Stepladders, spam and a hunger for glory! Memories from the 1948 London Olympics

Stepladders, spam and a hunger for glory! Memories from the 1948 London Olympics

By
Lisa Sewards

PUBLISHED:

21:59 GMT, 27 July 2012

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UPDATED:

22:04 GMT, 27 July 2012

Run on a shoestring, the 1948 London Olympics were called the Austerity Games. On rations, many British athletes passed out during training, but nothing stopped them taking on the world. Here, four of them tell their stories…

Last time the Olympic Games came to London, competitors arrived to find a bombed-out, rubble-strewn city. It was 1948, just three years after the end of the Second World War, and the UK was flat broke.

The entire Games were organised on a ‘make do and mend’ basis, with a total budget of just 750,000 – loose change compared to the 11 billion being spent on this year’s event.

There was no Olympic village – female athletes had to bed down in college dormitories, while the men were billeted at RAF camps. Food rationing was strictly enforced, so much so that some competitors passed out during training.

portraits of Dorothy Tyler with her Olympic medals

portraits of Dorothy Tyler with her Olympic medals

Dorothy Tyler won Silver at the high jump, today she holds her medals

No wonder: they were restricted to a weekly diet of one egg, 13oz of meat, 6oz of butter and 8oz of sugar. Many had to bulk up on whale meat – one of the few foods that was readily available as it was unrationed. France, outraged by the shortages, sent its athletes steaks in a refrigerated train (with plenty of Mouton Rothschild to wash them down), while Denmark contributed 160,000 eggs, America flew in white flour and fresh fruit and the Mexicans sent kidneys, liver and tripe.

There was no money for purpose-built facilities. Hundreds of German prisoners of war helped convert the old Wembley Stadium into an athletics arena by collecting 800 tons of cinders from local households and spreading them over the greyhound track.

Outside the stadium there was a distinct lack of razzmatazz, just a few limp flags dotted around the city. Not without good reason were the 1948 Games called the Austerity Olympics. But from this environment of deprivation, some true British heroes emerged.

Among them was south Londoner Dorothy Tyler, then Dorothy Odam, who’d worn homemade shorts and vest when she won Silver in the high jump at the previous Games in Berlin in 1936 at the age of 16.

Portraits of Tommy Godwin- 1948 Olympians

Portraits of Tommy Godwin- 1948 Olympians

Cyclist Tommy Goodwin, now 91, won Bronze in the 1000m time trial and team pursuit

She achieved the same result again 12 years later. ‘I was so excited to be taking part. The Games were just what everyone needed to give a morale boost,’ recalls Dorothy, now 92, who held the world women’s high jump record (1.66m) from 1938 until 1943.

She’d been an auxiliary driver in the war, ‘but afterwards, I took up a secretarial course because I didn’t have to work on Saturdays so I could do my training,’ she says.

In those pre-sponsorship days, sportsmen and women were real amateurs. In 1948, Dorothy was 28 and married with two children. ‘I had no coach and had done very little training,’ she admits.

‘Luckily, my mother offered to look after my children who were then under two years old, so I decided to compete in the regional trial and won.’ As a result Dorothy was selected for the Games, which opened on the scorching hot day of 29 July with Army bands playing in front of the Royal Family and 85,000 spectators.

George Weedon trained on his carpet

George Weedon trained on his carpet

There was no multi-million-pound
curtain-raiser back then – just a 50-minute march-past by the
competitors from 59 nations (compared with more than 200 this year). At
4pm King George VI declared the Games open, 2,500 pigeons were released
and the Olympic flag was raised.

But
even that wasn’t without a hiccup or two. Recalls Dorothy, ‘Just before
the start, the British team realised we had no Union Flag. So a young
medical student who was working as an assistant to an Olympic official
had to be dispatched some distance to get one. Luckily he was a fast
runner…’ That student was Roger Bannister, who went on to become an
Olympic athlete himself and the world’s first four-minute miler.

It
was also the year gender checking was used for the first time. This
came in the wake of a gruff-voiced German high jumper called Dora
Ratjen, who’d broken Dorothy’s record just weeks after she set it. ‘When
they wrote to say I no longer held the record, I replied, saying,
“She’s not a woman, she’s a man.” So they did their research and
discovered “she” had been serving as a waiter called Heinrich, so I got
my world record back.’

Cyclist Tommy Godwin, now 91, won Bronze medals in the 1000m time trial and the team pursuit. ‘I went down to the Olympic velodrome recently and met Sebastian Coe. Being there brought back memories of the 1948 Games and of seeing my father burst into tears when I won my first Olympic medal at 26.’ He’d used his own bike for the races. ‘It was steel with wooden rims on the wheels, and very heavy, unlike today’s which are made of carbon fibre and titanium,’ he laughs.

Tommy lived mostly on Spam fritters and toad-in-the-hole during the Games. ‘We ate anything we could get our hands on, which was just as well because we only received one food parcel at the end of May – and that was supposed to keep us fit until August. It was amazing we won the Bronze medal for the team pursuit as we’d only ridden together once before the Games.

‘Back then if you won an Olympic medal it
didn’t change the course of your life. I went back to my job making
munitions at the Birmingham Small Arms Company immediately afterwards.
My boss just said, “Oh, you got a medal. Now, get to work, Tommy.”’

‘Back then if you won an Olympic medal it didn’t change the course of your life. I went back to my job making munitions at the Birmingham Small Arms Company immediately afterwards. My boss just said, “Oh, you got a medal. Now, get to work, Tommy.”’

Another star of 1948 was Essex sprinter Dorothy Manley, now 85, who won silver in the 100m. ‘I only started sprint training in the March before the Games in July. Before that my sport was the high jump, for which I was nominated to take part in the Games, but my trainer didn’t think I was good enough,’ says Dorothy.

‘So I started sprinting. It was all very last minute and I was working full-time as a typist. I had to use unpaid holidays to go to the Games and my mother made my running vest and shorts. When I walked into the stadium on the day of my heat I was terrified as I’d never competed in an international event.

'Luckily it was gorgeous weather which suited my running style so I won the heat. But on the day of the final it poured with rain, turning the track into a mudbath, and Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen beat me to the Gold.’

Another star of 1948 was Essex sprinter Dorothy Manley, now 85, who won silver in the 100m

Dorothy

There was no multi-million-pound curtain-raiser back then, just a march past competitors

Gymnast George Weedon trained on his carpet at home in southwest London and on a nearby common. ‘I was a builder and had no money for the bus fare, let alone use the gym, so I used to practise where I could with makeshift equipment.

'To create a high bar, I got hold of a metal rod and fixed it in the wall and I used gates to practise my vaults. I used to do handstands on flowerpots and stepladders,’ recalls George, now 92, who came 28th out of 140 contenders.

Despite having had tuberculosis, a chipped bone in his back and a kidney removed 18 months before, George became the first man to do the splits at the Olympics. ‘I learnt to do the splits when I studied ballet but it caused a massive uproar when I introduced it to gymnastics and they tried to ban it, calling it a “ladies’ movement.” But I was determined to do it.’

In spite of the straitened times, the 1948 London Games were a triumph. By the end of it, Britain had won 23 medals – three of them Gold. And what’s more, the Austerity Olympics even managed to yield a profit of 29,420.