Leicester's role in the 1948 Olympic Games

British stamps commemorating the XIV Olympiad

1948 was a memorable year for many reasons (Hello Mum!), but in the UK it is probably best remembered for the Olympic Games.

They were held in London, but it wasn't a one-city effort.  Reading a book on the history of London Olympics, I was interested to discover two curious links to my home town of Leicester.

The first was at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, where the greyhound track was turned into a running surface using 'cinders from the hearths of Leicester'.  According to a Leicester University press release, this was because Leicestershire coal was very high quality.  Eight hundred tons of fireplace fragments ended up being driven by lorry to London.

1948 marathon champion Delfo Cabrera (Italy) is delighted by the Leicestrian cinders*.

The second link to Leicester, though, is even stranger, as it features the only German to take part in the 1948 Games.

Helmut Bantz was a Luftwaffe pilot, shot down and captured during the Battle of Britain.  He became a prisoner of war, working as an agricultural labourer near Leicester, but in 1948 was given special dispensation to attend the city gymnastics championships.  There, he turned out to be pretty handy at the sport.

Germany was of course banned from entering the London Games, but Bantz performed so well in Leicester that the British gymnastics team overlooked the problem of his nationality and invited him to become their coach.  He accepted, receiving a British Olympic uniform, a spot in the Olympic village, and even the opportunity to march with the British team in the opening ceremony (which, perhaps understandably, he declined).

Even with the expert tutelage of Bantz. the British team didn't win any medals, but that wasn't the end of his Olympic exertions.  Eight years later, with Germany allowed to compete again, Bantz claimed his very own gold medal on the vault.  He went on to become a successful gymnastics coach and a lecturer in sports science at Cologne University.

Bantz never forgot his 1948 exploits, though, and an article about him on a German website includes this memorable quote:

"the Olympic trousers of the Englishmen are still in my cupboard"

*though my Leicestrian father has photographed many Olympic athletes, this isn't one of his.