23 January 2012

Forgotten Olympic heroes of 1948 should be honoured

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Britain did not have a brilliant Olympic Games when London last hosted the Olympics in 1948, in terms of the medal table at least.

The host nation won just three Olympic golds , all in rowing or sailing, which along with 14 silver medals and six bronzes left Britain ranking 12th at the end of the games. But those first post-war Olympics since Hitler’s Games in Berlin 1936 was a time when the value of taking part was never better understood. The Houses of Parliament figured prominently on the official Games poster designed by Walter Herz, a Czech refugee from fascism, as Dr Cathy Ross of the Museum of London has noted.

Even those who did win medals were not feted in the way that is routine for our sporting champions today. Quite the opposite in several cases. Alan Geldard, who won a bronze medal for cycling, took three weeks off to train for the Games, and then got married a couple of weeks later. On his return, his employer sacked him for taking too much time off. “That was my reward for  winning a medal for my country,” he said this week.  He had to supply his own bike to compete too.

Very few have been recognised in the honours system in the years since either. The high jumper Dorothy Tyler-Odam was finally awarded an MBE in 2002, for the amazing achievement of winning Olympic silver medals not just in London in 1948 but also at the Berlin Games in 1936, when she was just 16, making her the only women to win Olympic medals both before and after the war.  That is an all too rare example of official recognition of the 1948 Olympians.

As the Olympics return to London, we should recall the stories of the Olympic heroes of 1948. One simple and overdue gesture would be for the government to recognise the commitment and achievement by awarding an MBE to the living medallists from the 1948 Olympiad. It would be good to hear Seb Coe, London Mayor Boris Johnson and other leading politicians say that this would be a good way for us to mark this special Olympic and Jubilee year.

None of the British gold medal winners are still alive today, but a handful of the 1948 medal winners are living – approximately ten medal-winning competitors or thereabouts, based on information which is publicly available – along with a larger number of those who competed for Britain. Living medal winners include Scottish swimmer Catherine Gibson, who won bronze in the 400 metres; cyclist Alan Geldard, who spoke to the Manchester Evening News this week about that bittersweet experience of getting fired; hockey player John Peake who played all five games as the British men won silver;  and cyclist Tommy Godwin, who won two bronzes in 1948 and later went on to manage the British Olympic team at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, before being an official ambassador for London 2012, aged 92.

My forgotten sporting hero from 1948 did not make it to the podium in London. The great sprinter McDonald Bailey was injured in the run-up to the Games, and struck by laringytis a couple of days before the race. The Trinidad-born athlete finished sixth in the 100 metres, a disappointment for the Wembley crowd who feted him as the ‘great black hope’ of the British athletics team. Bailey bounced back to win a 100 metres Olympic bronze in Helsinki in 1952, and jointly held the 100m world record at 10.2 seconds with Jesse Owens and others. One of the all-time greats, he was British champion every year except in his unlucky 1948 – and was a popular hero especially for the White City crowd. He was never honoured either, being told that he had ruined his chances of an MBE when he embarrassed the Amateur Athletics Association for winning an appeal against his suspension, after his name was used by the sporting store Lilywhites’ to promote starting blocks.

I have a piece at the Spectator’s Coffee House about why we should remember McDonald Bailey and return him to the pantheon of greats in the British sporting memory.  For all of his accomplishments on the track, McDonald Bailey would later say that he regarded competing in the London Olympics as the sporting achievement of his lifetime.

British Future will have an original Olympic 1948 torch on display at its launch today. Read more about the torch’s history on a blog by a museum curator here.

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