Tommy Godwin: The Chris Hoy of our 1948 team

Now 91, he was captain of the British cycling team in the Austerity Games. He tells Robin Scott-Elliot about a time of mum's spam fritters, hiring your own towels and winning two medals

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Herring Industry Board sent kippers, the Danes carefully delivered 160,000 eggs, carcasses of mutton arrived from Iceland, the Dutch dispatched a hundred tons of fruit and veg, the Ministry of Works supplied several thousand mattresses and Tommy Godwin brought his mum. The 1948 Games was a sporting event like no other; it was the beg, borrow and bring your own Olympics.

"They had no one to look after us, so my mother came down," recalls Godwin, captain of the British cycling team and now a sprightly 91-year-old. "She did all the cooking and looked after us the way she had always looked after me. Mum would make spam fritters for breakfast, sometimes toad in the hole when we got back. It was very, very austere but there wasn't much you could do about it."

After only three years of peace, Britain, like much of Europe, was still staggering groggily back to its feet following the devastations of the Second World War. Rationing remained strictly in place and cities were still being rebuilt, let alone lives. "You could still see the bomb damage round where I lived," says Edith Childs, an Eastender who was part of the women's diving team. But with the world's assistance, London hosted the first post-war Games, the first since the 1936 edition had been hijacked by the Nazis. There was an Olympic reputation to be rebuilt too.

The story of the 1948 Games has its share of sporting achievement, not least through Fanny Blankers-Koen, whose four golds place her among the great Olympians, or Bob Mathias, the bronzed 17-year-old from California who, to a British audience, seemed to come from a different planet as he won decathlon gold. Yet it is the background to the athletic endeavour that stands out 64 years later as London prepares to host the Games again, the tales of mend and make do, dormitories, spam fritters, powdered eggs and above all of 17 days of optimism that sport can help heal wounds. "People had gone through this period of tragedy, agony. It was bringing the youth of the world together in peace and harmony," says Godwin, who remains a committed Olympian.

On 29 July, John Mark ran into Wembley Stadium holding the Olympic flame. Mark was a 400m runner but the Cambridge medical student had not been chosen for his athletic ability or popularity – he was little known outside Oxbridge circles – instead it was his chiselled features that had led to him being him picked out by Lord Burghley, chairman of the British Olympic Association, and Harold Abrahams, of Chariots of Fire fame and then the assistant team manager. Mark "looked exceptional and was an extraordinarily nice man" was how one contemporary put it. Godwin and the rest of his seven-strong cycling team had made the short journey from where they were staying near the Herne Hill velodrome, in south London. As they waited in the Wembley tunnel with the rest of the British team, they saw another medical student come racing past clutching a Union flag. It was Roger Bannister – working as an aide to the team commandant – who had been dispatched at pace to track down the commandant's Bentley in the car park, where the team's flag had been left. Bannister had to smash the car's window to liberate the flag. "He got there just got in time," says Godwin. "We were standing in the tunnel and he came through shouting 'look out'."

Afterwards, Godwin and his colleagues returned to 58a Half Moon Lane in Herne Hill, which was their base for the Games. There was no Olympic village so the athletes were quartered in barracks and schools, or in the cyclists' case on camp beds around Bill Mills' house. Mills was a former rider who had founded a magazine called The Bicycle and was only too happy to help out. "People stayed where they could," says Godwin. "There was no village to socialise in. You just did it, then went home. But we were proud. There was patriotism. You were riding for your country."

Countries tended to be billeted by region, hence Iran, Iraq and Pakistan were bundled happily together at Acton County School in west London. Childs stayed in a domestic science college, her team-mates sleeping in the same dormitory. The female gymnasts also stayed there and practised in Hyde Park because official practice at the Empress Hall in Earls Court, where the event was staged, was limited to 40 minutes a day. Each athlete was issued with three blankets, four sheets, two pillows, a chair, a glass, a mirror and a water bottle. They were expected to bring their own towels – if they hadn't they could hire them. And every morning they were handed a packed lunch as they set off for the day's competition.

Many countries brought their own supplies, with the Americans in particular shipping over quantities of meat, much to the envy of the European nations. Childs was sent food parcels by a diving club in New Zealand and there were attempts to help all British athletes bolster their diet in the build-up to the Games. "We got sent a note in May saying we would receive food parcels," says Godwin. "I got one in May with tinned fruit in it and that was it." By 1948, Britain was wearily used to rationing. It had been enforced since 1940 and, although the war had ended, there was no sign of the restrictions being lifted.

That year, potatoes were rationed for the first time; the year before it had been applied to bread. It did not end until 1954. The Olympians were given extra rations, putting them on a par with miners and dockers. "We lived on stew," says Godwin. "Sometimes we put a rabbit in it if someone had caught one. The local butcher used to give Eileen [his wife] some extra meat for me."

Not one new venue was constructed for the Games amid a concerted effort to limit costs. Nothing was too small to scrimp and save on; the organising committee hired typewriters rather than buying them. The total cost of the Games came to £732,000 – which resulted in a profit of £29,000. Just £11,000 was spent equipping the British team – £13m will be spent on Team GB for this year's Games – and visiting nations even brought some of the sports equipment with them.

In terms of competition, the Games themselves were not a conspicuous British success story. Britain won 23 medals, three of them gold, to finish 12th in a medal table topped by the US. Maureen Gardner finished the 80m hurdles with the same time as Blankers-Koen but was given silver. She celebrated with an orangeade in Leicester Square. A bronze went to Jumping Jim Halliday, a weightlifter who had emerged from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp three years earlier weighing four stone. And two bronze medals went to Godwin.

"I went back to 58a Half Moon Lane. Mum cooked something. I had a hot toddy and went to bed," says Godwin. Three days after his second medal the Games closed on a Saturday evening. On the Monday morning, Godwin was back at his job as an electrician. "My mates said, 'Oh hello, Tom, you won a medal then'. I said, 'Yes.' They said 'Good, now the job we're on today...' Within a quarter of an hour the glory had gone and I was back at work."