The way we were

On the evening of July 28, 1948, Britain’s Prime Minister Clement Attlee welcomed the thousands of Olympic athletes, who had congregated in London, with a warm but candid address on BBC radio.

The way we were

The Labour leader spoke of the two world wars which had devastated so many lives and countries since the English capital had last held the Games 40 years previously and of the scars of battle still evident in the mounds of bombed rubble that dotted the city.

Rationing was still in place, to an extent unknown even during World War II, and Attlee admitted that the lack of everyday commodities such as food, fuel and clothing — not to mention money — had prevented them from doing all they would have wished.

“Yet, if there is anything lacking, it is not goodwill,” he remarked.

He was as good as his word. More than 60 years on, the 1948 Games stand as a monument to the Olympic movement itself and, yet, the fact that it was held across the Irish Sea at all remains a shock in itself.

This was the Austerity Games.

Athletes were provided with bed linen, but not towels. Competing nations were asked to contribute food — Ireland sent 5,000 eggs — and some were faced with additional requests for material and even the very apparatus required to stage the events themselves.

There was no Olympic village. Male athletes and coaches were housed in converted army convalescent camps or RAF bases. Women, in keeping with societal attitudes at the time, were housed separately in college dormitories in Central London.

A budget of £730,000 (in excess of £20m by today’s standards) meant there was no kitty for glittering new arenas. Structures were given a facelift or adapted instead. The Empire Pool, for example, housed the acquatics and then the boxing.

Nobody seemed to mind. After the horrors of the still-recent conflict, the mere reappearance of the Olympic Games 12 years after the Nazi-tainted 1936 Games in Berlin was taken as confirmation that the world was finally emerging from the shadows.

“It was the first Games after the war and I suppose it was an attempt to try and get back to normality again,” said Harry Boland — nephew of THE Harry Boland — who represented Ireland at basketball. “That was probably why it was held in London as well.”

The war’s legacy was everywhere. German POWs constructed roads leading up to Wembley Stadium, most of the 12-man organising committee had army records and the BBC’s new CPS Emitron cameras were fitted with valves used for radar during the conflict.

Germany and Japan were still considered pariahs and, thus, were not invited, but Ireland was among the 59 countries to take part, even if the whole thing proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

RTE’s 1989 radio documentary, The Thin Green Line, captured the difficulties perfectly, describing the experience as “a nightmare in which the main participants were bureaucrats and not sportsmen and women”.

The Irish were one of the last teams to arrive and the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), individual sports bodies, the host organising committee and the International Olympic Council were all soon embroiled in a political furore over the status of athletes born in the North.

Few situations before or since have been so farcical.

Somehow, two athletics teams travelled; one claimed jurisdiction over the 32 counties, had the backing of the OCI but was suspended by the international athletics federation, while the other spoke for the 26 counties, without the imprimatur of the OCI, but was invited by the organisers.

The latter ended up competing, while those athletes affiliated to the former played no part. Neither did two swimmers from Ulster, Ernest McCartney and William Fitzell Jones, which prompted the entire swimming team to withdraw.

The then Cork Examiner wrote about the “sensation” such a course of action caused and, yet, another Ulsterman, Ken Martin, was allowed to box in the green singlet, while Danny Taylor, from Queens University in Belfast, competed in the rowing.

Enveloping all that was yet another stand-off between the Irish and their hosts: This time over the country’s very name. The Irish declared themselves to be ‘Ireland’, the British insisted that the term ‘Eire’ be used.

It all came to a head prior to the opening ceremony in Wembley, with the OCI’s secretary and team chef de mission, JF Chisholm, standing his ground belligerently before, ultimately, backing down so that the team could take its place in the league of nations.

Even then, the other spat over representation was clear for all to see with half the team following closely behind the boy scout bearing the ‘Eire’ placard, while the athletics representatives, unwanted by their own Olympic Council, trailed behind after a gap.

“I have photographs of myself walking behind the flag and it was brilliant,” says Robin Tamplin, who was a member of the rowing team. “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.”

Chisholm had his revenge some days later when he managed to have the Irish delegation announced to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth as ‘Ireland’ at a reception in Buckingham Palace, but it was a rare victory for the team.

The only medal claimed was a bronze for the 69-year-old Leititia Hamilton from Dunboyne, Co Meath, for her oil painting entitled Meath Hunt Point-to-Point Races. Most of her colleagues were simply doing well to get to their events.

The bus taking the basketballers to their first game got so lost that the players had to change on the way. The clapped-out banger assigned to transport the rowers had to be pushed up the hill at High Wycombe by Tamplin and his teammates while the footballers were so late for their train to Portsmouth for their first game that they had to leap on as it left the station.

The basketball team lost all their matches. So, too, did the footballers, while the rowers’ Olympics lasted the grand total of 12 minutes 33.1 seconds. There was no better news from the track, the ring or the other arenas.

On a collective level, then, an unmitigated disaster, and one that would put future Olympic controversies in the ha’penny place, but the individuals who made up the 73-strong Irish team in 1948 made of it the best they could.

Harry Boland spent most of his time watching the likes of Fanny Blankers-Koen — ‘The Flying Housewife’ — make history on the Wembley Stadium track. Robin Tamplin took in the rest of the regatta on Henley’s sun-dappled lawns with the help of the odd bottle of beer, but the 1948 Games had one last disappointment in store for him on his return home.

“I remember getting a lovely white, wool sweater with ‘Ireland’ written on to it and which I then boiled when I got home with all the bits of grease and beer stains.

“In my ignorance, I didn’t realise that it wouldn’t like to be boiled.”

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