When the Olympics came to Richmond
64 years ago, in 1948, Britain was in a situation very similar to today – flat broke, up to its neck in debt and with a very expensive Olympic Games to pay for.
This wasn’t the first time that the Olympic Games had come to Britain but it was the first time that they had come here as originally planned. In 1908 the Summer Olympics – the Games of the VI Olympiad – were scheduled to take place in Rome but on 7th April of that year Mount Vesuvius erupted obliging the Italian government to move its cash and its attention to rebuilding Naples. London quickly stepped in and brought the games to Britain. Despite the lack of preparation the UK did rather well in the medal count winning three times as many as the USA who came second. (I should add, of course, that winning medals is not what it is all about. It is the taking part that is important. O.K?)
In 1944 the Games of the XIII Olympiad were scheduled to take place in London but they were cancelled because of the 2nd World War. In 1948, with the war done and dusted the XIV Olympiad did finally make it to Britain with 59 nations competing in 136 different events. For “security reasons” neither Germany nor Japan were invited to take part but Italy who had surrendered to the Allies in 1943 were. They came fifth in the medal tally way ahead of the UK who came 12th. Viva Italia! The Russians were also invited but they decided to stay away.
Deeply in debt, with the newly founded Welfare State to finance and a war torn country to rebuild, the UK was in two minds about actually taking the Olympics. Could it afford to pay for all the facilities, stadia and accommodation that would be required? Could it afford not to? How was it to provide lodgings for over 4000 Olympic visitors with an adequate level of comfort and hospitality and at the same time met the demands of a nation, rationed to the hilt, who were demanding that bombed out homes, schools and factories be rebuilt? The answer to this dilemma was the same as faces us all today – austerity.
The government’s first decision was not to build any new facilities. Wembley Stadium had survived the war and that served as the main centre for the games. Other events were staged at other existing venues. Rowing took place at Henley, swimming, boxing and lacrosse at the Empire Pool, shooting at Bisley Camp, archery and diving at White City and the ‘All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’ at Wimbledon for tennis and rackets. Basketball and wrestling were staged at Haringey Arena and some of the football preliminaries took place at Griffin Park in Brentford.
To reduce the financial burden on the UK all participants were asked to bring with them their own food, towels and sportswear. The US team upset their fellow competitors by turning up with steaks, chocolate and real coffee, foodstuffs not seen in this country since 1939. Undismayed the UK government increased the food ration for the British athletes from the normal 2600 calories a day to 5467 calories, the same as given to manual workers like miners and dockers.
Another important decision was not to build an “Olympic village”. All visitors would be accommodated in existing facilities, the men at RAF bases at Uxbridge, West Drayton and a former Army camp in Richmond Park and the women in dormitories at three London colleges.
The Richmond Park visitors centre, a former wartime convalescent camp, was converted and updated to provide accommodation for 1,500 athletes. Although it was “simple but comfortable” it was far from luxurious. The athletes slept 3 or 4 to a room, with lino on the floor and the loo down the corridor. It did boast a cinema, a bank, a post office, a shop and a canteen serving “national dishes prepared in a spacious kitchen.” There was also an ornamental duck pond that started out as a static water tank…and would probably turn back into a static water tank in the event of a fire. To our ears this all sounds rather spartan but for those thousands left homeless after the war and still waiting for new homes to be built the camp in Richmond Park was a tempting Shangri La. After the Games finished in August guards were posted to prevent squatters moving in.
For all the discomforts that the competitors must have experienced the London Olympics of 1948 was a popular and successful spectacle that provided the country and the world with a welcome break from the rationing and shortages and general deprivation of the time. Marie Provaznikova, the 57-year old Czechoslovakian President of the International Gymnastics Federation, certainly thought so. She refused to return home, citing “lack of freedom” after her country’s recent absorption into the Soviet Bloc. She went down into the record book as the first political defector since the modern International Olympics started in 1896. As for the other 3,714 men and 390 women who took part, they seemed to have had a good time as well.
And when it was all over, at the closing ceremony, the athletes and spectators rose to their feet and with heads uncovered sang a hymn to the tune of Londonderry Air…
The race is run. The winner wears the laurels. But you and I not empty go away. For we have seen the least unkind of quarrels, The young men glowing in the friendly fray. Let us be glad - but not because of winning: Let us go home one family today. God make our games a glorious beginning, And, hand in hand, together guide us on our way. If all the lands could run with all the others, And work as sweetly as they run and play, Lose with a laugh, and battle but as brothers, Loving to win - but not in every way.
Not a single mention of corporate logos, or sponsors, or ‘Olympic Families’ or designated traffic lanes or brand restrictions or accredited seating or any of the commercial nonsense associated with the current games. With a long and painful war behind it, all the world wanted in 1948 was peace and cooperation between nations. In this ‘least unkind of quarrels’ in London I think that they found it.
The 1948 Olympics made a final profit of just under £30,000 of which the taxman received £9000. Will British taxpayers be making a profit on this year’s Olympics? I give you three guesses.
Some of the material in this article first appeared in the St Margarets Community Website Community on 29 October 2010.
— from Martyn Day