When Swan Vesta supplied the Olympic flame

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: As part of the SJA’s 60th anniversary, we are publishing a collection of articles that celebrate the best of British sportswriting, commemorating some great sporting events of the past six decades, or which recall how our business has altered since 1948.
JOHN RODDA, for 30 years the doyen of Olympic and athletics writers, goes back to before the beginning of what was the Sports Writers’ Association, to tell what it was like covering the last London Games

Striking matches in the pitch black in SE24 to illuminate the words of my final report is my sharpest memory of the 1948 Olympic Games.

I had started work on the South London Press straight from school at the age of 15 in the summer of 1946 and was soon into the busy sporting scene of the area. Covering the track cycling events at Herne Hill stadium was one of those tasks and within two years, I had a special accreditation to cover the Olympic programme at the stadium.

All this was in the aftermath of war; rationing and shortages were still a normal part of living and the Herne Hill Stadium received little more than a touch of paint here and there and some wooden sheds ahead of the Olympics. For such an event it was cursory treatment but at a time when the buzzword of the day was “utility”, it was all that anyone could expect.

My News Editor applied for an accreditation – for the cycling only – and the yellow card with the 1948 logo of Big Ben and a discus thrower from the ancient Games duly arrived. The press box at Herne Hill had been slightly enlarged and included several telephones at the back, complete with hood covers.

It was from one of these that I struggled with a box of matches to telephone my final piece on the Games to Dixon’s News Agency (which was to become Hayter’s) for which I received the sum of 31s 8d per day, which was not bad for someone on £2 15s per week from a local paper.

The darkness? London had had barely two years in which to prepare for the Games and it was astonishing in the circumstances that they managed as well as they did. The 1948 organisers knew most things about arranging an international track programme, but they overlooked the effect of one small rule. In those days sprint cyclists were allowed to balance motionless on their machines and wait for their opponent to make the first move. In effect the racing, in the sprints, only got under way across the final 200 of the 1,000 metres. There was no time limit to this inactivity, and on the final day several sprinters used the ploy. In one race, a pair adopted their statuesque pose for 22 minutes.

OFFICIALS STOOD BY THE TRACK, looked at the cyclists, might even have gestured or pointed to their watches, but the riders were perfectly within the rules. Thus the day’s programme ran so late that by the time we reached the last event, the 2,000m tandem sprint, the sun had slipped away – there were no floodlights – and the referee no doubt was hoping that either the British pair, Reg Harris and Alan Bannister, or the Italians, Ferdinando Teruzzi and Renato Perona, would take the gold medal by winning the first two races of the best-of-three final.

Harris and Bannister beat the Italians handsomely with a scorching final 200m in 11.1sec in the first heat. Alas, the Italians then made it one-all, and with the requisite rest time before the deciding race, darkness had almost completely closed in.

I vividly remember in that final event staring out across the track and all I could see flashing down the back straight was the white in the British vests; the Italians in their blue were indiscernible. The finish was one of the closest of the Games and the Italians earned the gold medal by just six inches.

It was something of a disappointment for Britain since Reg Harris had been world sprint champion in 1947 and was favourite not only to win the gold in the individual event (where he was beaten by Mario Ghella of Italy) but with a good chance in the tandem.

Haltingly, as each match flickered out, I managed to dictate the exploits of the British pair. But at the end I was severely rebuked over the phone by Arthur Dixon, the head of the agency, for not having carried a torch. It was something I would never bother with in my 50 years of journalism which lay ahead of me.

THE STORY OF HOW LONDON came to be awarded those 1948 Olympics is one which, six decades on, may seem even more remote. In September 1945, five months after the war in Europe had ended, a few members of the International Olympic Committee met and recommended that London stage the Games of 1948, as had been mooted before the war. All the IOC members had to have a say in the decision, so it was only after it had been confirmed by postal ballot the following March that London had the go-ahead.

The IOC wanted to maintain its independence but knew that there had to be help from Government, but there could not be the sort of financial underpinning which is necessary today. Britain was not only repairing the damage of the war, but in effect it was changing its political colour, with the Labour Government bent on a programme of nationalisation.

