Austerity Olympians Evoke Milking Cows in Postwar London Games
Edna Child was too busy milking cows in the British war effort to train more than a few hours a week for the diving competition at the 1948 London Olympics.
“I got one morning off a week, Saturday morning,” Child, 89, whose training diet was controlled by rationing rather than coaches, said in an interview. “We were allowed an extra amount of meat and that was a big thing, but no cheese and milk.”
Sixty-four years after Britain last hosted sport’s quadrennial showpiece, spending on the games has proliferated with athletes whisked to events down special highway lanes from airports to their purpose-built village through parts of London that still lay flattened by bombs in 1948.
The last games were organized for the equivalent of about 20 million pounds ($31 million) in today’s money compared with this summer’s 9.3 billion-pound spectacle, which starts July 27, according to London 2012 officials.
Child finished sixth in the Empire Pool at Wembley in 1948, on a diving board that was made out of two Douglas Firs given to the cash-strapped London organizing committee by Canada. At the 2012 Olympics, held in the same east London borough where Child grew up, British diver Tom Daley will be going for gold at the 250 million-pound Aquatics Centre. He trains six days a week.
“We couldn’t even afford to build the venues and the Swiss donated the gymnastic equipment,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told reporters. “We didn’t even have an Olympic village in 1948. They had to bring their own towels and they had to bunk up in school classrooms in west London.”
Dutch athlete Nel Karelse, 86, remembers watching television for the first time during the London Olympics, where she finished fifth in the long jump.
“I also drank my first Coca-Cola, and was deeply moved by a choir singing at the opening ceremony,” Karelse, who still attends gymnastics classes, said from Breda, the Netherlands. “The Olympics were an overwhelming event in my life.”
The London Summer Games were the first since Nazi Germany held the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Four-thousand athletes from fifty-nine nations took part. Germany and Japan were banned because of their role in the war. At London 2012, more than 10,000 athletes will take part from 204 countries.
The 1948 games were dominated by Fanny Blankers-Koen, the “Flying Housewife” from the Netherlands who won four track and field gold medals. No woman has repeated her feat. The mother- of-two was rewarded with a bicycle upon her return to Amsterdam.
“Fanny was just an amazing athlete,” Karelse said of her teammate, who died in 2004 at the age of 85. “She was under a lot of pressure as world record holder on most of her events, yet she delivered. She was undisputedly the biggest star of our team, and of the entire games really.”
Dutch gymnast Geertruida Heil-Bonnet, 92, recalled handing out butter and jam to the Austrian gymnastics team.
“Those girls were starving,” she said in an interview in Varsseveld, the Netherlands. On the way to Wembley Stadium, the Dutch team took the wrong train and ended up in Harrow-on-the- Hill on London’s outskirts. “We just made it back in time.”
Tragedy struck the gymnastics competition, where Heil- Bonnet, who later became an international gymnastics judge, finished fifth with her team.
Shortly after the Czechoslovakia team arrived in London, one of its members, 22-year-old Eliska Misakova, was taken ill. A few days later, she died of infantile paralysis on the first day of the team event. The Czech gymnastics team, which included her older sister, Miloslava, still competed and won gold.
“We were all in tears as the Czech flag was hoisted at the medal ceremony with a black ribbon, and her sister stood on the podium,” said Heil-Bonnet. “They arrived in a pair, and only one returned home. It was really tragic.”
Speaking at Times Square in New York, American basketball player Ray Lumpp, 89, recalled the hospitality of the British people after a seven-day boat ride from the U.S.
“They were still recovering from the war,” said Lumpp, who won gold in 1948 and later played for the New York Knicks. “You’ve got to admire the British for what they did and the games that they put on. They shared everything that they had and it was a great Olympics. But it was very difficult times.”
Diver Sammy Lee, a Korean-American doctor, made history by winning gold at the 10-meter platform. He successfully defended his title four years later in Helsinki.
“It was the greatest feeling in the world,” Lee said at Times Square in New York. “I hoped that other Asian-Americans who were watching would realize that any goal you set you can do, because you were born free.”
Born and raised in West Ham, east London, diver Child overcame a chest infection called empyema in her childhood to join the Land Army, an agricultural organization set up to provide food for the nation that was made up of women who replaced men at war.
She is looking forward to seeing 18-year-old Tom Daley at the Olympic pool, a stone-throw from the house she grew up in that was bombed during the war. As a competitor of the 1948 games, she’s been given two tickets for her event.
“I’m going to watch and I am going to enjoy it, thoroughly,” she said.
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