What does $148-billion get you in London these days? A sparkling Olympic Stadium and state-of-the-art sports venues, for starters. An athlete village tricked out with wireless Internet and soaring windows. And about 18,000 security officers to keep an eye on things.
By comparison, London last played host to the Olympics for a paltry $9.8-million in today’s currency – less than one-quarter of the cost of Friday’s opening ceremonies spectacular.
The so-called “austerity games” of 1948 were staged just three years after the Second World War. They put an end to the 12-year Olympic dry spell caused by the fighting, but Londoners were still living amid rubble and subsisting on food rations. The country housed athletes in RAF barracks and college dorms. Competitions were played out in whatever pools and gymnasiums had survived the bombings. Butter was as good as gold.
Canada was one of 56 participating countries (compared with the 205 nations competing today). And even getting to London was a hurdle: 118 men and women crossed the country by train, gathering in Halifax to board the Aquitania for a seven-day voyage. The aging troop ship smelled, and quarters were tight.
Still, there wasn’t much complaint: Swimmers attached elastics to their waists and did stationary exercises in a pool only six feet long; on deck, boxers sparred alongside cyclists peddling bikes on rollers. There were also marathon sessions of canasta, while Art Mooney’s hit I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover echoed over the Atlantic. On the final night, the athletes danced as the ship rolled.
Most of the Canadians on board were too young to have served overseas. In London, they were chilled by the scars of war. “There were big holes in the ground and it was very sad,” recalls Shirley Olaffson, a high jumper from Vancouver. Food was scarce. “For the Olympics, they managed to scrape up butter for all the competitors, if they needed it,” says canoeist Norman Lane of Hamilton. “We were well fed with the best of food, but some of the locals were having a hard time getting enough to eat.”
But austerity didn’t stunt achievement. Canadians brought home three medals – a bronze in the women’s 4x100 metres sprint, another bronze by Mr. Lane (who placed third despite having to compete in a leisure canoe instead of a racing vessel) and a silver in canoeing.
And for the first time, those moments were captured extensively through television broadcasts. Viewers were transfixed, including the athletes. Lorne (Ace) Atkinson, a cyclist from Vancouver who died in 2010, loved to tell the story of a fellow athlete who was enthralled by his first television experience – until he noticed an empty track lane appear on the screen. “That’s my race!” he said.
Now in their 80s and 90s, the remaining Olympians of 1948 say some of their memories have faded. But there is one highlight they all seem to recall vividly: walking into Wembley Stadium for the opening ceremonies decked out in their red jackets, and hearing the roar from the huge crowd.
It felt like a celebration for the entire world. A sign in the stadium displayed the 1948 Olympic creed: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
Home: Richmond, B.C.
Sport: High jump
Getting there: Born with a club foot, Mrs. Olafsson (nee Gordon) endured seven surgeries during childhood. Barred from sports for most of high school, she taught herself how to high jump and caught a break when a friend insisted she be allowed to join a competitive team for girls. She was the women’s track captain in London, finishing 10th in her event, and ten finished fifth at the British Empire Games in Auckland.
Being there: “I have no muscle from my knee down to my ankle. And I have a fused foot, and it doesn’t move. I don’t walk well. But I never wanted to anybody to know, because I wanted to be like everybody else.