So we lurch liverishly towards our Olympic Year. Gloomily we ponder the global economy, and now — just as we are wondering how we can afford it all — is exactly the moment to look at the astonishing achievements of this country. Let us peer back to the last time London welcomed the world to the Olympic Games. You only have to read Janie Hampton’s delightful account of the Austerity Olympics to see that all this talk of post-war “decline” is utter tosh. When the world came to London in 1948, they not only found a bombed-out capital, with weeds still sprouting in the rubble. We were so poor that British athletes were asked to make their own shorts and to train on the beach at Butlins. We couldn’t even afford to build the venues on our own. The Swiss donated the gymnastic equipment; Finland contributed timber for the basketball court; and the Canadians gave two Douglas firs for the diving boards at the Empire Pool.
Olympic village? You must be joking. The world’s athletes were told to bring their own towels and bunk up in makeshift dorms in school classrooms. The London organising committee of the day took money from any sponsor it could find, including Brylcreem, Guinness and Craven A cigarettes. Somehow we ferried 4,000 athletes between 36 venues with nothing but a fleet of clapped-out pre-Routemaster buses, and the entire logistics of the Games was done from a Roman Catholic Church hall in Wembley with the help of three blackboards headed “Today”, “Tomorrow” and “The Day After Tomorrow”. We weren’t just poor: we were half-starved. Our athletes were so badly nourished that they sometimes conked out during training – and no wonder, when their rations were restricted to 13oz of meat, 6oz butter, 8oz sugar and one egg a week.
The British were eating less in 1948 than in 1945, and a pitying world sent food parcels to the Games. The Danes contributed 160,000 eggs; China sent oiled bamboo shoots; the Mexicans sent kidneys, liver and tripe. The Americans insisted on supplementing their diet with daily flights from Los Angeles to Uxbridge, bringing fresh supplies of white flour and fruit. The French were so appalled by food in London that they sent a special refrigerated train from Paris, laden with steaks and supplies of Mouton-Rothschild – in fact, they despatched so much wine that the suspicious British customs officials impounded it on the grounds that it could not be for personal consumption.
As a country, we felt so destitute as to be embarrassed, ashamed to be the object of global scrutiny. When the Olympic year dawned, London’s Evening Standard commented bitterly: “The average range of enthusiasm for the Games stretches from lukewarm to dislike. It is not too late for the invitations to be politely withdrawn.” A magazine called London Calling asked: “Are the Olympic Games of today worthwhile?… Are they more of a headache than a pleasure to all concerned?” This mood lasted right the way through the preparations, and when visitors began to arrive they were struck by the doleful absence of razzmatazz. A few flags hung limply in Piccadilly Circus. There was a general welcome sign in three languages at Paddington Station, while another in the Harrow Road announced bleakly: “Welcome to the Olympic Games. This road is a danger zone.”
And if you are under the impression that we were all much nicer and better behaved in those days, you should think again. The 1948 London Olympics were deeply sexist – partly because the authorities were still convinced that women would succumb to premature senility if they ran more than 200 yards. Trying to sum up what was great about Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four golds in spite of being a 30-year-old mother of two, the Daily Graphic said: “She darns with artistry. Her greatest love next to racing is housework.” British society was much more class-ridden than it is today: take the case of Olympic hurdler Joseph Birrell, who was turned down twice for Sandhurst for having a northern accent. Nor were we notably more honest. When the Australian team arrived after a hellish boat trip, they found a dock strike in progress. Their luggage was stranded on the quay and all their tracksuits were nicked. The French concert pianist Micheline Ostermeyer amazed the world by winning both the shot put and the discus – only to have someone steal her medals.
As for old-fashioned sportsmanship – do me a favour. The boxing was halted by angry demonstrations, first they were Starting boxing with the rowers that had a huge punch-up at Henley and when one Italian dropped the baton in the 4 x 400 hurdles the next Italian hit him on the head. As for the weather, it was so hot during the opening ceremony that several athletes fainted, and thereafter it rained so torrentially that the track was flooded.
To cap it all, we did rather feebly – taking only three gold medals (compared with 84 for America) and coming 12th in the table. We were thrashed by the French, the Swedes, the Dutch – and the Germans and Russians didn’t even come. And in spite of it all, the 1948 London Games were a fantastic triumph. Huge crowds went to watch such extraordinary athletes as Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek. The nation was united in excitement and pride and the world’s press returned a rapturous verdict on the general jollification.
In the words of the Wembley chairman, Sir Arthur Elvin, “the dismal johnnies who prophesied failure have been put to rout”. And guess what – it made money! There was a profit of £29,000, some of which was demanded by the taxman.
Look at us today. We are incomparably richer and better fed. Our equipment and training are the best in the world. We are, as a nation, faster, taller and stronger than we were in the era of our grandparents. We have almost completed the Olympic venues, on time and on budget. Team GB is now working hard to ensure that we repeat our amazing success of 2008, and come fourth in the table of Olympic medals. If there are any dismal johnnies who worry about whether Britain should be putting on the Games in this new age of austerity, I have no doubt they will be routed again.