Whale Meat, Tents and Y-Fronts: The 1948 London Olympics

I spent Friday and Saturday at the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich helping Emergency Exit Arts with an ‘immersive learning experience’ for children on the 1948 Olympics.  It was a lovely thing. They set up a radio station and a newspaper, dressed up the children and sent them out with a clip-board to quiz people (also dressed-up) stationed around the room. There was an ex-mayor of Woolwich who had been to the Games in 1948, the grand-daughter of a bombed-out couple from Bethnal Green, an expert on rationing and Janie Hampton – the author of The Austerity Olympics. I was there in my capacity as an ‘Olympic expert’ – all my knowledge about the 1948 Olympics was garnered from Janie’s books so I had to make sure I was out of ear shot when I said anything…

The 1948 Games are replete with stories that cast a light on another time – athletes had to sew their own shorts, gorged themselves on whale meat (as it wasn’t rationed) and were billeted to RAF camps in Richmond, Uxbridge and Hillingdon. Boy scouts carried placards for nations in the opening ceremony, cinders were gathered from the fireplaces of Leicester and  Coopers gave out 6,000 pairs of free Y-fronts to Olympic competitors. There’s also the stories of the elite Hungarian marksman Karoly Takacs who had his right hand blown off by a grenade in 1938, re-taught himself to shoot with his left-hand and won gold in London; Michelaine Ostermeyer, the French pianist who won Gold and Silver at shot-put and discus; Jim Halliday who won a bronze in weight-lifting after four years split between a Japanese death-camp and ‘recovering’ coal-shoveling in a British power-station.

Obviously the whole thing occurs against the backdrop of belittling women, casual-racism and is controlled and managed by a narrow elite. But still there are major reasons to look kindly on the 48 Olympics: first, few cared where the Great Britain came in the medals table (they finished 12th) – the event itself was considered more important than any particular team winning; second, there was a considerable amount of ‘bringing your own piece of the puzzle’ – Denmark sent 160,000 eggs, athletes were offered free meals in restaurants, Finland sent timber for the floor of the Harringay Arena, pigeon fanciers bought their birds for the opening ceremony; third – even through large parts of London had been devastated bombing – social promises of gargantuan proportions (e.g. transforming communities, creating jobs and opportunities for people did not have to be made) the like of which were made for London 2012, did not need to be made, to justify the staging of the Games.







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