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75 Years Since the 1948 Summer Olympics

Seventy-Five years ago, on 29 July 1948, for the first time in 12 years (due to World War Two, WWII) the Summer Olympics began. The previous games had been held in 1936 in Berlin, Germany.

Poster for the 1948 Games (The National Archives UK)

In the wake of the war austerity measures were still in place when the games opened in London and no new stadiums, venues or accommodation were built to accommodate the games. Due to labour shortages German Prisoners of War (POW’s) who were still in the UK were used to help build some of the infrastructure required. The most well-known site erected by the POWs was “Wembley Way”. It has been argued that Britian was in breach of the Geneva Prisoner of War convention by using the prisoners as free labour however the British Government deny this as no peace deal had been signed with Germany surrendering unconditionally.


The games saw the USA top the table, taking home 84 medals (38 gold, 27 silver and 19 bronze). Coming in second with 44 medals was Sweden and third was France with 29 medals.


The Countries

These 1948 Olympics saw the largest number of nations attend a games with 59 countries in attendance. The previous largest number was seen at the 1936 games with 49 nations present.


Both Japan and Germany were not invited to attend the 1948 Games, and while the Soviet Union were, they elected not to send any athletes. Several Arab nations had intended to boycott the games when it seemed that Israel would attend however as the International Olympic Committee did not yet recognise the nation of Israel their application to attend was denied. Israel would go on to make their games debut four years later in 1952.


At these games fourteen nations made their debut. They are noted here with some brief trivia about the nation's Olympic history:

  • Guyana (as British Guyana), to date they’ve won just one medal which was obtained in 1980.

  • Both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, despite competing under a united flag in 1960 as the British West Indies they have both attended every games since 1948. At Jamaica’s first games in 1948 they sent 13 athletes and won three medals, one gold and two silver, all in men’s track events. All of their total 88 medals won since 1948 have come in athletics, except for one cycling medal. Today Jamaica is ranked 32nd on the all-time medal board. Similarly, Trinidad and Tobago have become an Olympic staple, especially in athletics. Despite this in 1948 they won a silver medal in weightlifting to open their medal tally. Today, they are ranked 76th on the all-time Summer medal tally with a total of 19 medals.

  • Puerto Rico has sent athletes to every summer games since their debut in 1948. The nation has won ten medals (11 if you count the bronze in the baseball competition of 1988 however it was an exhibition sport at the time so the win doesn't get added to the national medal total). Most of their medals have been won in boxing.

  • Venezuela debuted in 1948 and has competed at every games since that time. Today the nation is ranked 75th on the all-time medal table with a total of 19 medals. Their most successful sport is boxing with six medals.

  • Iraq has not attended the games continuously since 1948 and won just one medal which came in 1960.

  • Iran, had appeared in 1900 with one athlete but did not attend any other Olympic events until 1948 when they sent 36 athletes. At the 1948 games they won one bronze medal in weightlifting.

  • Officials from Lebanon attended the 1936 games as observers but athletes were first sent to the 1948 games. The nation has won four medals since their Summer Games debut in the sports of wrestling and weightlifting.

  • Syria made their Olympics debut in 1948 and would compete as Syria at all future games, except for 1960 when they competed as part of the United Arab Republic with Egypt. Syria have won four medals since 1948.

  • South Korea had seen athletes win medals at the 1936 games however as South Korea was under Japanese rule at the time athletes competed for Japan. Soul would host the games in 1988 and today the nation is ranked 15th on the all time Summer medal table with 287 medals. They sit at the top of the sporting table for archery and taekwondo.

  • Myanmar (known as Burma at the time) and Pakistan competed as part of British India until 1936, with both nations making their independent debuts in 1948. To date Myanmar has won no Olympic medals and have not competed in the Winter Games. By comparison Pakistan has won ten medals to date with three gold’s in field hockey as well as an additional three silver and two bronze medals in the sport. They have also won a bronze in both boxing and wrestling.

  • Just three months before the 1948 Games, Singapore was established as a separate British Crown Colony. They sent one athlete to the games and would compete as Singapore in future games, except for 1964 when they competed with Malaysia. They have won five medals since 1948 with a gold in swimming, silver in weightlifting and one silver plus two bronze in table tennis.

