The London Olympics

Last week BBC Radio 4 did one of their excellent radio documentaries – radio documentaries are the dogs bollacks because compared to TV documentaries there is nothing else to distract the listener, no fill-in gratuitous shots that are plainly included to patch in the gaps between the few random facts that the producer has dug up, nope, in a one hour long radio documentary you have to have one hours worth of proper content, content that will keep your listener, listening, and interested.

The documentary might even still be on the iPlayer, its about the London Olympics, not the 9 billion pound in these times of austerity upcoming event, but the 1948 London Olympic Games which were truly called “The Austerity Games” as told by four athletes who actually competed at those games – and what stories they had to tell.

It was less than three years after the end of World War 2, in the UK everything was still rationed, food for a “normal” citizen was rationed down to 2600 calories per day, or to put it in a modern day context, one Big Mac, without fries, but for heavy manual workers like dockers and miners, and all of the UK athletes, the ration was increased to 5400 calories per day.

One of the interviewed old ladies spoke of how her mother was sent her extra ration coupons with a letter from the Ministry of Food informing her that her daughters extra ration coupons were strictly only for her use and that the rest of the family could not under any circumstances share them, and her mother stuck to that decree faithfully, actually terrified that she’d get found out if she pinched an extra egg or bit of lard from her daughter who was officially a very important person, for the duration of the games and the two months leading up to them anyway.

Building works were strictly controlled, not just for cost sake but for a lack of materials too, London alone needed 100,000 new houses to replace those destroyed by the German bombers and so the Government decreed that no new venues would be built, male athletes were housed in RAF camps and women athletes in college dormitories, the main stadium for the athletics was the existing Wembley stadium which was easily adapted by the removal of some terracing and the laying of a cinder track around the football pitch, basketball and boxing was held in the existing Harringay arena which had been built in 1936 for ice hockey and boxing events whilst the swimming and diving took place at The Empire Pool opposite Wembley Stadium which had been built for the 1935 Empire Games.

Clothing was also on ration and the athletes were given cloth and instructions on how to make their own shorts and vest, one of the old dears on the radio documentary clearly recalled the absolute instruction that her shorts were to be no more than four inches above the knee.

The BBC had exclusive coverage of the opening ceremony (being the only TV company in existence in the country at the time helped clinch the deal) and they paid the Olympic Committee £1000 to cover it and as many hours as they liked of all the events, ultimately they showed over 60 hours of live television to the handful of people who could afford a TV set and receive a signal for it.

Records were made and broken, the youngest ever gold medal athlete, a 17 year old American, the oldest ever medalist in the 50km walk being a 48 year old British competitor (bronze medal), a Czech athlete became the first ever Olympic defector when he claimed political asylum, a Jamaican won their first ever gold medal in the 400metres, and an American “woman of color” became the first ever Afro-American female to win a gold.

Fanny Blankers-Koen – lets just pause here, oh how we love the name Fanny in this country, don’t ask why, its just funny ok – of The Netherlands won four gold medals in the 100 and 200m sprints, 80m high hurdles and the 4x100m relay, she was also a world record holder in the womens long and high jump but wasn’t allowed to compete in those as women could only enter a maximum of three individual events. oh yes, and she was 30 years old and a mother of three children too.

The 1948 London Olympics was also the last time that the Olympic Committee held Olympic competitions in art and design too with medals awarded for artistic works inspired by sport in architecture, music, literature, painting and sculpture, Great Britain won a gold medal in the “Oils and Watercolours” section for the painting “London Amateur Championships”, how very excellent.

London became the third city to have hosted the Olympics twice and this year will be the only city to have hosted the Games three times and whilst ironically we could easily have gone for another “Austerity Games” this year it would appear that the budget has been allowed to expand slightly, from an estimated £4billion in 2004 to what is believed to be the final costing (excluding any additional last minute security measures) of £9.3billion, thats a mere £9,300,000,000 which completely by coincidence is almost exactly the same amount as the Government of 1948 spent (after adjusting for inflation) on creating the National Health Service in that year.

Three weeks worth of running around, throwing things very far and jumping very high – or a completely new National Health Service that would last 64 years (but probably no longer than that) ?

You decide.


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