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The hunger games: Canada’s foray into 1948’s austere Olympics

History remembers the 1948 Olympics as the Austerity Games, as a Britain of food rationing – a land of mushy peas and queues – scrimped to play host to the world.

Patrick McGeer and his basketball teammates from the University of British Columbia sailed across the Atlantic aboard an ocean liner long since stripped of luxuries to serve as a wartime troop ship.

Once in England, they settled into quarters at Uxbridge, an air-force base in which the athletes rested in stacked bunks, the feet of the taller players dangling over the end. Those who forgot to bring a towel had to rent one, as the Olympic organizers decided they could not afford to provide a free one to athletes.

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"We lived like the troops," said Dr. McGeer, now 85, a physician and prominent medical researcher.

What the hosts could not provide in material goods they made up for in bonhomie.

"The Brits couldn't have been more welcoming," he said. "They were high-spirited. They were open-armed to the world. It was Britain at its best."

The Canadian basketball team arrived in London as medal hopefuls behind a heavily favoured American delegation.

The Canadian Olympic squad was an odd one. Dr. McGeer and seven other Vancouver students were paired with six players representing the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Montreal.

It was the best of the West combined with the champs of the East, pairing scholars with senior players.

What could go wrong?

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Only everything.

To this day, surviving players on each of those teams believe theirs was better.

"We had two teams," Dr. McGeer said. "We had a quite good team and a not-so-good team."

"We were the lead team," insists Sol Tolchinsky, 83, of Montreal.

In London, the athletes went their separate ways.

"We were strangers," Dr. McGeer said. "We never practised together. We never played together. That was the system."

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The Vancouver players were honoured at a luncheon at B.C. House. The Montreal players did not attend.

The Montreal players were feted at a luncheon at Maccabi House. The Vancouver players did not attend.

The austerity of the postwar city was familiar to the players, as the students were accustomed to a spartan life while the Montrealers such as Mr. Tolchinsky held low-paying jobs as shippers in the schmatta (clothing) business.

The basketball tournament was held at Harringay Arena in north London, a hockey rink built with riches from a dog-racing venture. The indoor lighting was poor, the preliminary matches poorly attended. A carpenter waited on the sidelines to fix a temporary wood floor in constant need of repair.

Despite their differences, the Canadian team finished the opening round with a record of three wins and two losses, one of those by a single point. They anticipated moving on to the medal round, only to learn they had been relegated to also-ran status. Ties in the standings were settled by point differential and the Canadians, ignorant of this, had neglected to run up the score against weak opponents such as the host British team.

The Canadians then rolled to three easy victories to finish in ninth place, a bittersweet consolation.

The Olympic tournament, won handily by the Americans, featured teams from 23 nations, helping to make basketball an international sport in the years after the war.

On his return, Dr. McGeer did postgraduate studies at Princeton University, becoming with his wife Dr. Edith McGeer a leading authority on Alzheimer's disease. He also launched a political career in British Columbia that saw him serve as a cabinet minister in Social Credit governments.

Mr. Tolchinsky, who at 6-foot-4 was the tallest player on the Canadian Olympic squad, returned to Montreal, where his basketball skills eased his entry into McGill University. He met a young actor there named William Shatner who encouraged him to write musical comedies for the Red and White Revue. (Such talent runs in the Tolchinsky family. His brother, Mel Tolkin, who died five years ago, was a famous television writer.) Mr. Tolchinksy met and married the former Margo Blatt, a chorus girl in the revue. They recently celebrated their 59th anniversary.

One of his strongest memories of the Austerity Games is that he left with $75 for the month-long travel and tournament. He returned home with $16.

"There was nothing to buy," he said. "Nothing to spend it on. Nothing."

They really did come home empty-handed.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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