Olympians: The veterans basking in the glow of bygone glory

More celebrations beckon for our oldest surviving Olympians. Alan Hubbard talks to them
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The Games begin in Athens on 13 August and Britain is getting ready to celebrate a remarkable Olympic record. By then two of the world's oldest surviving Olympians will be centurions. In fact, one already is. Sir Arthur Marshall, the last of the Chariots of Fire men, who was in the 4 x 400 metres relay squad in 1924, was 100 on 4 December, while Edith Lowe, who won a gold medal in handball 74 years ago, has her own 100th birthday in June.

Both are not only alive and well, but with tack-sharp minds, vividly recalling their Olympian days. "So different then," says Mrs Lowe, who, as Austrian-born Edith Schwarz, won her gold medal in the "women only" Jeux Olympiques Feminins of 1930 in Prague.

"We played for fun. No one gave us a penny. We had to buy our own boots and skirts and pay our own travelling costs. There was no Olympic village or anything like you have today. But we enjoyed it, because sport was what you did to keep healthy."

She was a defender in the Austrian team who beat Germany 5-4 after being 4-1 down at half-time. The 1930 all-women Games came about because at that time few females competed in the official Olympics, largely because so few events were then open to them other than genteel pursuits such as archery and tennis. "I belonged to the biggest sports club in Vienna, which was also a football club, and we played on full-sized football pitches, which made it very tiring. Fortunately, I was always a big, strong girl. For us girls it was the chance to escape for a short time from factory work or whatever."

For Mrs Lowe, though, another escape was to come a few years later - from the Nazis. Being Jewish, she and her textile mill-owner husband, Erich, fled Austria in 1939 just before the start of the war and settled in Oldham, where they brought up their only daughter. "There was a lot of anti-Semitism in Austria at the time and we had learned to live with it. But when we were thrown out of our home by the Nazis we knew it was time to leave, and we left everything."

Widowed for 35 years, Mrs Lowe, now hard of hearing and with declining mobility, has lived in a nursing home in Didsbury, Manchester, for the past six months, and is an ardent Manchester United fan.

"Because of her handball experience she understands football in a way that most women don't," says her 65-year-old daughter Susan. "She is very passionate about United. She has to be in our family, she wouldn't have survived to 99 if she hadn't been!" Mrs Lowe believes that playing sport has contributed to her longevity. "It kept me healthy, and it kept me young."

It is a recipe which has the support of Sir Arthur, who is Britain's oldest surviving Olympian and is believed to be the second oldest in the world, behind the 101-year-old American James Rockefeller, a rowing gold medallist in the same Paris Games at which the Cambridge aviation engineer was reserve to the British 4 x 400m relay team who won the bronze.

These were the Games which saw Sir Arthur's close friends Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell win the 100m and 400m individual gold, respectively. "Fantastic Olympics," he says. "It would have been great to have competed but just being there was equally important to me, as I was part of the team. You have only to look what happened there. Harold and Eric won their events, the Americans broke the 400m relay record and Douglas Lowe won the 800m for Britain." It was the Abrahams-Liddell saga which inspired the film Chariots of Fire. It told the story of how Liddell, a devout Christian, supposedly learned on his way to the Olympics that the 100m final would be on a Sunday, and declined to run. Abrahams, renowned for his arrogance, had not bothered to enter the AAA Championships which Liddell won in record time. "It shook Harold to the core." But before the Games Liddell had already decided to concentrate on the 400, leaving Abrahams free to race in and win the 100.

The director, David Puttnam, came to interview him and was intrigued by something that happened after the Games. Sir Arthur had travelled with Liddell for an athletics event in Pennsylvania, and on the ship back they struck up a friendship with two American sisters.

"Eric may have been religious, but he wasn't a pious chap, you know. He could be great fun. We all played cards and agreed to meet up with these ladies, who were 'doing Europe', at the Olympics, and after Eric's victory we took them to a tango tea dance in the Champs-Elysées." The scene was to be part of the film, but ended up on the cutting room floor for a bizarre reason. "Apparently one of the actresses had not shaved under her arms, and it was decided not to show it."

Sir Arthur's own track career, in his own words "went for a Burton" because of a rugby injury while playing for Jesus College, Cambridge, where he studied aero-engineering. It was there that he met Abrahams, and among his treasured mementos is a framed letter from the Olympic champion, penned from the Garrick Club, congratulating him on his knighthood in 1974 for services to the aviation industry.

A former pilot himself - he learned to fly in Gipsy Moths - he officially retired in 1989 but remains actively involved with the company his father founded and which his 71-year-old son Michael has taken over as chairman. But this is no doddery Young Mr Grace telling the staff: "You've all done very well". He is driven to the Cambridge farmhouse which serves as his office five days a week, working on archives and correspondence despite failing eyesight and being largely wheelchair-bound following several falls. Four months ago he delivered a 6,000-word lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society.

He is the eldest of eight children, including six sisters, four of whom are still alive and attended his 100th-birthday lunch at Jesus College last month. A widower since 1988 (he was married for 56 years to his wife, Rosemary) he has two sons and a daughter.

Sir Arthur is a creature of habit. He says he eats basically the same thing every day - a bran breakfast, ham salad lunch and dinner of meat and two veg, usually potatoes and beans. "I love beans." Hardly surprising, then, that, like his golden oldie contemporary Edith Lowe, he is full of them. An historic double-century celebration beckons.

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