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Olympic flashback: Rubble in the streets, pride in their hearts

Shirley Olafsson who competed for Canada in the 1948 Olympics in the high jump looks over a bit of memorabilia from that time at her home in Richmond, BC July 20, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

What does $148-billion get you in London these days? A sparkling Olympic Stadium and state-of-the-art sports venues, for starters. An athlete village tricked out with wireless Internet and soaring windows. And about 18,000 security officers to keep an eye on things.

By comparison, London last played host to the Olympics for a paltry $9.8-million in today's currency – less than one-quarter of the cost of Friday's opening ceremonies spectacular.

The so-called "austerity games" of 1948 were staged just three years after the Second World War. They put an end to the 12-year Olympic dry spell caused by the fighting, but Londoners were still living amid rubble and subsisting on food rations. The country housed athletes in RAF barracks and college dorms. Competitions were played out in whatever pools and gymnasiums had survived the bombings. Butter was as good as gold.

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Canada was one of 56 participating countries (compared with the 205 nations competing today). And even getting to London was a hurdle: 118 men and women crossed the country by train, gathering in Halifax to board the Aquitania for a seven-day voyage. The aging troop ship smelled, and quarters were tight.

Still, there wasn't much complaint: Swimmers attached elastics to their waists and did stationary exercises in a pool only six feet long; on deck, boxers sparred alongside cyclists peddling bikes on rollers. There were also marathon sessions of canasta, while Art Mooney's hit I'm Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover echoed over the Atlantic. On the final night, the athletes danced as the ship rolled.

Most of the Canadians on board were too young to have served overseas. In London, they were chilled by the scars of war. "There were big holes in the ground and it was very sad," recalls Shirley Olaffson, a high jumper from Vancouver. Food was scarce. "For the Olympics, they managed to scrape up butter for all the competitors, if they needed it," says canoeist Norman Lane of Hamilton. "We were well fed with the best of food, but some of the locals were having a hard time getting enough to eat."

But austerity didn't stunt achievement. Canadians brought home three medals – a bronze in the women's 4x100 metres sprint, another bronze by Mr. Lane (who placed third despite having to compete in a leisure canoe instead of a racing vessel) and a silver in canoeing.

And for the first time, those moments were captured extensively through television broadcasts. Viewers were transfixed, including the athletes. Lorne (Ace) Atkinson, a cyclist from Vancouver who died in 2010, loved to tell the story of a fellow athlete who was enthralled by his first television experience – until he noticed an empty track lane appear on the screen. "That's my race!" he said.

Now in their 80s and 90s, the remaining Olympians of 1948 say some of their memories have faded. But there is one highlight they all seem to recall vividly: walking into Wembley Stadium for the opening ceremonies decked out in their red jackets, and hearing the roar from the huge crowd.

It felt like a celebration for the entire world. A sign in the stadium displayed the 1948 Olympic creed: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

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Home: Richmond, B.C.

Age: 85

Sport: High jump

Getting there: Born with a club foot, Mrs. Olafsson (nee Gordon) endured seven surgeries during childhood. Barred from sports for most of high school, she taught herself how to high jump and caught a break when a friend insisted she be allowed to join a competitive team for girls. She was the women's track captain in London, finishing 10th in her event, and ten finished fifth at the British Empire Games in Auckland.

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Being there: "I have no muscle from my knee down to my ankle. And I have a fused foot, and it doesn't move. I don't walk well. But I never wanted to anybody to know, because I wanted to be like everybody else.

"When I was jumping, I took off on one foot and I landed on the same foot. At the time we did the scissor jump. Supposedly, you take off on your right foot and you land on your left. I couldn't have landed on my left foot or I would have broken it.

"After they selected the team, we had to go and get our uniforms. They were terrific: a red jacket bound with white, and a white skirt and high-heeled shoes. I was devastated because I can't wear high heels. We had a chaperone, who took me to Montreal and got me flat white shoes.

"If it had happened today, I probably would have competed in the Paralympic Games. I'm glad I competed at the Olympics. It was like a miracle, I guess, for me. It just showed that. if you wanted something bad enough, you could get it."


Home: Hamilton, Ont.

