London 1948: The Olympic Spirit Burns Again
Okay last week I took you way back to the first time London hosted an Olympic Games back in 1908. The second time London hosted was back in 1948. I don’t know if you have seen film footage of past Olympic Games but I have seen mostly through Bud Greenspan’s The Olympiad series and I have to say the London Games of 1948 were definitely a Games to remember for all the right reasons. It brought athletes from around the world back into an arena, brought athletic achievement back into the spotlight and even gave the world a heroine.
WAR IS OVER
One thing we should remember is that these Olympic Games were the first Olymmpic Games in twelve years and they were staged just three years after World War II ended. When World War I happened, the 1916 Olympics scheduled for Berlin were cancelled. World War II would lead to the cancellations of the Tokyo Games of 1940 and the London Games of 1944. The last Summer Olympics held before these London Games were held back in 1936 in Berlin and they were most memorable for showcasing the Nazi ideology that would eventually lead to the start of World War II. As the London Games were about to begin, most of the world was still trying to recover from the war. These Games were to be dubbed the ‘Austerity Games’ because of such. Europe was especially devastated during wartime and the UK was still giving out food rations at the time. Even though the Olympics were intended to bring together the countries of the world, wounds from World War II were not fully healed. As a result, Germany and Japan were not invited to these Games. The USSR was invited but declined.
As for staging the events, there was no way to afford new facilities. All events were staged in existing venues. The 25 year-old Wembley Stadium hosted the athletics competitions, equestrian events, hockey and football tournaments and the ceremonies. The well-established Henley Regatta hosted the rowing and canoeing events. Empire Pool, originally built for the 1934 Empire Games, hosted the aquatic events and boxing finals. The 11 year-old Empress Hall Earl’s Court hosted gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling and boxing preliminaries. The track cycling events were held at the Herne Hill Velodrome built in 1891. Basketball was held at the Harringay Arena built in 1936. Sailing events were held in Torquay, a town in Southwest England on the English Channel. As for athlete accommodations, there was no Olympic Village constructed and athletes were housed in existing accommodations instead. Male athletes stayed at RAF camps in nearby cities and female athletes were housed in London college dorms. Athletes were also subject to the food rations. Actually athletes were given increased rations: the same amount as dockers and miners. BBC was to broadcast a total of 60 hours of live broadcast of the Games. Broadcasting rights was a mere £1000.
As for the torch relay, the torch was lit in ancient Greece and was carried through Italy, Switzerland and France before arrived in England at Dover one day before the Opening Ceremonies.
The 1948 Olympic Games opened at 2pm on a sunny Saturday on July 29th. Army bands began the pageantry and the Royal Family arrived at 2:45pm. The parade of nations started around 3pm and lasted 50 minutes with 59 nations parading starting with Greece by tradition, the other nations marching in alphabetical order, and ending by tradition with the host nation Great Britain. Fourteen countries including Jamaica and Korea marched in the opening ceremonies for the first time. Each nation was obliged to bring their own flag to the ceremonies. Lord Burghley, president of the British Olympic Council who headed the organization of these Games, greeted the athletes to “keen but friendly rivalry” and said London represented a “warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low.” King George VI formally declared the Games open. 2,500 pigeons were released, symbolizing the doves of peace. The Olympic Flag was raised to a 35 ft. flagpole near the end of the stadium. The torch entered the stadium carried by 23 year-old British runner John Mark and was greeted by a 21-gun salute. Mark lit the Flame located inside the Wembley Stadium. The Olympic Oath was taken by 39 year-old hurdler Donald Findlay, a silver-medalist from 1936 who was able to make the British Olympic team that year. Then the athletes proceeded out of the stadium to the two weeks of competition.
The 1948 London Games delivered in terms of competition. 136 events were contested in seventeen sports. The USA–a country that was one of the least effected by World War II– was the top medal winner with 84 medals including 38 golds. Sweden won the second-most with 44 medals including 16 golds. France and Hungary both won ten gold medals each.
The competitions themselves featured a lot of excellent feats from athletes who would be remembered for all time. In athletics, Harrison Dillard was the surprise winner of the men’s 100m dash beating out his favored teammate Barney Ewell. Both would run in the 4*100 relay where the American team was originally disqualified for exchanging the baton outside the exchange zone but a film replay would reinstate their first-place finish. Arthur Wint won Jamaica’s first ever gold medal in the men’s 400m. American Mal Whitfield would win the first of his two consecutive 800m gold medals here. The legendary Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia would begin his legendary Olympic career with a win in the 10000m and a silver in the 5000m. Micheline Ostermeyer of France won the women’s shot put and discus. Sweden dominated the steeplechase and walks. High jumper Alice Coachman would become the first ever African-American woman to win Olympic gold. Bob Mathias won the first of his two consecutive decathlon gold medals here. His win here just a week before his 18th birthday would make him the youngest ever male gold medalist in track and field. However the two biggest moments of the athletics events will be discussed later in this blog.
