Sixty-four years ago the city of London, England staged another Summer Olympics – the 1948 Games were the first such extravaganza held in a dozen years (a period that included the deadliest global war in history).
There were some interesting similarities between the 1948 games and the 2012 edition – in both cases, Britain and Europe were reeling from an economic malaise, raising questions about the wisdom of spending money on something as frivolous and self-indulgent as sports.
Indeed (with Germany and Japan excluded from the games, although the third member of the dreaded Axis, Italy, was invited), austerity ruled the 1948 Games.
There was so much poverty and near-starvation across the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole that certain short-cuts were taken. For example, visiting countries were asked to feed their own athletes and bring their own towels, relieving the burden on the British (whose economy had been flattened by the war under a mountain of debt, forcing London to take huge loans from Washington).
Rationing was so severe, that British athletes were forced to consume whale meat for sustenance.
"It was very hard to get hold of meat, although there was unrationed whale meat," said British runner Sylvia Cheeseman.
"It was horrible but I was so intent on getting my protein that I ate it."
The Labour government of Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps placed the country under a strict austerity program and even considered asking the Americans to hold the Games instead.
Atlee had much more pressing matters, including finding jobs for millions of war-weary servicemen, rebuilding the shattered infrastructure, and returning factories and foundries back to peacetime uses. The government earmarked a mere £750,000 on the Olympic games.
The beleaguered British could not be bothered with constructing any new sporting facilities -- Wimberley Stadium in north London (which miraculously survived Nazi air raids) hosted the Games instead. The thought of constructing an “Olympic village” was laughed at – rather, the athletes were given spartan accommodations, the men at an RAF camps in Uxbridge, West Drayton and Richmond in West London; the women in dormitories at Southland College at the University of Roehampton and other schools.
Britain in 1948 was facing grim new global realities – it was no longer the world’s superpower (that role was taken by the Americans) and was gradually losing its once-formidable Empire, having lost the jewel of the crown, India, only the year before.
In 1948, Britain looked inward and was in the midst of creating the welfare state that still exists to this day. Consider that the National Health Service was formed just about the same time as the Olympics.
The biggest star of the 1948 Games was probably the long-forgotten Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Dutch housewife, who won four gold meals in track.
A total of 4,000 athletes from 59 countries participated in the Games – which despite the gloom that had descended upon the world, were remarkably successful.
Interestingly, the London Olympics of 1948 reportedly made a profit of about £30,000, principally through ticket sales.
As a side note, security expenditures for the 2012 are expected to total some £11 billion – which roughly approximated Britain’s total GDP for 1948.