London 1948

After a 12-year hiatus caused by World War II, the Olympic Games returned in London in 1948. This was a sombre Games, coming at a time of massive re-building after the war. It was also the first Games since the death of the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in 1937. As a reminder of the impact on the war, many athletes were housed in former military barracks.

The London Games attracted 59 nations, a record number for participation. Of these, 37 nations featured on the medal table. The United States was the most successful team with 38 gold, with Sweden a surprise second with 16. 

If the world needed a distraction, the Olympics provided it. A number of outstanding athletes and heroes emerged at these Games. None shone brighter than Fanny Blankers-Koen. The Dutchwoman won four gold medals on the track – the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay – and remains the only female to win four athletics gold medals at a Games. She had competed in high jump at the Berlin 1936 Olympics but was unplaced. Another athletics star who made his mark at these Games was Emil Zatopek. The Czech star won the 10,000m gold medal and was second in the 5000m, and would return to the Games in 1952 and 1956 to establish himself as one of the classic distance runners of history.

Australia at these Games

Australia sent a record team of 77 athletes, 68 men and 9 women, to the London Games, more than double the size of any previous Olympic team. It competed in an unprecedented nine sports – aquatics (diving, swimming, water polo), athletics, boxing, cycling, rowing, sailing (yachting), shooting, weightlifting and wrestling. The team also won a record number of medals, with two gold, six silver and five bronze. The total of 13 medals would remain a record until Melbourne hosted the Games in 1956.

The two gold medallists were John Winter in the men’s high jump and rower Merv Wood in the single scull, continuing Australia’s excellent record in that event. Winter, from Western Australia, was the last Australian to win a field event at the Olympics until Steve Hooker in 2008. Wood was competing at his second Games after rowing in Australia’s eight at Berlin in 1936. He would represent Australia twice more at the Games, winning medals both times. 

Australia won medals in four sports – aquatics (swimming), athletics, rowing and wrestling. The wrestling mats provided two medals, with Richard ‘Dick’ Garrard winning a silver and Jim Armstrong a bronze. Australia has not won a wrestling medal since. 

A handful of Australians made their Olympic debuts in London and would go on to even greater prominence. Shirley Strickland won three medals at her first Games, a silver in the 4x100m relay team and bronze medals in the 100m and 80m hurdles. In boxing, Jimmy Carruthers reached the quarter-finals in the bantamweight division. He would become one of Australia’s most popular professional boxers. Cyclist Russell Mockridge, destined to be a star of the 1952 Olympics, raced in the team pursuit and road race. Freestyle swimmer John Marshall won a silver medal (1500m) and bronze medal (400m) and would later tear through the record books, once setting 15 world records in a month.

The honour of carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremony was given to water polo player Les McKay. It was the first time Australia participated in water polo.