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Our alumni share memories of the Austerity Games

Posted on 23/05/2012
1948 Fencing

Students fencing in 1948 in the College sports hall

As all eyes are fixed on Great Britain for the 2012 Games, some of our alumni recall their memories of the 1948 London Olympic Games.

When the Olympics explode to life with a flamboyant spectacle designed by award-winning director Danny Boyle, the ceremony will be a far cry from the last Olympic Games event in London.

The 1948 London Olympics became known as the Austerity Games, taking place just a few years after the end of the Second World War while Britain was still gripped by food and clothes rationing and a shortage of housing.

Although these Games of the 14th Olympiad were seen as a chance for Britain to reassert a sense of buoyancy and frivolity, they offered a modest spectacle by today’s standards.

Barbara Lees, who graduated in 1948 with a degree in Social Studies, recalls the ‘spirit’ of the Games. “To a generation which had only recently emerged from the dark years of the war, and whose youth had very much been swallowed up in it, the Games, and indeed the Festival of Britain just a couple of years later, felt like a vindication of our youth, a reclaiming of what we had lost, and the dawning of a glorious new horizon, in which our generation featured large.”

1948 swimmers

The highlight of the opening ceremony in 1948 was the torch relay, with John Mark, a former Cambridge University athlete and a symbol of British youth, lighting the cauldron in Wembley stadium. Jean Atkins (neé Posnett) was among the few spectators who lined the streets as the torch made its way through the villages around Dorking and Guildford. “I remember it was a very low key event,” she said. “There were just two or three parked cars at the roadside and about 20 spectators. I suppose it will be very different in 2012”.

Without the benefit of widespread television coverage, the 1948 Olympic Games lacked the reach that the 2012 Games will no doubt enjoy. For some, like Audrey Fisk (neé Sanders) it passed by with little impact. “Sadly, with no television, the 1948 Olympics impinged little on my awareness. For the majority, sport did not extend much beyond football, cricket and cycling.”

But for sports enthusiasts, it was still a time of great anticipation. “There was an excitement that so many people were coming from overseas, not because they were unwilling refugees or members of the Free French, Polish, Dutch and other armies, but because they were participating in this worldwide festival,” Corinne Renshaw (neé Davies) said. “At home we watched newsreels and read accounts in the papers and listened to the radio. I remember Fanny Blankers Coens’s amazing performance, and, being Welsh, my family were most interested in the local participants, Ken Jones, later a Rugby player, who won a silver medal in the relay race and Tom Richards who won a silver medal for the marathon.”

With an £11bn budget, award winning director Danny Boyle creating the opening ceremony, and live broadcasts of the events as they unfold, the 2012 London Games look set to be a very different affair from the 1948 Austerity Games, with the whole world watching the spectacle.


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