The infamous Berlin Olympics of 1936 are most often remembered for two men: Adolf Hitler and Jesse Owens. Hitler had hoped the Games would prove his theory of Aryan racial supremacy and tried even to ban the participation of Jews and black athletes. When countries threatened to boycott Berlin in protest at this plan, Hitler relented.
Owens was one of those black athletes and had a point to prove to Hitler. He did so in emphatic style, winning four gold medals in track and field. Owens became a favourite of the crowd and of his fellow athletes. He was nearly disqualified from the Long Jump for overstepping the launch mark but before his final attempt was advised by his German rival Luz Long to jump from well behind the mark. Owens went on to beat Long in the final. Germany became the first country to finish with more medals than the USA.
Such a propaganda coup strengthened Hitler’s image in Germany, cementing his total authority and sending Germany on a path that would lead to a war from which the world has never fully recovered. World War II meant the Olympic Games would not return for another 12 years.
LONDON 1948 ‘The Flying Housewife’ lights up the ‘Austerity Games’
Rather like in 2012, when the Olympics returned to London in 1948 it did so in dark economic times. The war had ended four years earlier but people in London were still living off rations. British athletes were given increased food rations, from 2,600 calories a day to 5,400 calories.
The 1948 Games, which have become known as the Austerity Games but despite the restrictions London produced an efficiently organised event and the first Olympics to be broadcast into the homes of those fortunate enough to own a television set. The pick of the athletes was Fanny Blankers-Koen, a Dutch 30-year-old mother of two and known as “The Flying Housewife”, who won four gold medals in sprint events.
London 1948 also saw the first Olympic political defection, when a Czech gymnastics official refused to return to Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia. World War II may have ended but the Olympics was about to be set in the context of the Cold War.
Opening ceremony of the games of the 14th Olympiad
More world records were broken in Helsinki than at any other Olympic Games until Beijing in 2008. There were also two new countries: Israel and the USSR. The Soviets were to become a massive influence in the Olympics for decades to come, not least in female gymnastics which it was to dominate.
The USSR finished second in the medal table, behind the USA. Perhaps the stand-out individual was Czech athlete Emil Zatopek won gold in the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres and in a race he’d never won before: the marathon. He even took six minutes off the world record. No athlete has yet repeated this particular hat-trick of golds.