In 1948, many had their doubts that London, largely in ruins from the Blitz of World War II, could host the Olympics. Brits had strict food rations and thousands were still in temporary housing, so feeding and boarding some 4,000 athletes from 59 countries would be a colossal feat.
The London Olympic Organizing Committee, made up of high-ranking military officers, nonetheless took to the task, as if it were a military operation. Unlike the multi-billion-pound affair that kicked off in London last week, the 1948 Olympics were executed on a lean budget of 730,000 pounds. Wembley Stadium was transformed from a greyhound track to a more versatile venue, with a cinder track. German prisoners of war were put to work constructing Olympic Way, a road connecting the stadium to a rail station. And, the nearby Empire Pool, drained and used as an ice skating rink, was converted back for swimming events.
Certainly, none of the preparations were extravagant. But, as Janie Hampton, author of The Austerity Olympics, says, “The 1948 Games were an extraordinary occasion, a true celebration of victory after dark times and one of the most inexpensive and unpretentious Olympiads of the twentieth century.”
This May, the National Archives in London unveiled a new website, The Olympic Record, containing hundreds of digitized documents and images spanning 112 years of Olympic history, from Athens in 1896 to Beijing in 2008. Two charts, in particular, capture the humble nature of the 1948 Games. One lists the javelins, wrestling mats and other equipment that countries pitched in and the other outlines the teams’ housing arrangements. Hampton was kind enough to help me bring these documents to life.