In swimming all men’s events were won by Americans. Women’s swimming was divided between the Americans, Danes and Dutch. Diving was completely dominated by the Americans with Victoria Draves winning gold in both springboard and platform. The legendary Sammy Lee of the USA would win the first of his platform golds and a bronze in springboard.
Men’s gymnastics was won mostly by Finland. A unique moment occurred when three men–all Finnish–tied for first place in the men’s pommel horse. Thus three gold medals were awarded. There was only one single event for women in gymnastics: a team competition which Czechoslovakia won. The USA won no gold medals in boxing but a Hungarian boxer, Laszlo Papp, would win the first of his three career Olympic golds: the first of only three boxers to do so. Swedish kayaker Gert Frederiksen would win two gold medals here and would go on to an Olympic career of eight total medals, six of them gold. Equestrian events had the strongest showings from the Americans, French and the Mexicans. Hungarian fencer Ilona Elek–a Jewish survivor of World War II thanks to Raoul Wallenberg–became the only gold medalist from 1936 to repeat here in London. Sweden won in soccer. Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrom won the first of his four consecutive gold medals at Torquay. The Americans and Egyptians were the standouts in weightlifting while the Swedes and the Turks were the top winners in wrestling. And while there’s excitement over double-amputee Oscar Pistorius running in London this year, here at these Games Hungarian shooter Karoly Takacs won a gold medal with his left land after losing his right hand in a grenade blast ten years earlier.
For those of you that took an interest in all the discontinued events from the first London Olympics, the discontinued stuff isn’t as interesting as the ones back in 1908. All the sports contested at the London Games of 1948 are still contested at these London Games. There are some discontinued events. In athletics, the 10km road walk would be replaced by the 20km walk. The Star boat is the only one of the five sailing events from 1948 that’s contested in 2012. In rowing there were pairs and fours both with and without a coxwain while the only rowing event in 2012 with a coxwain is the eights event. Cycling had a tandem event and canoeing had three events over a distance of 10,000 metres.
As for the host country Great Britain, athletes won a total of 23 medals: the sixth-most of all countries at these Games. Their medal haul was their biggest since 1924 and most of their medals came in athletics, rowing, cycling and sailing. Their gold medal total of three was one of the lowest gold medal totals Britain has ever had and lower than the four won at the previous Olympics in Berlin. As for Canada, no Canadian athlete won a gold medal. These would be the second of only five Summer Olympics where Canada didn’t win a gold medal. Canada did win three medals: a bronze won by the women’s 4*100m relay team in athletics and both a silver and a bronze won in canoeing.
SIGNS OF A CHANGED WORLD
Even though these Olympics were meant to ease political barriers, it’s not to say these Games were immune to politics. Countries now governed under Communist regimes would compete in London for the first time and they would give the first signs of the changes of post-World War II politics. Back in February of that year, the Soviet allied ‘Czech coup’ led to Czechoslovakia’s inclusion into the Soviet bloc. Just after Czechoslovakia’s women’s gymnastics team won the gold medal, 57 year-old Marie Provaznikova, the Czechoslovakian president of the International Gymnastics Federation, refused to return home because: “there is no freedom of speech, of the press or of assembly.” Provaznikova made history as the first Olympic participant to defect. Defections during the Olympic Games would later be common over the decades of the Cold War.
MARATHON: THE LAST LAP AGAIN
Remember how back at the London Games of 1908 there was a dramatic last lap of the marathon? Well there would be another dramatic last lap again 40 years later. Two and a half hours after the start, the first runner into the stadium was Etienne Gailly of Belgium. Gailly was never a serious threat for a medal and he was quite inexperienced at running the marathon distance. He went out hard into the race under unusually hot and humid conditions. He held the lead for most of the race and was even first into Wembley Stadium but by the time he entered, he was visibly exhausted and stumbled as he ran. Delfo Cabrera of Argentina, running in his first marathon, entered the stadium second and passed Gailly en route to winning the gold medal. Third into the stadium was Britain’s Tom Richards. Gailly fell and Richards passed him to finish second. Gailly picked himself up again but fell along the homestretch. Gailly had made a promise to himself before the run that when he crosses the finish line, he will have a medal. Time was soon running out as South African Johannes Coleman was fourth into the stadium. Fortunately Gailly mustered enough energy to get up and beat Coleman to the bronze medal by 200 meters. A promise kept.
