The forgotten 1948 Olympic heroes: How Nazi victims banned from Games created their own sporting legacy

By Helen Le Caplain

With the London 2012 Olympics just around the corner the excitement of athletes and sports fans alike is reaching fever pitch.

The opening ceremony is just days away and promises a spectacle, under the directorship of Danny Boyle, from Bury, that will celebrate the diversity of British culture.

Within the city itself, more than 300 languages are spoken and at least 50 non-indigenous communities are based there with populations of 10,000 or more.

However this celebration of cultural diversity is far removed from the London Olympics of 1948.

While many of the world’s top athletes were limbering up for those games, victims of Nazi persecution were denied permission to attend.

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, called the Displaced Persons Olympiad.

As Professor Peter Gatrell and Dr Jennifer Carson of the University of Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute explain, in its own way the DP Olympiad celebrated the ideals of the Olympic movement in an Olympic year.

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.”

These displaced athletes were living in what were initially created as assembly centres by the Allies in 1945, they were 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 instead asserted their national identity.

The centres were soon transformed into Displaced Persons camps – 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.

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.

“At 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 and 27, at Mittenwald camp in southern Germany.

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.

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