When Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the ancient Olympic Games in 1896, he had a vision that politics and diplomatic differences would be surpassed, that through sport all nations could be friends and all wars averted. Sadly, these ideals did not live long.

During the planning of the 1948 London Olympics, considerable diplomatic and political headaches were caused over the selection of invited nations. Following the precedent set after World War I, Germany and Japan were not invited, even though both countries still had representatives on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), namely His Excellency Duke Adolf Friedrich von Mecklenburg-Schwerin from Germany and Count Michimasa Soyeshima MA (Cantab) from Japan. Neither they nor their countries had officially been expelled because, as the Foreign Office noted, “hitherto they had lain doggo and it was not thought desirable to raise the question, which might cause unnecessary bother”.

The organisers prayed they would not try to come, but, only weeks before the event, Japan announced its intention to send a team.  Japan was still technically an enemy and its athletes could not have attended any function where the King was present. British diplomats warned that their presence would cause “serious public resentment”. To save face, the Japanese Olympic organisers were reminded that, under the Occupation by Allied Powers, no Japanese subjects could leave the country.

Germany, in the throes of being divided between East and West, did not try to compete, although the German IOC representative Dr Karl Ritter von Halt attempted to attend the Olympics as a Briton, because he lived in British-occupied West Germany. He was told firmly that visas were unavailable.

British athletes felt no personal animosity towards their former enemies. In August 1947 they had competed against German athletes in Cologne and noticed that they were so malnourished, they could hardly run. German prisoner-of-war Helmut Bantz had been world gymnastics champion before the war, and had kept fit working on farms near Leicester. The British Olympic gymnastic team invited him to be their secret coach. “I was the only German to take part in the 1948 Olympics,” he said proudly.

The IOC did not understand either political nuances or national feelings. The Swedish president of the IOC, Sigfrid Edström, elected vice-president in 1942 because of his ‘neutrality’, thought that both Japan and Germany should attend, and took the British organisers’ refusal to invite them as a personal affront. He wrote to Lord Burghley, the chairman of the British organising committee, “I am surprised that you take this attitude three years after the war ended. We men of sport ought to show the way for the diplomats.”

Some countries had simply disappeared since the last Olympiad in 1936. While Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia had competed at all the Olympics between 1920 and 1936, and won several medals, by 1940 they had been annexed by the Soviet Union. There had been a small Russian entry in 1912, but none since the October Revolution of 1917. Stalin believed that sport was too individualistic and not communist enough. The Soviet magazine Ogonyok stated that the Olympics was an imperialist plot of the US: “The Americans are prepared to bear the cost of the London Olympics”, wrote Sevidzh in The Role of Spam in Sport in 1947, “and guarantee food and sports equipment to ensure that sportsmen are from ‘politically reliable’ countries. There is no doubt that the Olympic emblem will adorn not only belt clasps and ties, but also tins containing American spam, in the guise of American pseudo-philanthropy.”

In theory, any nation with an operating Olympic committee was entitled to enter the Games. But the USSR had never formed one, and once the Soviet Union blocked the roads and railways to Berlin, Britain had no intention of encouraging its participation. Despite this, the Soviet Embassy in London bought tickets for every event. They must have liked what they saw, because by 1952 the Soviets had trained a huge team to compete in the next Olympics in Helsinki.

Many members of the IOC had vanished between 1939 and 1946, but not all. Churchill believed that the Olympics was a form of diplomacy, and was concerned about the suitability of pre-1939 members of the IOC to represent their countries.  Just before he lost the election in 1945, he telegraphed British embassies in Europe for their opinions. Classified for 50 years, government files now reveal that the Egyptian delegate was considered “a very bad man who should be dropped”. The Polish delegate was “not suitable. He is a rabid extremist and anti-communist”. Marquis Melchior de Polignac of France was “definitely not suitable, he and his wife have been imprisoned for collaboration”. The Belgian and Norwegian men were also known collaborators. General Giorgio Vaccaro of Italy had supported the Fascists, General Djoukitch of Yugoslavia was “certainly non grata” and, regarding one Dutch delegate, the Foreign Office “would be astonished if Colonel Scharroo was ever allowed to take any role again”. The other IOC member from the Netherlands, Lt Colonel Charles Pahud de Mortanges, who, as an equestrian, had won Olympic medals in 1928 and 1932, was acceptable – he had joined the Free Dutch army, was captured by the Nazis and escaped in 1942.