Age: 92

Sport: Sprint canoe

Getting there: Mr. Lane trained at the Balmy Beach Club in Toronto with his brother, Kenneth, who become a fellow Olympian. After winning bronze in the C-1 10,000-metre sprint in London, Mr. Lane went on to his second Olympics in 1952, along with Kenneth, who won silver. Father to five sons, he later taught mathematics at McMaster University, and still canoes at his cottage north of Kingston, Ont.

Being there: "When I went up to the podium, there was so much emotion in it, with the 100,000 people in Wembley Stadium. The city was pretty well bombed out, even after a couple of years of restoration. But Wembley was intact.

"I had on grey flannels and the Olympic jacket with the Canadian flag on the lapel. They raised the Canadian flag, and they played the Canadian national anthem, and of course my patriotism was involved and tears came to my eyes. I could hardly believe it.

"I remember it clearly. I remember all the details. It all comes back and sometimes it gets emotional. It still brings tears to my eyes. It was 64 years ago. That's a lifetime. I'm very unusual in that I'm still above ground. [The medal] is on the wall here, right behind me in the TV room."


Home: Ottawa

Age: 81

Sport: Boxing

Getting there: At 16, Mr. Sandulo won the Canadian amateur boxing title, and turned 17 just before London – making him the youngest male member of the Canadian team. The son of Russian immigrants, he devoted his life to coaching elite boxers and developing the sport through the Beaver Boxing Club in Ottawa.

Being there: "It was a helluva great experience, I'll tell you that. I was an Olympic baby. I'm still a baby, according to my wife.

"I was really fascinated with everything that was going on. I had never been to Europe before that. I was all by myself. Well, I went with the Canadian team, but my coach didn't come. They had a Canadian coach but he was selected for all of the boxers.

"It was a big adventure, but nervous? No, I wasn't nervous I would've liked to have gone further. I lost a split decision: two judges gave it to my competitor and one judge gave it to me. But it was a controversial decision and we lost the protest.

"It didn't change my life, no no. When I came back, I was still involved with the sport, and I've never left the sport. I ran the Beaver Boxing Club for all these years."


Home: Montreal

Age: 91

Sport: Basketball

Getting there: Mr. Lands and five other members of the Montreal Young Men's Hebrew Association made up half of Canada's basketball team, with the other half from the University of British Columbia. But even in postwar Europe, he says his religion "didn't make a difference." The team won nine games and lost two, winning the consolation division.

Being there: "We didn't have much of a chance. It's not like the Olympics today. We were all working boys, and boys who went to college. When my teammates were chosen , I was learning to be a men's clothing designer. When I said I was going to the Games, the person I was working for said, 'Good luck!' But I lost pay for three weeks. You went on your own hook.

"And we were only able to play three times a week because that was the only time available for us at the association. I don't remember us getting together, maybe a week, before we went. We went aboard the ship, and we didn't practice for the six days that it took to get over there. All we could do was run on board the ship to sort of get conditioned, but we didn't do any shooting, we didn't do any passing.

"Today, they fly the athletes over there two weeks before. They make their living out of playing. It's totally different. But we had more fun. Certainly we did – because we had our parties, we had our wins, and stuff like that. We enjoyed it.


Home: Vancouver

Age: 85

Sport: Basketball

Getting there: Mr. McGeer graduated from University of British Columbia shortly before the Olympics. Afterward, he went on to Princeton University and later married a fellow medical researcher. He and his wife, Edith, became two of the world's foremost experts on the causes and prevention of Alzheimer's disease. He also served as a member of the B.C. legislature.

Being there: "The leftovers [of war] were still there in London. But you see, the Olympic Games put all of that behind us. Because the countries who had been at each others' throats for so many years were now meeting in friendly competition, banishing the ugliness of those years and hoping for a better future.

"The English were bright, optimistic, cheerful, extremely hospitable, welcoming all of the athletes. You couldn't have asked for more positive, or generous hosts than the English people.

"I think it sent a very strong message to the world. The Olympic Games can do that. The spirit and purpose were a little different then. It was trying to promote friendship between nations. Now, it's not an amateur event, but about professional sports and media. Still, there's enough of the original idealism to send a positive message. And it's needed as much now as it was then. Maybe more today."

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