  • Sri Lanka has attended every summer games since their debut in 1948. To date they have won just two medals, both silvers in athletics. The first of these came in 1948 when Duncan White came second in the men’s 400m hurdles.

This image looks more like a wartime battleground than a sporting arena but it shows athletes practicing on the shooting range ahead of the Modern Pentathlon event, 1948 (IOC: Allsport Hulton Archive)

The Sports

Most of the sports competed in 1948 were the same as that of 1936 however there were a few changes. In the sailing event, prior to the 1948 games it had been a gender-neutral sport which meant that men and women competed alongside one another. For the 1948 event only men were allowed to compete. Women were welcomed back to compete at the next games in 1952.


In the weightlifting competition the first change to the sport since 1920 occurred with the introduction of the Bantamweight category (56kg), prior to this the lightest category was the featherweight (60kg). Debut nations of Trinidad and Tobago, Iran and South Korea all won medals across the weightlifting categories.


The exhibition sport of the games was lacrosse with a team from Great Britian and a team from the USA (made up on members from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York) competing. This was not the first-time lacrosse had been played at the Olympics, with it included as a medal sport in 1904 and 1908. It was then held as a demonstration sport in 1928 and 1932. To date the only nations to have competed in any Olympic lacrosse event are Canada, USA and Great Britain. Lacrosse is on the shortlist to be an exhibition sport at the 2028 games.

Lacrosse at the 1948 Games (National Media Museum, UK)

While 3,714 men competed at these 1948 games just 390 female athletes attended. Of the twenty sporting disciplines on offer just six were available for women to compete in. These were diving, swimming, athletics, fencing, gymnastics and canoeing.

It was at these games that women were first permitted to enter the canoeing competition, however while there were 8 disciplines for men there was just one for women – the K1 500m. Similarly, in the fencing discipline there were six events for men and just one for women.


Diving was the only sport with the same number of events for both men and women. Swimming was second with five events for women and six for men.


When it came to gymnastics, while the men had eight possibilities for medals, women had just one though they competed across three apparatus. Medals for men were available in the team’s event, individual all-around and on individual apparatus. Comparatively, women competed on the vault, balance beam and rings (this was the only games that women competed on the rings) however the only medal that was to be awarded was for the team all-around.


Eliska Misakova, Czechoslovakian Gymnast, 1948 (IOC)

Notably, the sole gold medal on offer for women in gymnastics went to the team from Czechoslovakia. The team won under a sad cloud as one of their teammates, Eliska Misakova, died on the same day that the team competed. Upon arriving in London, she had fallen ill with what was later diagnosed as Poli and was confined to an iron lung. Just days later she died. Her sister was a member of the winning team and during the medal ceremony the national flag was raised with a black border around it. She is the only athlete to have ever been awarded an Olympic gold medal posthumously without competing, (recently in June 2023 American bobsledder Steven Holcomb was posthumously awarded two silver medals from the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the two- and four-man event after both Russian teams were disqualified due to doping however unlike Eliska he had competed and won different coloured medals).


A second interesting fact around the Czechoslovakian Olympic Gymnastics team is that member and at the time President of the International Gymnastics Federation, Marie Provaznikova, became the first person to make a political defection during an Olympic games when she refused to return home siting a lack of political freedom after the country had entered the Soviet bloc earlier in the year.


The interesting facts for gymnastics at the 1948 Olympics continue! The second demonstration sport at the 1948 games was Swedish or “Ling” Gymnastics. This wasn’t the first time this sort of activity was showcased at an Olympics with similar demos at the 1906, 1912 and 1920. Unlike traditional gymnastics that were always competed at the games these are more like calisthenics and individual exercises based rather than using apparatus. At the 1948 Games 200 men and 200 women travelled from Stockholm to present the demonstration. These demos were not held in the gymnastics arena but in other sporting venues such as the soccer and athletics stadiums.



The Arts

This was the last time that the Arts competition made an appearance at an Olympic Games.


