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London 2012: forgotten Olympic heroes of 1948

25 Jul 2012

Professor Peter Gatrell and Dr Jennifer Carson, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester

Start of mens 800m. Courtesy of Kon Sokolyk
Start of mens 800m. Courtesy of Kon Sokolyk

While many of the world’s top athletes were limbering up for the London Olympics in 1948, victims of Nazi persecution were denied permission to attend organised their own largely forgotten Olympiad.

In a bid to assert their national identities, the Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and others held a summer-long sports festival in the American Zone of Germany – the Displaced Persons Olympiad.

In its own way, the DP Olympiad would celebrate the ideals of the Olympic movement in an Olympic year.

Living in what were initially created as assembly centres by the Allies in 1945, the athletes had been used as forced labourers by the Nazis.

The American authorities expected them to voluntarily repatriate to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but they refused to submit to Communist rule and asserted their national identity.

The centres were soon transformed into Displaced Persons camps that were communities with churches, schools, libraries, youth associations, theatre groups, postal services and, one of the most popular activities, sport clubs.

In 1946, there were nearly 500 such camps housing approximately one million people, mostly from Eastern Europe.

Professor Gatrell said: “As the world’s attention turns to London 2012, it’s worth remembering the remarkable efforts made by victims of the Nazis’ forced labour programme, when London last hosted the Olympic Games.

“Having been refused permission to attend the London Olympics in their own right, organising their own games was a way of proving their identity as Ukrainians, Latvians and others, and aspiring to national independence.

“The DP Olympiad was held to remind the public at large who they were, as well as demonstrating their physical prowess after the rigours of war and displacement.”

Dr Carson said: “Organising the games was an amazing achievement in the most trying of circumstances. They had little money, transport and accommodation – and food was in short supply.”

“The organisers produced a commemorative stamp showing the Olympic rings. Several photographs have also survived.

“A this important moment in Britain’s sporting history, let’s also remember an almost completely forgotten chapter in 1948 – the last time London hosted the Games.”

The Displaced Persons Olympiad began with a men's volleyball tournament on June 26-27, at Mittenwald camp in southern Germany. A Ukrainian team beat teams of Hungarians and Yugoslavs. Poles organised boxing and table tennis competitions. Other events included basketball and football.

The highlight of the Olympiad was the track and field competition on July 31 and August 1 at Nuremberg's famous stadium. This event was hosted by the YMCA and YWCA.

Notes for editors

Images are available courtesy of the Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University, and Mr Kon Sokolyk.

Professor Gatrell and Dr Carson are available for comment.

For media enquires contact:
Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567
Michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk