1948 London Olympics Poster

When The Olympics Came To Richmond

62 years ago in 1948 Britain was in a situation very similar to today – flat broke, up to its neck in debt and with a very expensive Olympic Games to pay for.

This wasn’t the first time that the Olympic Games had come to Britain but it was the first time that they had come here as originally planned. In 1908 the Summer Olympics – the Games of the VI Olympiad – were scheduled to take place in Rome but on 7th April Mount Vesuvius erupted obliging the Italian government to move its cash and its attention to rebuilding Naples. London quickly stepped in and brought the games to Britain. Despite the lack of preparation the UK did rather well in the medal count winning three times as many as the USA who came second. (I should add, of course, that winning medals is not what it is all about. It is the taking part that is important. OK?)

bbc tv camera

In 1944 the Games of the XIII Olympiad were scheduled to take place in London but they were cancelled because of the 2nd World War. In 1948, with the war done and dusted the XIII Olympiad did finally make it to Britain with 59 nations competing in 136 different events. For “security reasons” neither Germany nor Japan were invited to take part but Italy who had surrendered to the Allies in 1943 were. They came fifth in the medal tally way ahead of the UK who came 12th. Viva Italia! The Russians were also invited but they decided to stay away.

Deeply in debt, with the newly founded Welfare State to finance and a war torn country to rebuild, the UK was in two minds about actually taking the Olympics. Could it afford to pay for all the facilities, stadia and accommodation that would be required? Could it afford not to? How was it to provide lodgings for over 4000 Olympic visitors with an adequate level of comfort and hospitality and at the same time met the demands of a nation, rationed to the hilt, who were demanding that bombed out homes, schools and factories be rebuilt? The answer to this dilemma was the same as faces us all today – austerity.

The government’s first decision was not to build any new facilities. Wembley Stadium had survived the war and that served as the main centre for the games. Other events were staged at other existing venues. Rowing took place at Henley, swimming, boxing and lacrosse at the Empire Pool, shooting at Bisley Camp, archery and diving at White City and the ‘All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’ at Wimbledon for tennis and rackets. Basketball and wrestling were staged at Haringey Arena and some of the football preliminaries took place at Griffin Park in Brentford.

To reduce the financial burden on the UK all participants were asked to bring with them their own food, towels and sportswear. The US team upset their fellow competitors by turning up with steaks, chocolate and real coffee, foodstuffs not seen in this country since 1939. Undismayed the UK government increased the food ration for the British athletes from the normal 2,600 calories a day to 5,467 calories, the same as given to manual workers like miners and dockers.

Another important decision was not to build an “Olympic village”. All visitors would be accommodated in existing facilities, the men at RAF bases at Uxbridge and West Drayton and a former Army camp in Richmond Park and the women in dormitories at three London colleges.

The Richmond Park visitors centre, a former wartime convalescent camp, was converted and updated to provide accommodation for 1,500 athletes. Although it was “simple but comfortable” it was far from luxurious. The athletes slept 3 or 4 to a room, with lino on the floor and the loo down the corridor. It did boast a cinema, a bank, a post office, a shop and a canteen serving “national dishes prepared in a spacious kitchen.” There was also an ornamental duck pond that started out as a static water tank…and would probably turn back into a static water tank in the event of a fire. To our ears this all sounds rather spartan but for those thousands left homeless after the war and still waiting for new homes to be built the camp in Richmond Park was a tempting Shangri La, some much so that guards were posted to prevent squatters moving in once the site was vacated.

For all the discomforts that the competitors must have experienced the London Olympics of 1948 was a popular and successful spectacle that provided the country and the world with a welcome break from the rationing and shortages and general deprivation of the time. Marie Provaznikova, the 57-year old Czechoslovakian President of the International Gymnastics Federation, certainly thought so. She refused to return home, citing “lack of freedom” after her country’s recent absorption into the Soviet Bloc. She went down into the record book as the first political defector since the modern International Olympics started in 1896. As for the other 3,714 men and 390 women who took part, they seemed to have had a good time as well…

Fanny Blankers-Koen

The Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen was nicknamed “The Flying Housewife”. The 30-year old mother of three children won four gold medals in athletics.

Bob Mathias

American Bob Mathias won the decathlon and became the youngest ever Olympic gold medallist at the age of 17. When asked how he would celebrate he replied: “I’ll start shaving, I guess”

Alice Coachman

Alice Coachman became the first black woman to win a gold medal in track and field in the history of the modern Olympics with a jump of 5’ 6 1/4". She also was the only American woman to win gold during the 1948 Olympics.

Karoly Takacs

Karoly Takacs had been a member of the Hungary’s world champion pistol shooting team in 1938 when a grenade shattered his right hand – his pistol hand. Takacs taught himself to shoot with his left hand and, 10 years after his injury, he won an Olympic gold medal in the rapid-fire pistol event.

This article was suggested by Mr Laurence Mann

— from Martyn Day