Centurion Rampling passes baton to London generation

Britain's oldest Olympian recalls 'Hitler and all that' as he reaches his century
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The Independent Online

At the cosy nursing home in Bushey, Hertfordshire where, he says, he is "wonderfully looked after", they call him The Colonel. He retired with that rank in 1958 after 29 years in the Royal Artillery and he still has that military mien – firm handshake, impeccably groomed, wearing a blue blazer and Olympians' tie, clear-eyed and with a fine head of silvery white hair. He has been there for the last nine years and is now confined to a wheelchair. "I don't run any imore, you know," he says, impishly, but in his younger days he was one of the greatest relay racers Britain has ever seen.

Godfrey Rampling, Britain's oldest Olympian and last surviving gold medallist from the 1936 Games, will be 100 on Thursday. They are giving him a birthday party at the home next weekend and among the gathering of family and friends will be his daughter, the actress Charlotte Rampling.

Over tea we offer congratulations. "How old did you say I am? A hundred next week? Really? Are you sure? Good Lord, I'm surprised anyone remembers. How nice." You suspect the old boy is rather more cognisant of things than he likes to let on. It's a bit of a game, really. "These days it's rather like when I was running. The older I get, the slower I get," he confesses, apologising for his recall "not being quite what it was".

But slow he wasn't in Berlin 73 years ago, when he ran a magnificent second leg of the 4 x 400 metres relay to help strike gold for Britain over the American favourites, with Fred Wolff, Bill Roberts and Arthur Brown. Wolff had been overtaken, leaving Rampling "to make up a bit of ground". It was in fact about 12 metres. He finished more than four metres in the lead, handing over to Roberts, who fought off the American challenge for Brown to anchor a British triumph by two seconds. It was said that Rampling ran the race of his life to set up the victory. "Well I may have done. Other people know better than me."

Berlin was Rampling's second Olympics. He doesn't remember much about the first, in Los Angeles four years earlier, when he won a silver medal, also in the 4 x 400m relay, after narrowly missing out in the 400m final, as he did in Berlin. He does recall more of the infamous '36 Games. "Yes, Hitler and all that. And the wonderful Jesse Owens. Lovely chap, so unassuming." How did he feel about Hitler? "Never really came across him, but we wouldn't salute him, you know. We all laughed at him in the march past. Not a nice chap at all. Never saw much future for him, actually."

He says he keeps his gold medal "somewhere in my room". It is a replica, as he lost the original in the post after mailing it to a friend for safe keeping at the beginning of World War Two. A few years ago, the Princess Royal, president of the British Olympic Association, presented him and his former team-mate Roberts (whose own medal was stolen in a burglary) with specially struck replacements.

Rampling's carer, the home's activities organiser, Sandra Wotton, promises that the centurion's birthday party will be memorable. "Now don't you go spending too much money on me," he warns, adding that he is looking forward to seeing his grandchildren and Charlotte, 63, who lives in France. "I think she may be a bit more famous than me," he smiles.

A golf club secretary after his army days, he seems pleased that the next Games will be in London. "Where are they going to hold them? The East End, you say. Good Lord. Well I suppose they've got to do something like that. It's good that they're coming here because it's the highest level you can get in sport. I do hope they do it well."

He admits his interest in athletics now is minimal, because he doesn't watch television, preferring to listen to music. "Modern stuff, you know."

Born in Blackheath, he was an outstanding club runner, winning at the Empire Games, as well as the Olympics. "Of course things were so different then." Drugs, he says, were unheard of. "Mind you, I'm not sure they didn't discover some. But no one was ever tested and I don't think we ever suspected anyone of taking them. It was all done by natural ability.

"No one ever got paid and expenses were just a few bob, barely covered your travelling. I may have missed the boat a bit but I was never terribly interested in money – not that I have much, though it's enough to get by.

"I have everything I want here," he concludes. "I'm very content, quite happy. It's always nice when someone comes along and is interested in what I did. I've got no reason not to be satisfied with my life, none at all."