While on the one hand the Head of the Organising Committee was Lord Burghley, a gold medal-winner in 1928 and a member of the class which had virtually ruled Britain since medieval times, the British Government had a cabinet Minister who also understood the Olympic ethos. Philip Noel-Baker had been a silver medal-winner in the 1,500 metres of 1920 and a British team official at the Berlin Games of 1936.

While Noel-Baker found solutions to many problems, he could do nothing about the weather and in the winter of 1947, Britain was gripped by ice and snow. When the freeze finally ended, the thaw brought floods. Industry was buckling, railways seized up and the Government imposed a midweek ban on sport to reduce absenteeism. Yet organising the Games struggled on with a spirit which in many ways mirrored the war-time attitude.

Clothes were still rationed and so was bread, but for the period of the Games the Government allowed bakers to produce white loaves for all the competitors because it was felt that the grey, insipid bread on which the rationed British population existed would be unpalatable to visitors.

Britain did get a lot of help feeding the 4,099 competitors from 59 countries – Holland sent 100 tons of fresh vegetables, Denmark 160,000 eggs and Ireland and Czechoslovakia 25,000 bottles of mineral water between them.

Amateurism was rigidly maintained but the British Olympic Association seemed to carry the philosophy to an absurd point over television. For the first time, Olympic events were being transmitted into private homes (TV pictures had been relayed into halls and theatres in Berlin in 1936). The BBC drew up a facility contract for the event and insisted that they were legally obliged to pay the Organising Committee a fee. Burghley and his colleagues felt that they should not be tainted by money, and so the cheque for 1,000 guineas was never cashed.

There were few grumbles but one which caused much dissention to the point of a petition of protest concerned the opening ceremony at Wembley Stadium. It was announced that John Mark would carry the torch into the stadium and light the Olympic flame. Mark was not an athlete but had youthful, athletic looks associated with the Games.

This choice brought cries of protest by many members of Blackheath Harriers, the club of Sydney Wooderson who had competed in the Games of 1936 and subsequently broke the mile and 880 yards world records. He had retired from track running (because an Achilles injury) but in the spring of 1948 Wooderson had won the English National cross-country title over a tough nine miles. It epitomised him as a great middle- and long-distance runner and Blackheath felt that the honour of carrying the torch should go to him.

Moreover – after the event – many people with a political awareness felt that the Mark conveyed the Aryan image of supremacy which was a theme of the Berlin Olympic Games so vividly portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 celebration. The protest failed, but four years later the Finns took up the idea when Paavo Nurmi, who in the three Games of the 1920s had won nine gold and three silver medals, took the torch into the Helsinki Olympic Stadium to a roar of noise which could be heard throughout the city.

THE LONDON CELEBRATION OF 1948 was definitely the Games of initiative. This was to be found almost everywhere that an Olympic event was taking place. At Herne Hill, it was a coach driver who really stopped some grumbles.

The organisers had built bike sheds at the track, probably not realising that an international cyclist and his machine are rarely parted. The sheds remained largely unused for their original purpose, as the cyclists struggled to get their bikes on the Green Line coaches which carried them from the Olympic accommodation at Uxbridge, where they were housed in an old RAF camp, to the track and back.

On a practice day, one of the coach drivers realised there was a problem with all the riders struggling to get on and off his vehicle, so while the cyclists did their training he went to his tool box under the side of the coach, found an appropriate spanner and undid four of the bolted down seats in the front of his bus and piled them up on the back row, thus creating enough space just inside the door to stack the bikes. Happy riders back to Uxbridge.

In view of the war-weary state of British sport at the time, cycling made a significant contribution to Britain’s 1948 medal haul. Four silvers (sprint, tandem, team time trial, road team time trial) and two bronze (individual time trial, team pursuit) – six in a total from an overall tally from all sports of 23 medals.

The epicentre of those 1948 Games was Wembley (pictured), where Fanny Blankers Koen, of Holland, won four gold medals and Emile Zatopek emerged as a new force in middle-distance running, winning gold in the 10,000m and silver in the 5000m.

The athletics programme got off to a bad start; the obstacles in the 400 metres hurdles the opening event were wrongly set out and rearranging them caused a 20-minute delay. But there were many incidents which showed the flexibility of the organisation.

