29 July 1948: opening ceremony of the 1948 London Olympics

London Olympics 1948: austerity games

On this day in 1948, the Games of the XIV Olympiad began in London.

85,000 spectators crammed into Wembley Stadium on a swelteringly hot day to watch King George VI and Queen Elizabeth open the games.

Dubbed the ‘Austerity Games’, no stadiums or facilities were built specifically for them. The greyhound track at Wembley was converted into an athletics track, and a temporary boxing ring was built overnight on top of the Olympic swimming pool.

Male athletes were housed in RAF camps, while women were put up in university dormitories. Contestants had to bring their own towels and their own food. France brought their own wine.

Just 59 nations took part, with 4,104 athletes (3,714 men, 390 women) competing in 136 events in 17 sports. There were no teams from Japan or Germany (who were not invited) or the USSR (who were invited, but who didn’t want to come).

The head of the Czechoslovakian gymnastics team, Marie Provaznikova, started a noble tradition of Cold War defections in the 1948 games. She refused to return to her homeland after the games, citing a “lack of freedom”. She stayed in Britain for a few months, then moved to the United States, where she lived for the rest of her life.

The most successful competitor was 30-year-old sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands, dubbed, rather patronisingly, ‘the Flying Housewife’. Blankers-Koen won four gold medals – in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 80-metre hurdles and 4×100 metre relay.

The USA topped the medals table, winning 84 medals in total, including 38 golds. Second was Sweden, with France third. Great Britain came in 12th, with 23 medals, and three golds.

Financially, the games were a success. The budget was £743,000, while final expenditure was £732,268. Receipts totalled £761,688, which included £1,000 for the TV rights, which were sold to the BBC. The taxman’s cut was £9,000.

By contrast, the 2012 games cost £8.8bn. The original estimate was £2.4bn.

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