But the IOC was not interested in Churchill’s findings. Apart from Stephan Tchaprachiken of Bulgaria, who had committed suicide, these men not only came to London as IOC delegates, but some were also brought onto the executive committee. Among them was Avery Brundage, now the vice-chairman of the IOC. Brundage was a property developer from Chicago who was so determined to keep politics out of sport that he had supported the 1936 Berlin Olympics, having been shown personally by Hitler how well treated German Jews were under the Nazis. Even after the Nuremberg trials, Brundage sent food parcels to imprisoned Nazis. He lobbied hard for the 1948 Olympics to be in Los Angeles. Lord Aberdare, one of the British members of the IOC, was furious, and pointed out that back in 1938 the IOC had offered the Games to London, which was duly reselected before the Second World War had even ended.

Italy, a British ally before the end of the war, was invited. Many countries, including Burma, Guatemala, Korea and Lebanon, were represented for the first time.

The IOC took notice of politics when it felt like it. When Israel was created in May 1948, the IOC averted a boycott by Arab countries by ruling that the new state could not compete because it did not have an Olympic committee. Palestine had already accepted the invitation to participate but the IOC received a telegram, announcing that the state’s registration was withdrawn on the grounds that Palestine no longer existed.

Ireland had last competed in 1932 in Los Angeles, and now sent a team to London of over 100 competitors and officials. The British organisers, noting that some of the Irish entries were born in Northern Ireland, declared they could only compete for Great Britain. JF Chisholm, the team manager, pointed out that under the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act of 1937, if they wished to be, any citizens of Northern Ireland were also citizens of The Irish Free State. The International Rowing Federation had already accepted a rower from Belfast for the Irish rowing team. Boxer Ken Martin, a native of Northern Ireland, was competing for Ireland, whereas two swimmers had been barred.  

Chisholm, normally a quiet man, was enraged when the reasons for disallowing the Irish swimmers suddenly changed from their place of birth (Northern Ireland) to their voting eligibility. He pointed out that if this new rule was applied, then no one under 21 years could take part in the Olympics. Dozens of letters flew back and forth, but neither side wanted to give way.

The IOC remained ‘unpolitical’, and agreed with the British that Ireland should be called Eire, even though its official language was English. “The name of the state is EIRE, or in the English language, IRELAND,” wrote Chisholm to them. “Spain is not called España. I strongly protest against the action of the president of the IOC [Brundage] in refusing to carry out the Olympic Rules in regard to the appellation of countries, which states that they must be in either English, French or Spanish. He insists on calling us EIRE, which is the Gaelic title for Ireland.”

There was not enough money to buy Olympic uniforms for the whole Irish team, so only their boxers, fencers and rowers were able to take part in the Opening Ceremony. Outside Wembley Stadium, Chisholm insisted that his team “from Ireland would march between Iraq and Italy, and not between Egypt and Finland as ‘Eire’”.

He continued: “The staff officer stated that if we persisted, we would not be allowed in the parade and I enquired, who would stop us? He got somewhat nonplussed and remarked, that it looked as if this affair would develop into an international incident. I told him I did not want any kind of incident, only our rightful place in the parade according to the rules laid down by them. Colonel Johnstone, the Chief Marshall, said that the people of England knew us as ‘Eire’, and he always addressed his letters to his brother-in-law over there to Eire. He then informed me that if we persisted with this attitude, we would be stopped at the tunnel.” Chisholm backed down, and his team marched in behind a Boy Scout carrying the sign in Gaelic.

Chisholm’s determination was later redeemed at a Buckingham Palace reception. The national teams were arranged in the ante-room in alphabetical order, with the Irish team once again behind Egypt. But as they approached the Throne Room, the King’s Equerry asked how they would like to be announced? “Ireland,” said Chisholm firmly. The King did not seem to mind, but later Lord Burghley wrote to complain that under The Eire Confirmation of Agreement Act, 1938, the former Irish Free State was called Eire. He thought the matter would rest there. The row continued until 1949 when the Republic of Ireland was declared, and the IOC finally agreed that Ireland was the correct name.

As an ironic footnote to history, however, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the British were in charge of the loudspeakers and still called it Eire.

Janie Hampton is the author of The Olympics in London 1948 and The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948

Tags: 1948, History, Janie Hampton, Olympics