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The Olympic Games around World War II

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

No Olympic Summer Games this year. The current COVID-19 pandemic forced the International Olympic Committee to postpone the planned 2020 Olympic Summer Games to be held in Tokyo to next year. Hopefully...

These were not the first Olympic Games that were cancelled. The 1916 Summer Games, that had been awarded to Berlin, were cancelled because of World War I. The 1940 Summer Games were originally planned to be held in Tokyo. However, the 2nd Sino-Japanese war, which started in 1937, forced the Japanese government to cancel the games in 1938. The International Olympic Committee then awarded the games to Helsinki. But with the outbreak of World War II, these games were cancelled as well.

The 1944 Olympic Summer Games had been awarded to London just before the outbreak of World War II, but obviously, could not take place. So it was not until 1948 that Summer Games could take place. But what a difference it was from previous Games, especially when compared to the megalomania of the last Games before World War II.

The 1936 Berlin Games

The 1936 Summer Games in Berlin where an extravaganza. Hitler had ordered the build of an enormous stadium, many sports halls and fields, as well as a quite luxurious Olympic Village to accommodate the athletes. It was intended as a showcase of his Nazi government.

Detail from map "Deutschland das schöne Reiseland, Riemer, c1938

Most sports venues were build at the Reichssportfeld complex at the Northwest part of the city of Berlin. On the map below, the complex can be seen between the two legends at the left side of the map. This 1946 map came with the book "Views and Facts of Berlin as seen through the eyes of the American soldier and intended for the folks and friends at home". It served as an information booklet for families of members of the American Occupation Forces, and was prepared under the direction of the 78th division Special Services Office.

Berlin in 1946, map from a service guide for the American Occupation Forces

Besides the Olympic Stadium, with a capacity of around 100.000 people, the complex included a swimming stadium, a hockey stadium, and many other sport fields, courts and halls. It could be reached by newly build S and U-bahn stations.

Map of the Reichsportfeld from the 1936 edition of Baedeker's guide to Germany

The 1948 Games in London

The contrast between the 1936 Berlin and the 1948 London Games could not have been bigger. Because of the poor postwar economic conditions, with food and many other life necessities being rationed, no new sport venues were built for the London Olympics. Most events took place in or around the Empire Stadium at Wembley Park. The Empire Stadium was build in 1923 for the British Empire Exhibition, held in 1924-25.

Wembley - detail from Kerry Lee's London Bastion of Liberty Map (this version 1951)

London Transport produced a special guide for visitors of the Olympic Games. The simple design, with the use of 3 printing colours, matches the soberness of the Games themselves, which became knows as the Austerity Games. The Olympic Rings logo seems a bit haphazardly designed: the rings are much thinner and have much less overlap as usually depicted.

Olympic Games London 1948 London Transport - front

The front of the map, 'The Visitor's London', is surrounded by flags in red, green, blue, or white with the London Underground logo.

There is a white-on-blue Central Area Underground Map in the center of the map. This map is almost the same as the Central Area / Main Line Termini map from conventional London Underground diagrams from that era, the most striking difference being the reversal of background and line colour. Additionally, the image is cropped more than usual, especially on the upper and lower edge. This may be the reason that the name of its creator, H.C. Beck, is omitted. Usually his name was shown in the left lower hand corner.

Detail - London Transport Railways (Central Area)

The rest of the front is used to indicate places of interest, such as churches and museums, but also the locations of embassies and legations. This is indicative for the audience this folder was intended for: foreign visitors of the Olympic Games. Only embassies and consulates of participating countries are shown. Therefore, the German or Japanese embassies are not on the list. Both countries were not allowed to participate. The embassy of the USSR is missing as well. Although they were welcome, they chose not to participate, but only to send observers

The back of the guide, 'Olympic Games via London Transport', shows a list of the venues, with special emphasis on the main location, the Wembley Area, of which a map is shown. For all locations detailed information on how to get there is shown. The background has been decorated using an airbrush technique, and is somewhat reminiscent of the 1939 London Underground Diagram by Schleger. The Wembley area map shows bus stops, the Wembley Park underground station, and the Railway stations in the area.

Detail - The Wembley Area

It is estimated that 1.2 million people visited the Olympic Games in London, and many of them came from abroad. And they needed to find their way in London. This map is therefore not a rare specimen: 450.000 copies were printed.

So it is not a valuable map in terms of money. It is however an austere map, probably printed as cheap as possible, but nevertheless quite attractive in its own way. And therefore, a very nice graphic representation of the spark of light these Games have been to many people still living in very difficult conditions, only three years after a devastating war.

All maps: author's collection



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