How the Austerity Olympics struck gold for London

The estimated cost of staging the London 2012 Olympics has already rocketed to £9bn. How different from the Austerity Games of 1948, which actually turned a profit.

The 1948 Olympic Games or the Games of the 14th Olympiad, to give them their official title, sound as though they were a shambolic affair.

They were organised at two years' notice by a bunch of toffs/former Olympians (including the legendary Harold Abrahams) who could afford not to work while they found venues and accommodation, rostered events and worked out the logistics and diplomacy needed to move 4,000 athletes (only 385 of them women) and trainers around London for two weeks.

Every borough of the city was still badly affected by Second World War bombing, little rebuilding had started, and the whole country was in the grip of rationing. Unlike the expensive plans for purpose-built apartments to accommodate the estimated 10,250 athletes expected in 2012, in 1948 there were no dedicated lodgings for the sportsmen and women from 59 nations.

What London did have was a Ministry of Supply and scores of schools which were closed early that summer and turned into makeshift dormitories with iron bedsteads drafted in from former Army and Air Force camps. London buses would be used to ferry athletes about.

The Government was rightly reluctant to part with any money for building work or facilities for foreign athletes and visitors while its own population was struggling to eat.

But despite the austerity of the times, there was a real appetite for the Games after two Olympiads were missed during the War, following the sickening show of nationalism during the Berlin Games of 1936. Germany and Japan were not invited in 1948, and the Russians also had to languish at home.

The main athletics venue at Wembley Stadium was a converted dog track cobbled together with cinders to make a running circuit. The Olympic swimming pool was a hastily-transformed ice-rink. Sailing events took place 150 miles away at Torquay, where the hotels had been shut down for 10 years.

The legendary Czech distance runner Emil Zatopek (who apparently trained by running in his Army boots, often with his javelin-thrower wife on his back) said: "After all those dark days – the bombing, the killing, the starvation – the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out... Suddenly there were no frontiers, no more barriers, just the people meeting together."

The British weren't the only competitors who had to be inventive with their kit, often fashioning running shorts from towels, with the finished look of baggy old knickers. Sweden and Finland donated timber for gymnastic equipment and purchase of new boxing gloves, footballs and basketballs was authorised on strict condition that they were sold off later at cost price.

Cars had to be driven into the Herne Hill velodrome to illuminate races one evening, after the programme overran into the twilight. It was all terrifically amateurish – and the competitors were more or less all amateur, give or take the Hungarians, who were paid to do a workout every day as part of their their nation's armed forces, or American college students who'd been given sporting bursaries.

Writer Janie Hampton set off on a three-year research odyssey in search of those who could tell stories about the Austerity Olympics after a chance encounter in Trafalgar Square in July 2005. She was there with thousands of others to watch the announcement via live satellite link from Singapore, of which city would host the 2012 Olympics.

The writer found herself standing next to an elderly woman who, after hearing the good news, said "'ll be very different to the last time... It was our first celebration after the war and we were still on rations. We all pulled together." The woman had been to watch the 1948 Olympics, including the swimming events at the Empire Pool.

Hampton wanted to hear more but the woman quickly disappeared, leaving her intrigued. After a few days spent reading contemporaneous reports of those Games 60 years ago, Janie Hampton decided to write about the Olympics that were like no others before or since.

It was a very different project for Hampton – by her own admission she'd never even made it into the netball team at school, and her previous 15 books stretched across fiction and biography, including an acclaimed work on Joyce Grenfell.

But her account of The Austerity Olympics is a fast-paced, entertaining and well-researched canter through the "make do and mend" event which left many many people involved saying it was the "friendliest" sporting festival they'd ever attended.

"I sent off 93 letters to surviving Olympians and 58 letters to Olympic associations, requesting interviews. I was interested not just in the athletes, but in organisers, boy scouts and other who volunteered their time, and those who reported on and broadcast the Games," says Hampton.

The boy scouts were not paid but given three meals a day – as good as a salary to their cash-and-rations-strapped parents.

The book tells of the problems which beset Matt Busby, who was given the task of pulling together at six weeks notice a random collection of football players from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their practice ground was a school playground, but they came a respectable fourth.

Even without the strictures of rationing – athletes were allowed an upgrade to the same food allowance as coal miners – there was little knowledge about the connection between good diet and sporting performance, says Hampton.

"Magnus Pike, the government nutritionist, just told athletes to eat as much as they could, but very little was available and quite a few passed out during events. The weather was often very hot during the fortnight. Some people had been told to drink no water in the 24 hours before an event, and to take honey to help dehydrate themselves. Goodness knows why.

"Some other nations, especially the Americans, were really very shocked to see the state of London and the effects of rationing. I think the organisers intended them to take that message home." The Americans made sure they got their hands on steaks and were, by all accounts, pretty good at sharing." No wonder the Americans came top of the medals board.

Many stars shone at the 1948 Olympics in London. The Dutch sprinter and "flying housewife" Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals at 36 years old. The mother of two was the world record holder in long jump and high jump, but won her medals in London at four track events.

Different sports, then as now, were predominantly associated with certain social classes. Fencers and oarsmen tended to be middle-class, while weightlifting attracted working class athletes and athletics tended to cut across barriers, says Hampton.

An exception to the rule in rowing was Bert Bushnell, a local lad whose family lived on the Thames and made boats at Wargrave for the Royal Navy. When Bert became a talented young rower, his father apprenticed him as a marine engineer, so his job would not hamper his amateur status.

At the Olympics, Bushnell was paired with Eton and Oxford rowing blue Dickie Burnell. Despite a certain amount of class tension, they beat off the Uruguayans to snatch the gold. Looking back, the unassuming Bushnell says: "The Olympics didn't feel a big deal. It was like Henley regatta with a few foreigners thrown in."

Frenchwoman Micheline Ostermeyer, who had previously won silver in the shot put in the European athletics finals in 1946, the same year she won the Prix Premier as a concert pianist at the Paris Conservatoire, picked up a discus for the first time a few weeks before coming to London.

She threw 41 metres to win gold, and followed up with gold in the shot put. She celebrated by playing a Beethoven concert for other female athletes.

The many extraordinary characters at the Austerity Olympics also included British weightlifter Jim Halliday, who had survived Dunkirk, capture by the Japanese and hard labour, leaving camp weighing only four and a half stone. Returning to England, he worked in a power station shovelling coal, and by 1948 was captain of the British weightlifting team, winning a bronze at the London Games.

All Olympics are about ideals of peace and harmony, participation and community. That ethos had even greater resonance in 1948, says Hampton.

"People were very emotional at the end about having come together in peace. They were special games because of what people had been through. If you interview today's athletes, they haven't fought in a war. Back then, they had lived through tough times, times they didn't want to go through again."

The Austerity Olympics by Janie Hampton is published by Aurum Press, 18.99. To order from The Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to P&P cost 2.75.