THE FLYING DUTCHWOMAN
Of all the performances that dazzled, there was one athlete that could truly be called the star of the Games. Back in 1935 a 17 year-old Francina Koen dreamed of competing in the Olympic Games as a swimmer. A swimming coach told her: “We have many great swimmers in Holland but no woman can run like you.” At his advice she chose track and it turned out to be the right decision. She would be coached by Jan Blankers and represented the Netherlands in track and field at the Berlin Games of 1936, finishing 6th in high jump and was part of the Netherlands’ 5th-place 4*100m relay. However the biggest highlight of those games was meeting four-time gold medalist Jesse Owens and getting his autograph. It would remain her most cherished possession.
After the 1936 Berlin Games, Fanny would soon become the top woman in track and field winning meets and setting world record. However World War II would cause the 1940 and 1944 Olympics to be cancelled. During the time in between she married Jan Blankers and would come to be known as Fanny Blankers-Koen. She continued training for the Olympics during the wartime. Even after she gave birth to two children, they would eventually become involved with her training regimen. Her athletic activity would help her and the Blankers family to thrive despite the harsh conditions of World War II. Despite it all, most people looked down upon Fanny for her training for sport instead of being a full-time housewife. We shouldn’t forget that woman athletes didn’t have a favorable impression at the time.
Fanny was one of the 390 female athletes competing in seven sports here in London: less than 10% of the total number of athletes at these Games. Here in London she was to compete in four events. She knew this would be her best chances for Olympic gold in her career as her peak years occurred during the cancelled Games of 1940 and 1944.
Her first event in London was the 100m dash. She easily won her heat and semi-final. She won the final in Olympic record time. Her second event was the 80m hurdles. At the finish of the final, it appeared that Fanny and British runner Maureen Gardner hit the tape together both in Olympic record time. The playing of God Save The King by the band let to further confusion. It was then revealed that Blankers-Koen won by inches and the playing of God Save The King was because King George VI and family entered the stadium. Then came to 200m. She won her heat but homesickness set in before the semifinal and she cried to her husband. Her husband Jan was sympathetic and reminded her if she continues on, she will equal Jesse Owens’ feat of four golds. She continued on and won the 200m with the widest margin in Olympic history. Then came the 4*100m relay to which Fanny was to run the anchor leg for the Netherlands. At the time Fanny took the baton, the Netherlands was in 3rd place but Fanny made up the distance by driving the Dutch team to victory. Like her idol Jesse Owens, Fanny won four gold medals: the first female athlete in Olympic history to do so in a single Games. She would later be dubbed the ‘Flying Housewife’ and ‘Mother Courage’. She still remains one of the best female athletes of all time, ranking her amongst the greats like Babe Didriksen and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. After the London Games, she returned to Amsterdam to a hero’s welcome even bigger than the celebrations at the end of World War II. Her feats were best summed up by one journalist: “Holland has won four gold medals in athletics and Fanny has been a part of them all.”
The 1948 Olympic Games closed in Wembley Stadium on August 14, 1948. 64 years have passed since these London Games but its importance has never withered over time. These Games took place twelve years after the last Olympic Games and a mere three years after World War II had ended. These Olympics showed that even years after such a brutal global war and even while many of the world’s nations–even Great Britain itself– were still trying to recover from the damage, the human spirit can triumph again in sports competition. They also showed that Baron de Coubertin’s dream of the world gathering together once again and competing harmoniously in friendly competition can be revived successfully.
It is because of this that the London Games of 1948 left its biggest legacy that is still admired today. I don’t know of any other Olympic Games that have been able to make such a significant statement. It is because of this that I consider the London Games of 1948 to be the best Summer Olympics ever. Not necessarily for the sake of the sports achievements or the level of competition, but what it meant for the world and for the Olympic movement. To think Lord Burghley declared at the Opening Ceremonies: “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?” These London Games showed the world how.
WIKIPEDIA: 1948 Summer Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Summer_Olympics>
WIKIPEDIA: Fanny Blankers-Koen. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Blankers-Koen>
WIKIPEDIA: Etienne Gailly. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etienne_Gailly>