When London welcomed the world in times of gloom

As the English capital gears up to host the Olympics for the third time, the events of 1948 make interesting reading

When London welcomed the world in times of gloom

Come July 27, London will become the first city to host the Olympic Games for a third time. The first was in 1908, when the city hosted the Games of the fourth Olympiad.

The British gave a new direction to the Olympic movement then with their organisational skills. In 1948, London hosted the Games amid economic hardship, rationing and general gloom of post-war Britain.

London was originally scheduled to host the 1944 Games but they, along with those of 1940 in Tokyo — which were briefly switched to Helsinki — were cancelled because of World War Two.

With vast swathes of the city still a rubble-strewn bomb site, the entire nation desperately short of food and money and in the wake of one of the worst winters on record, London took on the 1948 burden and, with a predominantly volunteer organising committee, somehow planned and executed the Games in a little over 18 months.

"The social and economic condition of post-war Britain was enough to make any planner of an Olympic extravaganza give up in despair," said author Janie Hampton in her excellent 2008 book "The Austerity Olympics".

"(Yet) the 1948 Games were a true celebration of victory after dark times and one of the most inexpensive and unpretentious Olympiads of the 20th Century."

The 1948 Games cost a total of 732,268 pounds, around 20 million pounds ($32 million) at today's rates, and made a post-tax profit of 9,000 pounds. Viewed alongside the nine billion pounds total outlay for the 2012 Games, some of the figures from the meticulous balance sheet of 1948 make fascinating reading.

A mere 78,120 pounds was spent polishing up Wembley Stadium and the other venues, just 3,638 pounds went on "entertainment and hospitality", while office furniture cost 405 pounds.


Competitors were provided with bed linen but were expected to bring their own towels — or hire them upon arrival. British athletes had to buy or make their own shorts — though every man in the team was provided with one free pair of underpants courtesy of a local outfitter.

Ticket prices ranged from two shillings (around seven pounds today) for some of the more obscure events and venues to 10 times that for the rowing at Henley.

Although the Games of 1932 in Los Angeles and 1936 in Berlin had provided purpose-built athletes' villages, that was never going to happen in a city where every available builder and piece of material was still being directed towards replacing the hundreds of thousands of buildings destroyed in the Blitz.

Instead, the athletes were dotted around the capital in accommodation varying widely in type and condition. Richmond Park, on the route for the 2012 cycling road race, still boasted a huge pre-war army camp of wooden huts and that became home to more than 2,000 competitors of various nationalities.

Among the 30-odd venues were hostels, military barracks and schools, where desks were simply replaced with beds. The British women's swimming team were housed on the eighth floor of an office block - with a broken lift. However men and women who had lived through the deprivation of the war years, many of whom had seen active service, were not about to complain about the comfort of the bedding.

The multi-national nature of the living arrangements helped to build camaraderie and establish cross-border friendships unknown to most in pre-war Britain, many of which lasted a lifetime.

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