Philip Barker

In 2020, getting back to “normal” has been a constant theme in sport. After last week’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board meeting, President Thomas Bach was optimistic that the Olympics would take place next year.

“There is great progress being made to make these Olympic Games fit for the post-corona world. This makes both the Organising Committee and the IOC very very confident,” said Bach.

“We see also in Japan, the examples that big sports events can take place even now under the restrictions in place right now.

“We also have seen a great number of international events, even World Championships taking place, so this can also give the Japanese people confidence in the preparations. We can also encourage the Japanese people who have doubts to have confidence in their own efficiency.”

Seventy-five years ago, the world craved sporting normality for different reasons. The Second World War had seen basic standards of humanity violated.

In the final year of the war, Felix Flatow, double gymnastics gold medallist for Germany at the 1896 Olympics, died in a concentration camp where he had been imprisoned because he was Jewish.

Scotland’s Eric Liddell, 400 metres champion in 1924, had been working as a missionary in China, but he died in an internment camp.

Ferenc Csik, Hungary’s 100m freestyle champion from 1936, was killed in an air raid whilst working as an army medic.

If Tokyo 2020 can indeed go ahead, it will do so in a world forever changed by the coronavirus pandemic ©Getty Images
If Tokyo 2020 can indeed go ahead, it will do so in a world forever changed by the coronavirus pandemic ©Getty Images

His compatriot, 1928 fencing gold medallist János Garay, perished in a concentration camp only five days before the war ended.

Even after the fighting had stopped, Germany’s 1928 water polo gold medallist Emile Benecke died at a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Riga.

The surrender of Japan did not come until atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A few days later the IOC Executive Committee met in London.

IOC vice-president Sigfrid Edström flew in from Sweden and Avery Brundage made his journey from the United States to join Lord Aberdare in London.

Count Alberto Bonacossa had been unable to travel from Italy and the Marquis Melchior de Polignac was still in France.

Even so it was the first official meeting of IOC members for almost six years.

IOC President Henri Baillet-Latour had died in 1942 when Belgium was under Nazi occupation.

Edström reported that “he had taken charge of the activity of the IOC” from his home in Sweden.

A postal ballot had elevated the American Avery Brundage to vice-president.

Most significantly, the IOC also decided that the 1948 Games should go ahead.

“The time for preparations being very short and travelling facilities at present very difficult, it was decided not to call a meeting of the IOC at present but postpone said meeting until September 1946.”

The host cities for Summer and Winter Games in 1948 were “chosen by a vote by correspondence”.

Sigfrid Edström, fourth President of the International Olympic Committee ©Getty Images
Sigfrid Edström, fourth President of the International Olympic Committee ©Getty Images

The list of possibles included many from the United States but “after careful consideration”, the IOC sent out ballot forms with a strong recommendation of St Moritz for the Winter Games and London for the Summer. The group also inspected Wembley Stadium, a potential Olympic venue.

Edström reported that IOC assets totalled around CHF28,000. In those days members were still required to fund their own travel and pay a regular subscription.

The Executive Committee was charged with finding “new men with active interest in sports and suitable qualifications as members of the IOC.”

One existing member they could have done without was Italian Giorgio Vaccaro. He had become an IOC member in 1939. He was closely linked with Benito Mussolini’s Fascists but showed no inclination to do the decent thing.

The IOC was certainly encouraged by the emergence of a new generation of sports stars.

Five thousand, many in uniform, packed into Madison Square Garden to watch ice skating in the early months of 1945.

The 16-year-old Canadian champion Barbara Ann Scott won the North American ladies singles “with a performance as crisp and showy as the snowy heights of her Canadian homeland.”

Dick Button, 15, representing the Philadelphia Skating and Humane Society, won the junior competition. Both won Olympic gold in 1948.

In February, Sugar Ray Robinson fought the “Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta. It was their fourth meeting of six.

The Ring, a highly-respected American boxing magazine, declared that the bout “featured the best single round of the rivalry.”

Robinson won on points and the pair clashed again in September in what The Ring described as “Battle V”.

Once more it was Sugar Ray who won on points after “Boxer and puncher traded momentum for 12 rounds.”

La Motta later observed: “I fought him so often it’s a wonder I didn’t get diabetes.”