The Arts Competition Program for 1948, (The National Archives UK)

From 1912 to 1948 the art competition events were held as part of the Summer Olympic movement. There were five categories:

· literature,

· music,

· architecture

· painting

· sculpture

Within these five categories across the years various sub-categories were introduced with multiple winners awarded.

The inclusion of art events were always the intention of the modern games founder Pierre de Coubertin however in the end these events were removed over concerns of the amateur status of the games as many of the arts competitors were professionals.


At the 1948 games the art exhibition was showcased at the Victoria and Albert Museum with entrants representing 27 countries. Public interest was said to have been low compared to previous years which was thought to have possibly been due to there being an entry fee to view the works. The number of entrants was also low falling from over 500 in 1936 to just 315 at these games.


The Gold medallist in the oils painting category, 1948 (Christie's)

The gold medallist in the painting (oils and water colour) category was British Alfred Thomson with his work “London Amateur Boxing Championship”. This was the only time that Britian won the arts competition. Thomson had worked as a war artists during WWII. In 2012 the winning artwork was sold by Christies for €90,000 (equal to approximately $196,000 Aussie Dollars today).


In the literature category there were three sub-categories of Lyric, Dramatic and Epic. While the lyric and epic categories had 12-13 entrants, the dramatic had just three entrants and the judges refused to award any a medal. Notably, the gold medallist in the lyric category was Finnish poet Aale Maria Tynni, who became the first and only woman to win an Olympic arts medal.


Music also had three sub-categories of vocal, instrumental/chamber and choral/orchestral. Much like the literature category there were few entrants. The choral/orchestral category had 15 entrants, but the other two sub-categories had just 6-7 entrants each so the gold in both cases was not awarded.


The painting category saw several sub-categories removed and new sub-categories added to the sculpture section however entry numbers were low and thus medals were not award in some of the categories.


Australia at the 1948 Games

Australia sent 75 athletes to the games: 66 men and just 9 women. Two gold medals were won in the high jump and single sculls rowing respectively with six silver and five bronze also attained. Of Australia’s 13 medals, five were won by women. In the pool, Beatrice Lyons won a silver in the 200m breaststroke while Judy-Joy Davies won bronze in the 100m backstroke. Australia’s most successful athlete of the games was Shirley Strickland who won silver as a member of the women’s 4 x 100m track relay and two bronze medals in the 100m and 80m hurdles. She also competed in the 200m where she came fourth however a review of the footage thirty years later showed that she actually finished just ahead of the third-place finisher so really should have finished on the podium.


Australia finished 14th on the table with 13 medals; two gold, six silver and five bronze.

Shirley Strickland, closest to camera, competes in the hurdles at the 1948 Games (International Olympic Committee)

Keep an eye out for a separate blog on Shirley Strickland coming soon!


Did you know that the Paralympics have their origins in 1948?

An archery event at the Stoke Centre, 1949 (The Guardian)

The games have their origin in the Stoke Mandeville Games that were created by Dr Ludwig Guttmann in England on 28 July 1948. What began as an archery competition would develop and at the Tokyo Games in 1964 the term Paralympic was used for the first time, although a parallel competition to the Olympics had been held four years earlier in Rome. Despite these two games held in conjunction with the Olympic host city it wasn’t until 1988 in Seoul, Korea that the relationship was formalised and the two were held side by side. The next year the international Paralympic committee was formed.

From 400 athletes across 23 nations in 1960 to the number represented at the most recent games is a great achievement. The number of sports has also increased from 9 to the current 22.

Over 4,300 athletes from 163 different countries took part in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2022.

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Further Reading:


Websites:

Articles:

  • Richard Stanton, "The Only Lady Artist in History: The Only Female Gold Medallist in the Olympic Arts Competition in the 20th Century", Journal of Olympic History, Vol. 10, No. 3, September 2002.

  • Mike Thomson, "Wembley Way built by German Prisoners of War", BBC News, 15 March 2010

Books

  • "Sports: The Complete Visual Reference", by QA International (2000)

  • "The Complete Book of the Olympics", David Wallechinsky (2004)

  • "Olympics: A Fantastic, Factual Record of an Epic Sporting Event", published by Hinkler (2011)


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