London Olympics that released the world from trauma
- Credit: PA
Former BBC TV reporter Michael Cole was five when he attended the 1948 London Olympic Games - sort of
My mother was always full of surprises. “We are going to see the Olympic flame,” she announced, after breakfast on July 29, 1948, a Saturday.
And so my sister Pamela, aged six, and I, boarded a Number 16 bus with our mother to travel three stops to North Wembley Station where the last handover of the Olympic torch was to take place on its journey from Greece to Wembley Stadium, one mile away.
A couple of dozen people were hanging around at the top of the road bridge over the railway line. The Hop Bine pub had just closed after lunch and a few of the regulars joined us, leaning over the pedestrian barriers.
Everybody was quiet and respectful, as if waiting for royalty to pass by. I knew the time had almost arrived when the police suddenly closed the road, which rarely happened then, unlike now.
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“Look!” I shouted, pointing towards two men in white shorts and singlets, wearing plimsolls just like the ones I wore.
They came loping up the humpback bridge, one of them holding high what looked a tin can on an aluminium stick.
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But where was the flame? There was some encouraging smoke coming from the can; but of man’s red fire, there was no sign.
A lone runner, dressed the same white kit, who had been gently marking time as he waited for his big moment, stretched out a strong arm and grasped the torch.
There was gentle applause from the small crowd. A photographer stepped forward to capture the moment, his picture on the front page of The Wembley Observer the following Friday.
The final bearer of the Olympic flame, Cambridge graduate John Mark who had been chosen for his good looks and who later became a GP, then jogged off, past Wrigley’s Chewing Gum factory and the British Oxygen depot, towards the stadium. That was it.
“Do we go home now?” I asked. No, said my mother, just wait. Unseen by us, the aluminium torch was swapped for a stainless steel one with slits in the burner and a magnesium flare inserted so that the flame could be seen by the crowd on a sunny afternoon.
Twenty minutes later, we heard a roar in the distance as the Olympic flame entered the stadium.
There were no fireworks little opening ceremony. A large number of white doves, symbolising peace, were released which made me wonder how they would get on with the greedy London pigeons.
We went home.
It had taken three Royal Navy warships to get the flame from Greece, where civil war was raging and Mount Olympus out of bounds. From the port of Katakolon, it passed through Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium before HMS Bicester delivered it to England.
The route avoided Germany, still ravaged by war and not invited to the games, like Japan. The Soviet Union was invited but only sent observers.
Fifty-nine countries sent 4,104 people to compete in 19 sports. Only 390 of them were women but one of them became the Olympic star.
Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of two from Holland, won four gold medals, becoming instantly famous as 'The Flying Housewife'. That might be seen as sexist now but it was not inaccurate.
Flying Fanny looked as if she might have just hung out the washing before deciding to tuck her blouse into her shorts and show the world how to run.
Only three years earlier, at the end of the Second World War, Dutch people were dying of starvation and going into the fields to dig up tulip bulbs to eat. Britain still had food rationing in place in 1948 and it would last for another three years.
Athletes were limited to the same number of calories as miners and other heavy manual workers. It was truly The Austerity Games.
No new stadiums were built. Swimming events were held in The Empire Pool, now the Wembley Arena, next to the stadium which had been built 26 years earlier. There was no Olympic Village. Athletes were accommodated in barracks at RAF Uxbridge and West Drayton. Sailing events used existing facilities in Torquay.
Not that we saw any of the competition. However, it was the first time I ever saw a black person. Wembley High Street was thronged with men and women from all over the world, some of the Africans wearing tribal dress as they sauntered into Mitchell’s, the High Street’s only restaurant, with its dark panelled walls and willow pattern plates.
I watched in amazement as they explored Mitchell’s menu - rissoles and chips, jugged hare (rabbit), Lancashire hotpot and Welsh rarebit, the standard fare.
The free-and-easy 1948 Olympics could not have been a greater contrast to the games that preceded them, the infamous Berlin Olympics on 1936, planned as a showcase for Nazi Germany and a celebration of Aryan supremacy, although that didn’t quite work out thanks to America’s black athlete Jesse Owens winning four gold medals.
But the London games nearly didn’t happen.
Britain had been bankrupted by the Second World War. The Labour prime minister Clement Atlee didn’t believe we could or should afford to stage them.
Five American cities stood in the wings ready to take on the Olympics. Then King George VI intervened to back the London games as a way of restoring Britain’s place in the world.
In the event, those London Olympics made a small but useful profit of £30,000 though the tax man took £9,000 of that; some things don’t change.
Most importantly, the games went a long way to healing the wounds that were still raw, while renewing cultural and sporting ties that had been so long severed.
In a very real way, it was a new beginning, more striking and successful than the Festival of Britain that happened three years later. Not that such matters were on our mind when we returned home on that opening day.
My parents had agreed to look after a family’s Sealyham terrier dog, Betty, while they went for their usual holiday at Caister Holiday Camp in Norfolk.
Betty was missing when we got home. My mother tramped the suburban streets for six hours trying to find her.
Bad as it is when you lose your own pet, it is so much worse when it’s someone else’s. Defeated, our mother returned at 11pm and sat in the kitchen, close to tears but keeping them back so as not to alarm us further.
It was then that Betty came trotting down the cul-de-sac of semis where we lived, as if nothing was wrong at all. It was only then that my mother shed a tear, at the end of a memorable day.
The 1948 Olympics
The 1948 Olympic Games took place between July 29 and August 14, 1948.
Great Britain scooped 24 medals at the 1948 games - with just three golds, two in rowing and one in sailing to finish 12th in the overall medals table.
The USA won almost twice as many medals as second place Sweden. France finished third in the table.
Londoner Derek Allhusen who settled in Claxton Norfolk after the Second World War, competed in the pentathlon in the 1948 winter games, held earlier in the year. He would eventually win a gold in Mexico 20 years later in team eventing. In between those events he served as High Sheriff of Norwich.
Wood Green-born Stan Cox, who lived in Felixstowe for more than three decades, finished seventh in the men's 10,000 metres final.
The 1948 Olympics also saw the beginning of paralympic competition - an event with 16 wheelchair-bound archers was held at Stoke Mandeville Hospital on the day of the games opened to demonstrate the physical strength and competitive nature of disabled athletes.
The first proper Paralympics were held in 1960 to coincide with the Olympics in Rome.