Swimmer remembers a frugal London Olympics

Susan Halter escaped the Holocaust to compete for Hungary in the 1948 Olympics. Kevin Rawlinson meets a born competitor
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The Independent Online

The last time London hosted an Olympic Games, in 1948, London was still recovering from bomb damage, the British people were living on rations and the Games, contested by amateurs, were put together on a budget of £730,000.

Susan Halter was then a 19-year-old Jewish Hungarian swimmer who had escaped Nazi persecution. Today, she is still a competitive swimmer at 81, and lives in London, having gained British citizenship when she married in 1950. And when the next London Games come round in two years from today, she plans to be at Zaha Hadid's futuristic aquatic centre – albeit as a spectator.

In 1948 Mrs Halter competed in the 100m freestyle event for Hungary, coming "not last, but not in the medal places". She recalled a very different Games from those expected to take place in the capital in two years' time.

"There was no Olympic Village, we stayed in St Helen's School in Northwood and had to get the Underground to Wembley to compete," she said, adding: "We had lunch in a technical college in Hendon each day. Although we were invited to the Hurlingham Club after the Games. All of the teams just had to look after themselves."

Just four years beforehand Mrs Halter had been one of many women from Budapest forcibly marched from their homes along the Danube and towards the Austrian border by Hungarian soldiers. At one point, the soldiers stopped and told the women, among them Mrs Halter, her pregnant sister and some of her neighbours, that they were to be handed over to the Germans.

Mrs Halter paid a guard to help her sister and her neighbour escape before breaking away herself and walking back to her home town. "I thought, 'If I'm going to be killed, I might as well be killed in Hungary,' and escaped," she said. She tried to get others to go with her but they refused for fear of being shot.

"I went to live with some non-Jewish friends. They gave me false papers and I left under an assumed identity for the rest of the war. My parents were still stuck in the Budapest ghetto, but they managed to survive the war and, after the ghetto was liberated by the Russians, they stayed in Hungary. My grandmother, however, died of starvation before the war's end," she said.

Mrs Halter's sister also survived, and another Hungarian who was with her, Eva Szekely, became an Olympic champion swimmer in Helsinki in 1952.

She recalled some of the practices which would look a little out of place in two years' time. Female swimmers, for example, were required to wear their knickers under their swimming costumes. "Before we were allowed into the pool, an official had to come to the changing rooms and check," she said.

Her roommate during the Games was Hungary's best diver, Irene Zsagot. "We got on quite well but my closest friend was Eva Szekely, with whom I marched.

She added: "The event itself was completely different then: we were all amateurs, whereas now a lot of the athletes are subsidised. I never made any money out of my competing in the Olympics, I have nothing to compare it to, but I imagine a lot of today's athletes do ok from it.

"When the Olympic flag was brought to this country I was invited to attend the ceremony and met Boris Johnson and Tessa Jowell.

"I would like to go to the 2012 Olympics. I have written to Boris Johnson asking if I can go along to the swimming events, but I have had no reply. I am sure he's very busy though."