1948 London, Great Britain

The 1948 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XIV Olympiad, were an international multi-sport event which was held in London, England, United Kingdom. After a 12-year hiatus because of World War II, these were the first Summer Olympics since the 1936 Games in Berlin. The 1940 Games had been scheduled for Tokyo, and then Helsinki; the 1944 Games had been provisionally planned for London. This was the second occasion that London had hosted the Olympic Games; the city had previously been the venue in 1908. The Olympics are scheduled to return to London in 2012.

The event came to be known as the Austerity Games due to the economic climate and post-war rationing. No new venues were built for the games and athletes were housed in existing accommodation instead of an Olympic Village. A record 59 nations were represented by 4,104 athletes, 3,714 men and 390 women, in 19 sport disciplines. Because of their roles as aggressors in World War II Germany and Japan were not invited to participate; the USSR were invited but chose not to send any athletes. The United States team won the most total medals, 84, and the most gold medals, 38. The host nation won 23 medals, three of them gold.

One of the star performers at the Games was Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen. Nicknamed “The Flying Housewife” the 30-year old mother of three children won four gold medals in athletics. In the decathlon American Bob Mathias became the youngest male ever to win an Olympic gold medal at the age of 17. The most individual medals were won by Veikko Huhtanen of Finland who took three golds, a silver and a bronze in men’s gymnastics.

Organisation of the London Olympics

Lord Burghley, a gold medal winner at the 1928 Olympics, member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and President of the Amateur Athletics Association was named Chairman of the Organising and Executive Committees. The other members of the committees were; Colonel Evan Hunter, General Secretary of the British Olympic Association, and Chef de mission for Great Britain; Lord Aberdare, the other British member of the IOC; Sir Noel Curtis-Bennett; Alderman H.E. Fern; E.J. Holt; J. Emrys Lloyd, who became the committee’s legal advisor; C.B. Cowley of the London Press and Advertising; R.B. Studdert, Managing Director of the Army & Navy Stores; A.E. Porritt, a member of the IOC for New Zealand who resided in London; S.F. Rous, Secretary of the Football Association; and Jack Beresford.

Olympic pictograms were introduced for the first time. There were twenty of them—one for each Olympic sport and three separate pictograms for the arts competition, the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony. They were called “Olympic symbols” and intended for the use on tickets. The background of each pictogram resembled escutcheon. Olympic pictograms would appear again 16 years later and be featured at each Summer Olympics thereafter.

At the time of the Games food, petrol and building rationing was still in place in Britain; because of this the 1948 Olympics came to be known as the “Austerity Games”. Athletes were given increased rations, the same as those received by dockers and miners, which meant 5,467 calories a day, instead of the normal 2,600. Building an Olympic Village was deemed too expensive; athletes were therefore housed in existing accommodation. Male competitors stayed at RAF camps in Uxbridge, West Drayton and Richmond; female competitors in London colleges.

These were the first games to be held following the death of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, in 1937. They were also the last to feature an arts competition, which took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Sporting Events at the London Olympics

Wembley stadium was the venue for 22 athletics events at the Games; 24 for men and nine for women. Of these, four were making their Olympic debut – the men’s 10 km walk, and the women’s 200 metres, long jump and shot put. A total of 754 athletes from 53 countries participated in athletics. Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands, a 30-year old mother of three children nicknamed “The Flying Housewife”, won four gold medals, in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 80 metre high hurdles, and 4 x 100 metre relay. As world record holder in the long jump and high jump Blankers-Koen may have been able to win further medals but, at this time, female athletes were limited to three individual events.

Duncan White won the first medal of any kind for Sri Lanka, (then Ceylon), when he finished second in the 400 metre hurdles, and Arthur Wint became the first Jamaican to win an Olympic gold medal, in the men’s 400 metres he also won silver in the men’s 800 metres. Alice Coachman became the first woman of color in the world and the first African American woman to win a gold medal in track and field in the history of the modern Olympics with a jump of 5′ 6 1/4″. She also was the only American woman to win an athletics gold medal during the 1948 Olympics.

Basketball made its second appearance as a medal sport, appearing as an indoor competition for the first time after poor weather disrupted the matches at the 1936 Berlin Games. The event, for men only, was contested by 23 nations split into four pools for the preliminary round; the top two in each pool advanced to the quarterfinals with the other teams entering playoffs for the minor placings. The United States and France reached the final which was won by the Americans 65–21 to claim the gold medal. This was the second of the United States seven consecutive gold medals in Olympic men’s and women’s basketball. Brazil defeated Mexico 52–47 to claim bronze.

Four diving events were contested, two for men, and two for women. The events are labelled as 3  metre springboard and 10  metre platform by the International Olympic Committee but appeared on the 1948 Official Report as springboard diving and highboard diving, respectively. All four gold medals, and 10 out of 12 awarded in total, were won by the United States. Victoria Manalo Draves, who won both gold medals in the women’s events, and Sammy Lee, who took a gold and a bronze in the men’s events, became the first Asian Americans to win gold medals at an Olympic Games.

Eighteen teams entered the football competition at these Olympics. Due to the rise of the professional game during the 12 years since the Berlin Olympics the number of talented amateurs for teams to select from was reduced. The gold medal was won by Sweden, who defeated Yugoslavia 3–1 in the final. Denmark defeated hosts Great Britain, managed by Matt Busby of Manchester United, 5–3 to win the bronze medal. In the tournament’s 18 matches a total of 102 goals were scored; an average 5.66 goals per match. The joint top scorers with seven goals each were Gunnar Nordahl of Sweden and Denmark’s John Hansen.

The sailing events at the Games took place in Torquay, in the southwest of Great Britain. Five events were contested, with the United States winning four total medals. One of host nation Great Britain’s three gold medals at the Games came in the Swallow class from Stewart Morris and David Bond. In the Firefly class Danish sailor Paul Elvstrøm won gold the despite the Danish Olympic Committee having misgivings about sending him to compete as the 18-year old could speak no English. This was the first of four consecutive Olympics with a gold medal for Elvstrøm.

Nations at the London Olympics

A total of 59 nations sent athletes. Fourteen made their first official appearance: British Guiana (now Guyana), Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Korea, Lebanon, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. It was the first time that the Philippines, India and Pakistan competed as independent nations at the Olympic Games.

Germany and Japan, both under Allied military occupations, were not allowed to send athletes to the games. German forced labour was used for the construction of the facilities. Italy, although originally an Axis power, defected to the Allies in 1943 following Benito Mussolini being deposed, and was allowed to send athletes. The Soviet Union was invited but they chose not to send any athletes rather than risk them losing to the United States.