Remembering the 1948 London Olympics
As a successful 2012 Olympics winds to a close, it may be worthwhile remembering that London’s path to hosting the world’s most important sports event was not a smooth one. Local politicians complained about the city’s inadequate security measures, commuters griped about the influx of tourists in their already busy city, and petty arguments arose over the corporate sponsorship. The Olympics also took place in the context of a weakening European economy, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the constant threat of terrorism.
But it might also help to remember the last time the city hosted the Olympics and the words that were broadcast at Wembley Stadium to begin the 1948 games: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." In 1948, amidst the still smoking ruins of World War II, London was preparing to host its second Olympic Games. They were called the “Austerity Olympics” and for good reason. Just 59 countries participated in 17 sports, and the budget for the event was a meager £600,000. No new facilities were built. Wembley Stadium, still largely intact, hosted the ceremonies and most athletes were housed in military barracks or college dormitories. London’s famous red double decker busses and designated military vehicles shuttled athletes and spectators between venues, weaving through the rubble that still cluttered the city’s streets. In addition, rationing was still in effect, which meant that there was no catering service. Athletes were given the rations of ‘essential’ workers and spectators brought their own food. Despite such hardship, when the hands of Big Ben struck 4 pm on a sunny day in July, King George VI declared the games open. Moving ahead to 2012, austerity was far from people minds as London hosted its third Olympics.
Despite the country’s current economic woes, the contrast with 1948 could not have been more drastic. 204 countries competed for medals in 26 sports, with the original budget for the games approximately £9.3 billion and security alone believed to have cost at least £600 million. As opposed to rubble and rations, there were neat and tidy Olympic Lanes meant to transport athletes and VIPs to events, a brand new sustainable Olympic village and Olympic Park, and a high speed train aptly named the Olympic Javelin to transport spectators. Each of the 3,300 apartments in the Olympic village featured a television, Internet access, and a private courtyard, and there was a dining hall that could cater to 5,500 athletes at a time.
If anything, the Olympics teach us resilience, that we can fall down and get back up, that regardless of the obstacles we can finish the race. It’s an idealistic view that the 1948 Olympics captured perfectly. At the opening ceremonies, organizing committee chairman Lord Burghley asked, “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?” He answered the question himself, declaring the games to be a “warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low.” Lord Burghley’s words – it seems – may be just as applicable to the 2012 games.
Jessica Hirsch is Program Assistant with the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.