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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
'A very British Olympics'
Lord Burghley addresses the opening ceremony of the 1948 Games at Wembley Stadium
A Very British Olympics, BBC4
18 (& 23) October 2100 BST

Dominic Sutherland, producer of a new BBC documentary about the 1948 Olympics, tells the story of London's desperate - sometimes farcical - race to stage the first post-war Games since the Nazi Olympiad of 1936.

"When it was confirmed that London would be hosting the '48 Games there was a great sense of excitement that the modern Olympics were returning.

But the organisers faced a number of hurdles.

They only had two years preparation time before an army of international athletes would descend on the city (London has seven years to prepare for the 2012 Games).

And it wasn't just time that was lacking.

Food and accommodation were also in short supply.

The British gymnastics team practice in Hyde Park
At times preparations resembled an Ealing comedy - gymnasts train in Hyde Park

Rationing was more severe in the immediate post-war years than it had been during hostilities and the country was massively short of homes as a result of wartime bombing.

Feeding and housing more than 6,000 competitors was certainly going to be a challenge.

Organisers considered putting up the visiting athletes in Prisoner of War camps, but in the end military barracks were modified for the men. and schools and colleges were made available to the sportswomen.

Countries were also encouraged to bring their own food and those nations that could afford to do so made donations to help out the poorer countries.

We were so thrilled to be saying 'The war is over, look what we're doing, we're picking up and starting all over again'
Robert Jackson Robinson, US basketball team captain

Two countries not on the guest list for London 1948 were Germany and Japan, the aggressors of World War Two.

The Soviets did receive an invitation, but Stalin was more concerned with realpolitik than Olympic spirit and chose not to send his athletes rather risk them losing to the American team.

At times the Games were in danger of becoming an Ealing comedy;

  • female athletes had to make their own uniforms
  • boxers got fit on custard and jelly
  • the British track stars trained at Butlins
  • gymnastic equipment had to be borrowed from abroad
  • the torch relay ran into numerous difficulties (including communist rebels who killed a policeman guarding the official party)
  • and the British flag for the opening ceremony even went missing.

Fortunately Roger Bannister was on hand to save the day, sprinting through Wembley car park to salvage a spare banner from the boot of his Humber Supersnipe.

Final of the 4x100m relay at Wembley stadium
Final of the 4x100m relay at Wembley stadium

But in the end the Games were a great success.

Despite the backdrop of post-war austerity, London managed to host an Olympiad that exemplified the spirit of amateur sportsmanship.

And as ever with the Olympics, it's the stories of the competitors that most intrigue;

In 1948 a German POW called Helmut Bantz became an unofficial coach of the British Gymnastic team.

A Hungarian marksmen won gold, despite having lost his shooting hand in an accident with a grenade during the war.

Olympic medals were also handed out to winners of the Art Competition (the last time such a competition was held), for disciplines which included posters, sculpture, architecture and even poetry.

1948 track gold medallist Fanny Blankers-Koen
Blankers-Koen defied the critics in characteristic, gritty style when she ran into the record books

The undoubted star of the Games though was Dutch housewife and mother of two, Fanny Blankers-Koen; the first women to win four gold medals at an Olympics.

In the end America topped the medal table with 38 golds.

Sweden was second with 16 and France third with 10.

Britain only won three golds, finishing twelfth overall: the first time a host nation had not finished in the top ten.

But medals and glory certainly weren't everything.

London had, against all the odds, pulled off hosting a successful games; what can only be described as a very British Olympics. "

A Very British Olympics, BBC4 18 October (repeated 23 Oct), 2100 BST.


I was 12 at the time of the London Olympics in 1948. We were lucky enough to have a television. My abiding memory is of the show jumping in which a Brazilian (I think) horse ploughed its way through virtually all the fences. Its inability to rise more than a few feet off the ground made me cry with laughter!
Brian Morris, UK

In 1948 I was a 15-year-old Boy Scout belonging to a Scout Troop in North Harrow. I was chosen to carry the Country Banner for Belgium in the opening ceremony. We were all given a lunch pack containing food and drink.

It was a very hot day and I distinctly remember wandering around outside the Wembley Stadium before the opening ceremony started and athletes from the assorted nations taking part were pleading with me for my drink, as they had not been given any food or water.

I think I appear in your photo of Lord Burghley opening the 1948 Games.
Max Poultney, England

As an Olympic Journalist and TV director in Malta, I remember well the 1948 Games in London. On that day, Malta had just one (1) athlete, who took part in the 100m, perhaps one of the smallest-ever contingents. The athlete, Maj. Nestor Jacono is still in good health.
Charles Camenzuli, Malta

What a lovely programme. The first time I've ever felt compelled to write in. It brought a smile to my face, a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. Lovely.
Ali Simmons, UK Salisbury

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