Sports Books: The Austerity Olympics

(British runner Stan Cox competing in the 1948 Olympics.)

As the Washington-Baltimore region makes another run at staging an Olympiad after a failed 2012 bid, costs in the $4 – $6 billion range have been estimated to host the 2024 Games. For the group vying for the Games, known as DC 2024, Janie Hampton’s The Austerity Olympics should be required reading.

Hampton’s book describes the 1948 London Olympics, the first held following World War II and as importantly the first after Berlin’s infamous propaganda-ridden 1936 Games. The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled, and the 1948 Games were one of the the first opportunities for the world to act in at least symbolic cooperation after years of warfare.

Austerity OlympicsThe choice of a host nation was difficult; many countries were incapable of holding the Olympics after the War. Even Finland, which already had built a new Olympic Stadium (that would later host the 1952 games), was too damaged to be considered a host country. England, or more specifically London, somewhat reluctantly, “won” the right to stage the games in 1948.

Not that London had escaped the ravages of war. During the 1940-1941 German Blitz, 16,000 tons of explosives were dropped on the city. Describing its landscape as late as 1947, “Odd buildings stood in empty streets, like single rotten teeth, their inner walls revealing fireplaces, staircases, and wallpaper.”

It was against this bleak backdrop, and with strict food rationing still in place, that the Olympics were planned and held. The cost of building an Olympic Village rendered it out of the question, and the city and surrounding areas instead knitted together a network of existing dormitories, war-era barracks, and hostels to host athletes. Visiting countries were expected to provide nearly all of their own necessities, including towels, and in many cases their own food.

Mothballed or partially-bombed buildings were renovated or repaired for the Olympics and the original Wembley Stadium, at the time used primarily as a greyhound racetrack, was pressed into service as the main Olympic venue after escaping the Blitz relatively unscathed.

In today’s era of e-communication it is hard to fathom the magnitude of planning and logistics that were successfully completed despite still-damaged phone and rail lines, and all on a shoestring budget. Nearly every page of The Austerity Olympics holds a story of an organizer’s ingenuity or an athlete making due under Spartan circumstances.

In one example, British 10,000 meters runner Stan Cox, a Royal Air Force veteran, was called out by the local press for receiving extra pints of milk for what amounted to a weekend break to compete in the Olympics.

It wasn’t easy to prepare for top-class athletics, what with food rationing. I was allowed extra milk rations which caused a headline in the local paper: “The milkman is leaving an extra pint at Stan Cox’s”…When it came to the Games themselves, I took Friday off as a holiday and went back to work on Monday.

A fellow competitor, Harold Nelson of New Zealand, had to overcome rationed food and the severely misguided training notions of the era. Despite scorching heat for his 10,000 meter race at Wembley, Nelson avoided drinking for at least a day and a half beforehand.

All that night and the following day I was thirsty but didn’t drink. We had been advised not to drink for the day before the race. A dessert-spoon of honey got rid of all the liquid in the stomach.

When it came to the race, the results were predictable.

When I moved up to the middle of the field on the 10th lap, I got [a] cramp in the stomach. This got steadily more intense…Everything was a red haze and I collapsed unconscious on the track.

Seventeen of the 31 runners, presumably following similar training regimens, collapsed before the race finished.

In the end, the Olympics were considered a success, even by a notoriously skeptical London press corps, in helping heal the wounds of war and obscuring the Berlin games.

David Astor of the Observer wrote this of the Olympics:

Enormous crowds, beating the 1936 Berlin record, have packed the stadium careless of scorching sun and drizzling rain; and with limited resources we have managed to offer a hospitable welcome to a great numbers of visitors from abroad…All this we have done quietly, with none of the ostentation which travestied the Olympic spirit in Berlin.