1948 United States Olympic Team

London is the first city to host a Summer Olympiad on three occasions – in addition to 2012, Britain’s capital also hosted the 1948 and 1908 Olympic Games. The wrestling team that represented the United States in 1948 included a remarkable eight Hall of Fame Distinguished Members. Cliff Keen of Michigan was the team manager and Art Griffith of Oklahoma State was the head coach. Among the squad of 16 wrestlers were six Hall of Fame members. A trio of Iowa Teachers (now Northern Iowa) competitors, Gerry Leeman, Bill Koll, and Bill Nelson, qualified for the team. Nelson was injured just prior to the event and was unable to compete. Henry Wittenberg, Glen Brand, and Dick Hutton also represented the U.S. Wittenberg and Brand won gold medals and were the first Americans to do so since 1936.

London 1948

London was awarded the 1944 Olympic Games in June 1939, but World War II resulted in the cancellation of the Games. London again stood as a candidate for the 1948 Games, but Great Britain nearly declined to host them because of post-war financial and rationing problems. However, King George VI intervened and argued that the Games could be used to help Britain recover from the war. In March 1946 the International Olympic Committee, through a postal vote, awarded the summer Games to London ahead of Baltimore, Minneapolis, Lausanne, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

At the time of the Games food, gasoline, and housing rationing was still in place in Great Britain — the 1948 Olympics came to be known as the “Austerity Games”. Athletes were given increased food rations, the same as those received by dockworkers and miners. However, building an Olympic Village or new venues was deemed too expensive. Athletes competing at the Games were housed in existing accommodations. Male competitors stayed at Royal Air Force camps in Uxbridge, West Drayton, and Richmond and female competitors in London colleges.

Very little media attention was devoted to the competition. Live, worldwide telecasts of events and the Internet were decades in the future. The Games took place during a period of heightened tension between the West and the Soviet Union. Just one month before the start of the London Olympics, the Soviet Union blocked railway and road access of the three Western powers to their occupied sectors of Berlin, Germany. It was the first major international crisis of the Cold War.

The Games opened on July 29th and continued through August 14th. A record 59 nations participated in the Games with 4,104 athletes, 3,714 men and 390 women, in 19 sports. Because of their roles as aggressors in World War II, Germany and Japan were not invited to participate. The Soviet Union, the preeminent wrestling power in the second half of the 20th century, was invited, but chose not to send any athletes. The United States team won both the most medals (84) and the most gold medals (38).

The wrestling competition took place in eight weight classes for both Greco-Roman and freestyle. The freestyle competition was held from July 30th to August 2nd and the Greco-Roman from August 3rd to August 6th. London’s Empress Hall served as the venue for the wrestling. The U.S. did not enter a team for Greco-Roman wrestling. This was the last Games in which America did not compete in both styles.

Sweden and Turkey, two countries that did not suffer from the ravages of World War II, dominated the wrestling competition. Turkey won a total of six gold medals, four in freestyle and two in Greco-Roman. Sweden won five of the eight classes in Greco-Roman and the most medals with 13. The U.S. finished third in the medal table, despite competing in just one style.

International Rules

The U.S. had not participated in a major international tournament since 1938 and the NCAA and the AAU did not use the International Association of Wrestling Federations rules for any of its competitions. Also, there were very few American wrestling officials familiar with the rules or had even seen any bouts using them. The IAWF rules were radically different than domestic rules and included the touch fall, which would prove to be a nemesis for American wrestlers.

International bouts were 15 minutes in length for freestyle and 20 for Greco-Roman. For freestyle there would be six minutes of wrestling on the feet, followed by two three minute periods of parterre (on the mat), then followed by another three minutes on the feet. If a bout did not end in a fall in the first six minutes of wrestling, each contestant got three minutes in the offensive position in the parterre periods. There was one exception to 6-3-3-3 periods. At the end of the first six minutes, if the judges agreed by a 3-0 or 2-0-1 vote that one wrestler was leading, then that wrestler was given the option of continuing for three more minutes on the feet before the parterre periods. The match became three periods of 9-3-3.

In parterre wrestling, the contestant “on top” was given the opportunity to attack, while his opponent was required to be passive — remain as non-combative as possible on his hands and knees. If the action resulted in what Americans would consider a reverse, it was allowed to continue only if it resulted in a pinning situation. Otherwise, the referee stopped action and put the defender back down on the mat. Also, no escapes were allowed during a parterre period.

The simultaneous touching of both shoulders to the mat was consider a fall, no matter how short the duration of the contact, and it would end a match. If a bout did not end in a fall, a jury of three judges would determine the winner. These judges were required to keep notes for the bout on their “scoring papers” and use them in determining the victor based upon wrestling superiority. This “scoring” of a bout was not visible either to the wrestlers or the audience. The winner was determined by a majority vote of the judges and split decision victories were common. A judge was required to vote for one of the wrestlers — no ties were permitted.

The tournament bracketing did not use the single elimination system common in American tournaments. Match pairings were based upon numbers drawn by the contestants at the weigh-in. A bad mark system was used to eliminate wrestlers from competition. A wrestler winning by fall, disqualification or default received zero bad marks and the loser was given three. For jury decisions, the winner got one bad mark and the loser three. If the jury was split, then the winner got one bad mark and the loser two. A wrestler was eliminated when he accumulated five bad marks. Tournament placing was based upon the fewest number of bad marks and the round in which a wrestler was eliminated. In future international tournaments, a round robin system was introduced when three contestants remained in the competition. The London Olympics did not use this system and resulted in U.S. wrestler Leland Merrill winning a bronze rather than silver medal.

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