LIFE at the 1948 London Olympics

Mark Kauffman—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Mark Kauffman—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not published in LIFE. Torchbearer Henry Allen Bishop, 1948 London Olympics.
Culture
'40s

Taking place just three short years after the end of the Second World War, when much of London — and indeed, much of Europe — was still rebuilding after the devastation of the 20th century’s most cataclysmic conflict, the 1948 London summer Olympics were the first since the 1936 Berlin Games.

While the war was over, however, it was hardly forgotten. Neither Japan nor Germany was allowed to compete. (The third Axis power, Italy, sent more than 200 athletes to London, having — wisely — joined the Allies in the middle of the war after Mussolini was deposed and executed.) The Soviet Union, meanwhile, as LIFE told its readers in August 1945, “snubbed the whole show” — hardly surprising, as the USSR had not sent athletes to an Olympiad since 1922, and would not do so until 1952.

But whatever ideological fault lines existed around the globe in the immediate aftermath of the war, the obvious and overriding emphasis in London in 1948 was the athletes, and the generally friendly, intense competition on display.

As LIFE put it in an article shortly after the ’48 Games ended:

For 17 days — except for one night when there was trouble with the gas line — the torch flamed brightly at Wembley, England.

The ceremonial dignity of the London Olympiad was no match for the neopagan histrionics which characterized Adolf Hitler’s 1936 spectacle in Berlin. But by athletic standards the show was superb, despite the fact that the weather was the worst in Olympic history (the sun shone only three days). The general decorum of competing athletes was admirable, and only a very slight international tension followed a disputed U.S. victory in the 400-meter relay.

The U.S. won 38 golds in 1948, followed by Sweden (16), France and Hungary (10 apiece). The United Kingdom won three gold medals.

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