Mon, November 18, 2013

91-year-old runner remembers 1948 London Olympics

By THANE BURNETT, QMI Agency


Remembering the 1948 London Games
 

LONDON - Before the Olympics were bought and then sold back to us in collector pop cans.

Before a female Chinese swimmer could somehow mysteriously shatter her past performance by five seconds to claim gold.

Before pampered professional athletes saw easy opportunity against those who run on shoestring budgets.

Before competitors like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt could make a fortune by hawking cheese-flavoured snack-crap and over-priced sneakers.

Before all that there used to be more pedestrian Olympians like Jack Braughton.

The past is never as clear as it may appear in the rearview mirror.

But let's reverse slowly backwards to Jack's London Olympics -- the Games of 1948.

They weren't really well branded. And after a 12-year-hiatus, because of the Second World War, they were cheap, earning them the reputation of the Austerity Games.

New facilities weren't built. Visiting athletes were housed in existing buildings.

And multinational broadcast deals were not signed for exclusive rights to actually see the world's athletes compete for, well, the world.

"They weren't the same Olympics as today -- different worlds," says British runner Jack, who competed in the three-mile race during the 1948 Games. "To us, it was just another athletic meet."

Today, he lives as a widower in a small home he's had for longer than I've been alive. At 91, he still likes to run, though a recent wonky hip has slowed his pace.

But back in his prime, Jack was a natural -- an upper body relaxed and everything below a steam engine.

Except on the day of the London race, when the mechanics broke down and he placed eighth.

Possibly because the British couldn't offer him a coach.

Or maybe because Jack's boss at the building site he toiled at didn't give him time off to train or compete.

His race was on a Saturday, and the runner -- along with other British Olympians -- took public transit to the Games.

Then got right back on when their events were over.

Olympic tickets scandals did not make headlines. His mother was offered one and declined, while his wife stayed home because she liked theatre more than athletics.

Jack sees little resemblance between the two London Games, pointing to photos of his Opening Ceremony where, rather than dazzle and glitz, athletes marched under a large banner reminding: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part."

"The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

To be clear, competition has never been entirely pure. They cheated in ancient Greece, and during the 1904 Games in St. Louis, English born gold-medal runner Thomas Hicks was fed strychnine and brandy by his American coach.

So Jack has little doubts some athletes during his London Olympics were likely looking for an edge -- though the most he heard of were runners who would carb-load on bread and jam.

Jack doesn't watch a lot of the current Games -- they don't look like what he remembers -- but he plans to show up when his event is run.

He'll bring along his original running vest -- number 212 -- and participation medal.

I ask him, in his prime -- stripped of all the excess baggage the Olympics have accumulated -- how he would have done against today's Olympians?

"It would depend," he figures as he laces up; "if they bothered to finally give me a coach or not."

THE 1948 SUMMER OLYMPICS

• The second time London had hosted the Games. First was 1908

• A record 59 nations took part

• Germany and Japan were not included

• The USSR did not show up

• The host nation won 23 medals

• Canada fielded 118 competitors and took part in 13 sports

• Canadians won three medals

• One of the star athletes was a Dutch sprinter nick-named the Flying Housewife'

thane.burnett@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @thaneburnett