Wrapping up the London Olympics...in 1948

London, 1948 – As these 1948 London Olympic Games come to a close, the Secretary of the United States Olympic Association, Asa Bushnell, declares the XIV Olympiad “a complete and satisfying success in all respects. The Olympic Games themselves – well conducted by Britain in face of severe handicaps created by various shortages in England – produced keen contests, friendly competition, and superb performances.”

This was the front cover of the official program of the 1948 London Games. This program is a part of the sports collections at NMAH. All of the images in this article were pages taken from this program.

This first post-war Olympics saw 59 countries send more than 5,000 athletes to the war torn city of London as it played host to the Olympic games for the second time. The London Games of 1908 were revolutionary—regulations for the athletes were identified for the first time and the status of the amateur athlete was truly defined. It was the British Olympic Council’s key role in the organization of the 1908 Games that brought the Games back to London in 1948, as it was the desire of King George VI “to heal his nation’s spirit” after six years of war.

With less than two years' planning, the focal point of these games was to bring nations together, but due to wartime expenses the government was still in dire financial straits. Hoping for a supplemental source of revenue, the government welcomed four significant commercial sponsors—Brylcreem, Coca-Cola, Guinness, and Craven A—to augment government funding in order for the games to proceed. While cigarette, soft drink, and beer companies may not have been the first choice of sponsors for an athletic event, the British government made do with what was readily available.

Guinness was one of the four major sponsors that the British government used in an effort to help subsidize the 1948 Olympic Games.

Although much of the country was in favor of hosting a second Olympic Games, many were reluctant to spend too much money on the games. The London Evening Standard reported, “A people which has had its housing program and its food import cut, and which is preparing for a winter battle of survival, may be forgiven for thinking that a full year of expensive preparation for the reception of an army of foreign athletes verges on the border of the excessive.” With economic constraints and rationing throughout Europe, the British Olympic Council was determined to execute the games as inexpensively as possible. Gymnastic equipment was borrowed from the Swiss and the Canadians donated planks of pine for the diving boards at Wembley’s indoor pool. Building materials were in short supply so no Olympic Village or new venues were constructed. Foreign athletes were housed in army barracks and college dormitories, and some of the English athletes made their own uniforms.

Large parts of London were still in ruins from the bombings of the war, and rubble strewn streets were a common sight. A welcome sign on Harrow Road read, “Welcome to the Olympic Games – This road is a danger zone.” The transportation system was limited as athletes were transported to events in buses or on ferries. The food supply was low as much of Europe was on the verge of starvation due to war ravaged fields and harsh winters. While countrywide rationing still existed, the food ration for the Olympic athletes was increased to the 2,600 calorie a day allotment given to “essential industry” workers, such as mineworkers.

Many English athletes supplemented their diet with whale meat as this was readily available and proved to be a good source of protein. The visiting Olympic teams brought their own food to help augment the rationing program and donated all surplus food to London hospitals after the Games were over. The Americans had flour sent over every 48 hours and were served 5,000 sirloin steaks and 15,000 chocolate bars during the Games. The Danes brought 160,000 eggs and the French brought over a refrigerated car laden with food for their athletes. Spectators to these games were expected to bring their own food as vendors were absent.

As the games opened, H.M. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Rt. Hon. Ernest Bevin, proclaimed, “I am particularly glad that it has been possible to organize the XIV Olympiad and to do it in spite of the world-wide dislocation and economic difficulties. It is of very great importance to the world that meetings of these international bodies should be resuscitated as speedily as possible. One of our great objectives is to get people to meet and to know each other and in this way to establish friendship between nations. You are coming to a country which has a traditional love of sport. It is the game that matters.”

This spirit was demonstrated by many of the European athletes who had been displaced by war and had little or no opportunity to train. Their mere participation in these Games was commendable. The United States dominated the medal count with 84 — 10 gold medals in track and field alone. When referring to 17 year old gold medal Decathlon winner Bob Mathias, Sir Roger Banister stated that “no English athlete could have possibly enjoyed sufficient nutrition to allow him to achieve such a feat at such a young age.” The Swedes also had great success as their neutrality during the war proved essential for the development and growth of their athletes.

The attendance record topped that of the 1936 Games and these 1948 Games proved to be an Olympics of firsts: it was the first time starting blocks were used in the track events, the first to use an indoor pool, the first to use a photo finish in a track event, and it was the first Olympics to be televised.

Wembley Pool, the first indoor pool venue used in an Olympic Games
Wembley Pool, the first indoor pool venue used in an Olympic Games.

As these games came to a close, the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, rang true, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Click to view a slideshow of more images from the 1948 Olympic Games official program.

Jane Rogers is an Associate Curator in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Culture and the Arts