Sugar Ray Robinson won four of five fights versus Jake LaMotta ©Getty Images
Sugar Ray Robinson won four of five fights versus Jake LaMotta ©Getty Images

The Boston Marathon had continued uninterrupted and in 1945, the winner was the remarkable Johnny “The Elder” Kelley. An Olympian on either side of the war, he raced in Boston on no fewer than 61 occasions, the last time in his 85th year.

Ice Hockey’s Stanley Cup also carried on its sequence. In the 1945 final, the Toronto Maple Leafs - who raced into a three-match lead against the Detroit Red Wings - were victorious, but only after the best-of-seven series went the distance.

In the decider, Walter “Babe” Pratt scored the winner.

Byron Nelson had won four majors before war curtailed tour golf. In 1945 though it was as if he had never been away. He won 19 of the 31 tournaments he entered.

During the war, football had continued in many countries including Nazi Germany.

After the war, permission was granted for a regional competition in Southern Germany.

The year 1946 would ordinarily have been a World Cup one, but this was impossible, though gradually, domestic leagues restarted and international football resumed.

In Argentina, River Plate won the league championship ahead of Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors. That season, a teenager named Alfredo Di Stéfano made his debut for River. Within a decade many more would know his name at Real Madrid.

In Italy, Torino won Serie A. They dominated club football until the Superga air disaster wiped out their entire team in 1949.

The West had been allied with Soviet Russia during the war. In November 1945, Dynamo Moscow made a goodwill tour to Britain. The club was part of the "People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs" or NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB.

Secret policemen or not, their style of play proved a revelation and became known as "Passovotchka".

Officially, 74,496 watched Dynamo draw 3-3 against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but the actual attendance was probably much higher.

In Cardiff, the Russians were presented with miniature miners’ lamps by the Cardiff City players.

They responded with a 10-1 victory which cinema newsreels called “football’s sensation of the year.”

Dynamo Moscow players take to the field against Chelsea ©Getty Images
Dynamo Moscow players take to the field against Chelsea ©Getty Images

Before meeting Dynamo, Arsenal bolstered their team with England internationals Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen. "The composition of the English team published today differs considerably from the Arsenal team previously made known," observed the Russians before they won 4-3 in a match played in heavy fog.

In Glasgow, 90,000 crammed in to see the Russians serenaded with bagpipes before a 2-2 draw against Rangers.

Rugby union was then strictly amateur but the restrictions were relaxed during war time. On the first day of 1945 the British Army met a French XV in Paris. The army included professional rugby league star Gus Risman.

“Victory” internationals were played throughout the year. The Royal New Zealand Air Force XV beat the South African Services at Richmond.

In April, the French came to Britain where they lost to a British Empire team at Richmond.

The official Five Nations championship did not resume until 1947, at which point the old rules on amateurism were also restored.

Cricket had played an important part in summers of wartime.

In 1945, Sir Pelham Warner of the Marylebone Cricket Club helped bring about a tour by the Australian Armed Forces team. This was expanded to include a series of “Victory Tests”.

Australian Prime Minister John Curtin cabled a message: “Tendering my warmest wishes to English cricket. I would be particularly grateful if you would convey to the respective captains, sincere good wishes for the reopening of a series which I hope will never again be interrupted.”

Appropriately perhaps, the five-match series was drawn.

London hosted the 1948 Summer Olympics - the first following World War Two ©Getty Images
London hosted the 1948 Summer Olympics - the first following World War Two ©Getty Images

There was also a match between England and a combined “Dominions” XI, captained by the great West Indian Learie Constantine.

Warner described this as “cricket in excelsis”.

First-class cricket resumed in Australia that November.

In neutral Sweden, athletics had been uninterrupted and in July 1945, Sweden’s Gunder Hägg lowered the mile world record set by countryman Arne Andersson at a meeting in Malmo .

“Running in almost tropical heat, the two Swedish rivals matched stride for stride around the fast Malmo track” said news agency reports.

Hägg was described in the New York Times as the “Swedish swifty”.

On the last day of September, the Finnish runner Viljo Heino set a one-hour record covering 19,339 kilometres in Turku. It beat the record set by his illustrious compatriot Paavo Nurmi.

Sport was welcomed with open arms during the immediate post-war years as fans returned in their millions.

The absence of spectators will perhaps be the biggest difference in 2020.