In one, the Yugoslav team manager, Artur Takac, having a busy day, forgot that he had a competitor, Ivan Gubijan, in the final of the hammer (he qualified in last place). Takac got into a panic, realising that his athlete might miss his final, and so rushed to the transport office at the Olympic Village to order a cab.

“Where to sir?”

“Wembley stadium.”

“Oh don’t worry, we’ll look after that.” So Takac and his hammer thrower journeyed alone on a specially-ordered Green Line bus to arrive at the stadium in time. Gubijan duly took the silver medal.

Sadly, the South London Press budget was not big enough to send me to Helsinki in 1952 or Melbourne in 1956, but my Olympic association was renewed when I covered the Games of Rome in 1960 for The Guardian, stepping in to fill the place left by my mentor and friend Larry Montague, an assistant editor of the paper who died suddenly a few weeks before the Olympics.

AMID THE BEWILDERING DAZZLE of events I found time to come across, for the first time, the International Olympic Committee, which controlled the Games. All these men (no women), mostly elderly, dark suited, met in one of Rome’s top hotels. In fact, it seemed to be a dictatorship run by Avery Brundage, a very right-wing American self-made millionaire who would not tolerate a step outside the amateur code which controlled most sports at that time.

Brundage was president from 1952 to 1972, during which time the Olympic movement remained utterly out of step with development throughout the world of sport. It did not take me long after this first encounter to realise that the Olympic movement needed modernising, so I set out to motivate a mood of change. But that didn’t happen in the way I envisaged.

The IOC was, and at the core still is, a private club, self-elected and responsible only to the IOC – they do not represent their countries, they represent the IOC in a country. The power lies with the president and his executive board.

This was the structure created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin when he founded the organisation in 1894 (with Athens staging the first Games two years later) and while the event every four years has grown – now with more than 200 countries and 10,000 competitors taking part in the Summer Games – the authority remains much as it was at the beginning.

Change has largely taken place since Lord Killanin began his eight-year presidency and Los Angeles, the only candidate city for 1984, introduced a much more open attitude towards commercialism which in turn led to some massive changes by Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish IOC President from 1980 to 2001. For most of those years, I served on the IOC’s Press Commission, trying to improve the facilities for a growing clamour of journalists who wanted to cover the Games.

It was frustrating job, with each new Organising Committee bubbling with ideas, when really they were re-inventing the wheel. Ensuring adequate hotel accommodation at all price levels, transportation schedules and facilities for the writers and photographers was a nightmare at times, with huge demands for more accreditations on the one hand and budget cut backs usually beginning in the media areas.

I can recall measuring the width and depth of desk space, large enough to accommodate a telephone (and later a computer lap top rather than a typewriter), the creation of mixed zones where journalists had after event contact with competitors, and the struggle against the demands of television who were paying for their rights.

For me it probably reached a high point (or low one, depending on your view) in a Press Commission meeting in Rome when I had a shouting match across the boardroom tables with Rick Perelman, the press officer of Los Angeles, a talented young man but who often did not accept the word “No”. Our verbal combat was only halted when Samaranch, as chairman, adjourned the meeting and told us, separately, to cool down.

Killanin (pictured above, left, with Leonid Brezhnev, centre, at the opening of the 1980 Moscow Games) set the scenario for change. The first came when Los Angeles, the only candidate, staged the Games in 1984 on a strictly commercial basis. Not only were the television contracts revalued but sponsorship was given greater encouragement. The IOC maintained its ultimate control but the reins were loosened.

Samaranch brought about more change, much was criticised, but the IOC is now a wealthy organisation recognised by world bodies from the UN downwards. The sophistication of the Games now is a far cry from London’s second celebration, but I suspect that while de Coubertin may wince at some of the goings on, he would rejoice that his invention is now truly worldwide.

John Rodda was athletics, boxing and Olympic correspondent at The Guardian from 1960 through until his retirement after the 1996 Atlanta Games, when he moved to Somerset. His most famed pieces of coverage include the shooting of student protesters in Mexico City months before the 1968 Games, and the 1972 Munich massacre.

To read previous articles in our series TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT, including Hugh McIlvanney on George Best and John Arlott on Jim Laker, click here

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