The Austerity Games: Celebrating 75 years since London 1948

Athletes caught the tube to their events, slept in school halls and sewed their own uniforms - this was the Olympics but not as you know it.

Ravaged and scarred by the war, London's streets were still paved with gold when they welcomed the world to the 1948 Austerity Games.

There was just over 1,000 days between VE Day and the Opening Ceremony – a sporting celebration that delivered on every level against all the odds.

Forget the ten years London 2012 had to bid and prepare for their moment, this Olympics was delivered at super-charged speed, with a postal vote of IOC members awarding the Games shortly after the end of conflict in Europe.

When modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin wrote his famous words about 'triumph and struggle' he could well have been talking about the Games of the XIV Olympiad, the first staged for 12 years.

Your Majesty: The hour has struck. A visionary dream has today become a glorious reality. At the end of the worldwide struggle in 1945, many institutions and associations were found to have withered and only the strongest had survived. How, many wondered, had the great Olympic Movement prospered?

- Lord David Burghley, 1928 Olympic gold medallist and Chairman of the 1948 Organising and Executive Committees, speaking at the Opening Ceremony

As we celebrate its 75-year anniversary, sepia-tinted memories of those Games come back into sharp focus.

There was a flame, the Olympic Rings and medals (minus ribbons to save costs) but little from back then would be really recognisable today.

Preparation camps and acclimatisation were alien words for members of Team GB, Jack Braughton worked the morning on a building site before grabbing the Underground to Wembley with fans to compete in the 5,000m heats.

These 'make-do-and-mend' Games – athletes were told to bring their own towels – was budgeted to cost £750,000 to stage and made a £30,000 profit.

Innovation was very much the order of the day and the London Games were the first-ever to be shown on home television, with an Olympic Broadcasting House set up at the Palace of the Arts at Wembley.

The Opening and Closing Ceremony, along with 60 hours of Games time footage, was broadcast to approximately half a million viewers in the London area, with figures showing at least one viewer in the Channel Islands.

Starting blocks for athletes in track sprint races were introduced for the very first time.

Olympic pictograms were also introduced for the first time, officially recognised as 'Olympic symbols'.

A record 59 nations competed – compared to the 206 in Tokyo. Many countries, including British Empire relics Burma and Ceylon but also Lebanon, Puerto Rico, Syria and Venezuela were represented for the first time.

Team GB featured more women than men for the first time ever in Japan but back in 1948 there were only 390 female athletes of any nationality amongst the 4,104 competitors.

No new venues were constructed, with Wembley hosting athletics and swimming under the shadow of its famous Twin Towers.

Athletes were housed in surrounding accommodation, with no specific Athletes Village.

Male competitors were held in RAF Camps and the Army camp in Richmond Park, whilst female competitors stayed in London colleges. The art competitions were held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, displaying works of art from 27 different countries.

Other locations included Herne Hill Velodrome (track cycling), Harringay Arena (basketball), Henley (rowing), Torquay (sailing).

The Empire Pool, now the OVO Arena Wembley, became the first covered Olympic pool in history. However, the venue exceeded it's 50m length and so a wooden platform was constructed to shorten it.

International stars of the Games included Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, dubbed 'The Flying Housewife', who bagged four golds and American decathlete Bob Mathias, who became the youngest man to win an Olympic title aged just 17.

However, these Games were about more than gold, silver and bronze but about returning the world to sporting normality, with fans long starved of action feasting on every moment.

Team GB was 404 athletes strong and finished 12th on the medal table with three golds, 14 silvers and six bronze medals.

Every team member was allowed extra portions in their ration book – with their calorie intake increased from a daily 2,500 to a 'miner's diet' of 3,600

Sprinter Sylvia Cheeseman even remembers eating unrationed whale meat for extra energy.

"Rationing was so hard on training," she recalls. "Whale meat was horrible but I was so intent on getting my protein that I ate it.”

High jumper Dorothy Tyler-Odam won silver at the 1936 Games in Berlin and the same medal 12 years later – the only woman to achieve that feat.

A proud island nation, Britain's major success came on the water – with two rowing golds at Henley and a sailing triumph out on the English Channel.

Dickie Burnell, whose father Charles won rowing gold at the 1908 London Games, and Dunkirk veteran Bert Bushnell triumphed in the double sculls – despite only training together for a month.

Team-mates Ran Laurie, father of actor Hugh, and Jack Wilson won the men's coxless pairs while David Bond and Stewart Morris took gold in sailing's Swallow class.

Bond had to take eight weeks unpaid leave to compete – and didn't even get a congratulations from his boss, the days of lottery funding a distant dream.

But these Games were certainly faithful to De Coubertin Olympic ideal that the important thing was not winning but taking part.

Sportsbeat 2023