The Austerity Games: When the world came together again after VE Day
Games

The Austerity Games: When the world came together again after VE Day

08 May 2020 / 08:24

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.

London1948Hurdles

When Olympic founder Pierre de Courbetin 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.

As the nation celebrates today's landmark 75th VE Day 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.London1948TorchRelay

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.

A record 59 nations competed – compared to the 207 expected in Tokyo.

Team GB is expected to include more women than men for the first time ever in Japan but back in 1948 there were only 390 women athletes amongst the 4,104 competitors.

No new venues were constructed, with Wembley hosting athletics and swimming under the shadow of its famous Twin Towers.London1948TomRichards

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.London1948WilsonLaurie

Sprinter Sylvia Cheeseman, who turns 91 later this month, 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.London1948Gymnastics

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 Courbetin’s Olympic ideal that the important thing was not winning but taking part.

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