by King George VI, it was the culmination of less than two years of planning as opposed to the seven years or so this time round.
The opening ceremony began at two in the afternoon with various military bands welcoming the Olympic dignitaries who were followed by the King and his daughter Elizabeth and about half an hour later the competitors entered the fray, there were just over 4000 from 59 countries as opposed to 10,500 from 204 countries this time round. After that a few thousand pigeons were released and the last runner of the torch relay lit the flame. No dancing nurses or parachuting royalty but it still set the scene for two weeks of spectacular sport, fair play and “a warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low.” (David Burghley opening speech)
Then, like now, the organising ‘face’ was a former Olympic Gold Medalist, David Burghley a 400m hurdles winner in Amsterdam in 1928, who ironically, like Seb Coe was also a Conservative MP. There were no stadiums or arenas built for 1948, it was very much a case of make do and mend. A cinder running track was laid at Wembley Stadium and the Empire Pool was used for swimming although it was a little too long for Olympic standard so a platform was erected so it was the correct 50-metres. When the swimming was finished, scaffolding was erected and a boxing ring built over the still full swimming pool. Don’t forget the country was still under rationing, not only for food but fuel and some building supplies. London had suffered some heavy bombing only a few years previously and it had been more of a case of clearing the debris rather than building new. So there was no Olympic Village and the athletes had to make do with various military camps and local colleges.

As the aggressors in the preceding war, both Germany and Japan were excluded from the games, the Soviet Union chose to give it a miss and only Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland represented the Eastern Bloc. The Republic of China sent 31 competitors but didn’t achieve any medals. Then as now, the USA came out on top with Sweden finishing as runners up. Britain finished twelfth with three gold medals although we won 23 medals in all, which wasn’t a bad return considering the devastation the war had caused.
The radio, cinema and newspapers kept us up to date with what was happening, TV was still in it’s infancy although the BBC did pay the princely sum of about £1000 to show about 60 hours of the games, not bad going for the times although nothing compared to the wall to wall footage this time round.
If Usain Bolt was the star of the show this time round, who was the star in 1948? I give you Fanny Blankers-Koen, a thirty year old Dutch runner and a mother of two who was nicknamed the ‘Flying Housewife’ after winning 4 golds. As far as I can remember the only Yorkshire winner was cyclist Gordon Thomas from Shipley who won silver in the team road race.
The cost in 1948 was a paltry £750,000 which translates into £110 million in todays money and it actually made a profit of about £30,000. I wouldn’t like to even guess the total cost this time round and despite all the commercial money involved I would guess we’ll be told for years to come it was more about legacy.
Back then the legacy was more simple, it was just an attempt to get back to normal and become an international community again, which in effect it was successful but funnily enough, the Olympics still played second fiddle to the Ashes tour in the same summer, something unthinkable now.

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