Austerity Games had lighter side

There are tough times and there are truly tough times and, as the Olympic Games returns to London, it bears remembering just how difficult life was when the global extravaganza last pitched up in the English capital.

It is not for nothing that 1948 is referred to as the Austerity Games.

Yesterday, the 11 surviving members of that year’s Irish team were honoured at a luncheon in Farmleigh House where crab cakes, smoked salmon, sirloin steak and fruit crumble were consumed as they backtracked down memory lane.

Such luxuries were in short supply 64 years ago in a Britain still catching its breath after a war that left it victorious but spent and coming to terms with the disintegration of an empire that had already lost India, the jewel in its crown, a year before.

Much of London was still disfigured by the effects of the Luftwaffe’s Blitz, the end of food rationing was another six years away and the wartime ‘mend and make-do’ motto was taken to heart by the event organisers.

“They had incredible difficulty trying to run the Games,” says Robin Tamplin, who competed with the men’s rowing eight. “I have to give full credit to the British Olympic Council. They were trying to get themselves up off their knees and they did superb work.”

Not all the holes were darned successfully.

Tamplin and the rest of the Irish rowers were billeted 15 miles from Henley’s Royal Regatta Course along with their Finnish counterparts and the coach detailed to transport them was a clapped-out old thing that the athletes had to push up the hill in High Wycombe.

“Great fun,” Tamplin remembers.

The Irish were actually better served for food than many of the competing nations and brought ample supplies of meat, butter and eggs along — all of which almost perished in the summer heat on arrival because the refrigerators were too small.

That disaster was averted but the Games would be a nightmare for an Irish team riven by internal political wranglings as sports such as athletics and swimming had separate governing bodies with some claiming 26-county jurisdiction and others 32.

Even the country’s name was disputed.

Some said it was ‘Ireland’, others insisted it was ‘Eire’. Among the latter were the organisers of the opening ceremony and the divide is immortalised in a photograph which shows a very significant and deliberate gap between one half of the athletes and the other.

“I have photographs of myself walking behind the flag and it was brilliant,” says Tamplin. “It was unbelievable, that ceremony. We all knew what was going on. It was a broiling hot day and we waited ages and ages before it started.

“The officials running it must have been aware that we were going to be called ‘Eire’ and anyway if we had been called ‘Ireland’ what would Northern Ireland have said? They were part of Britain and I suspect they would have gone mad.”

At least Tamplin got to troop around Wembley. Harry Boland and the rest of the basketball squad couldn’t. They didn’t have the threads to do so. Even their trunks were borrowed from the Army — and returned pronto on their return.

Like the rowers, they had been cobbled together in a matter of weeks and against tough opposition neither lasted long in competition — but stayed the entire 17 days.

Boland spent most of his time taking in the athletics at what was still officially known as the Empire Stadium while Tamplin and his mates lounged lazily on the sun-drenched lawns of Henley drinking bottles of beer.

“It is easy to forget how simple it all was in ’48,” says Boland. “When I think of how things are now, it was practically a non-event at the time.”

That it was. Ireland’s only medal? A bronze for 69-year old Letitia Hamilton from Dunboyne for her painting ‘Meath Hunt Point-to-point Races’.

Yep. Different times.

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