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Explained: When Olympic Games brought cheer after a crisis in 1948

The current pandemic is considered the world’s biggest common challenge since World War II. In the aftermath of that, too, the 1948 London Olympics — and sports — helped the world bounce back, and played a morale-boosting role.

Written by Tushar Bhaduri | New Delhi | Updated: June 27, 2020 1:31:08 pm
olympics, tokyo olympics, olympics pandemic, olympics postponed, 2020 olympics, japan olympics, olympics 2021 Fanny Blankers-Koen won four golds at the London Games. (Source: olympic.org)

From initially insisting that the Olympics would be held on the originally stipulated dates with the usual pomp and pageantry, Japan had to agree to an unprecedented one-year postponement. And now with the Covid-19 pandemic refusing to go away anytime soon, the organisers have realised that the only way the Games may be held in 2021 could be if they are scaled down to keep costs and health hazards in check. This vision of a “simplified” Olympics – to use the description by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike – includes doing away with the one-year countdown to the revised Games, scheduled for July 23 to August 8 next year, scaling down of the opening and closing ceremonies, and reducing the number of spectators.

The organisers intend to test every athlete, coach, official and spectator. Also, the movement of everyone involved in the Games, in whatever capacity, is likely to be considerably restricted.

All these measures become all the more crucial as the International Olympic Committee has said the Games will not be postponed again, but will be cancelled if they are not held in July-August next year.

The 1948 precedent

The current pandemic is considered the world’s biggest common challenge since World War II. In the aftermath of that, too, the 1948 London Olympics — and sports — helped the world bounce back, and played a morale-boosting role. One key difference is that Tokyo had already made arrangements for a grand edition of the Games and will now have to scale them down, but London 1948 couldn’t afford the expenditure when the world was recovering from the war. Several parts of London were still wearing a dilapidated look from the bombings they had suffered. There was a shortage of most provisions and strict rationing of daily necessities for citizens.

In contrast to the Games Village set up at Tokyo Bay, the male athletes in 1948 were housed at Royal Air Force camps while the women stayed at colleges.

Also read | When a year is not long enough to ensure Tokyo Olympics’ hustle-and-bustle

As The Guardian writes: “Not only was there no new Olympic stadium, there was no new velodrome, aquatics centre or handball arena either. Nor was there a purpose-built Olympic village… The organisers laid on bedding but asked contestants to bring their own towels.”

They even converted Wembley into an athletics stadium by putting 800 tonnes of cinders over the greyhound track. No wonder the 1948 Olympics were called the ‘Austerity Games’. It was hard for even the British athletes to get the food they needed for optimal performance in their disciplines, which may partly explain the host country’s meagre haul of three gold, 14 silver and six bronze medals. Many teams brought their own food to the Games.

olympics, tokyo olympics, olympics pandemic, olympics postponed, 2020 olympics, japan olympics, olympics 2021 Japan had to agree to an unprecedented one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.

But the Games are today remembered for the feats of Fanny Blankers-Koen, the 30-year-old Dutch mother of two, who won four gold medals, and Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zatopek who took home the 10,000m gold.

For India, competing at the Olympics as an independent country for the first time, the highlight was their fourth successive hockey gold medal – that too defeating Britain, their erstwhile rulers, in their own backyard.

But the Games — featuring 59 countries, with defeated powers Japan and Germany kept out and the Soviet Union declining to participate — also brought people some relief amid their post-war struggles. The Guardian writes that the 1948 Olympics even managed a profit of almost £30,000, something unthinkable in the present age of ballooning budgets.

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Preparations compromised

Understandably, the state of battle-readiness that Olympic-bound athletes are expected to be in was lacking in the British team. For one, the equipment required for elite training was largely absent, and some of it was donated from overseas. The Guardian recalls that Canada gave a “couple of planks of springy pine” for the diving boards. According to olympic.org, Denmark donated 160,000 eggs and the Netherlands 100 tonnes of fresh fruit.

The Indian Express got in touch with katherinegreen.co.uk; Green in 2012 had got in touch with several of the then surviving British sportspersons from 1948. The source provided oral histories that highlight the situation back then. The project was done in the lead-up to the 2012 Games, when London hosted the Olympics again.

George Weedon, a British gymnast who finished well down the rankings, recalled that the training sessions didn’t quite resemble the competition that one was expected to face. “We didn’t have crash mats, only coconut mats. At the back of your mind, you didn’t go flat out because you just thought ‘Am I going to make it?’” Weedon told the project. He passed away in 2017.

Fellow gymnast Audrey Beever, then 15, remembers the facilities on offer: “It was the recovering process after the war, and there were no rooms available, no apparatus…” But there was an air of excitement among the people. “When we travelled to the various places where we had to rehearse, we used to have hordes of people running after us for autographs,” Beever told katherinegreen.co.uk.

British high jumper Dorothy Tyler-Odam is the only woman to win Olympic athletics medals before and after WWII. “My house got bombed. I eventually joined the air force (as a driver), because I didn’t want to do nothing. You are worrying about your husband, but you can’t worry all the time as there’s so much going on,” Dorothy told the project.

She appreciated the distraction that was provided by the 1948 Games. “It was like the sun coming out after the dark days of the war. It was so uplifting for everybody. We had to stay at downtown boarding houses. I do know that one Australian woman complained about the food and we were on rationing,” she said.

Takeaways for 2021

Today, the world is much more interconnected than it was in 1948. If the 2021 Olympics do take place, it will not be just about the sporting achievements. As Emil Zatopek had said at the end of the 1948 Games: “After all those dark days – the bombing, the killing, the starvation – the revival of the Olympic Games was as if the sun had come out… Suddenly there were no frontiers, no more barriers, just the people meeting together.”

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