Will Dorothy light Olympic flame in London?

Britain's oldest surviving double medallist may be 91 but could still illuminate opening ceremony
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The Independent Online

With just under a year to go to 2012 thoughts are now turning to London's torch relay and the burning question, so to speak, is who will light the Olympic flame.

Surely the most moving ignition of all had to be at Atlanta in 1996, when the flame was lit by the shaking hand of Parkinson's-afflicted Muhammad Ali. London may come up with something equally different. One name that springs to mind, quite literally, is Dorothy Tyler, Britain's oldest surviving Olympic double medallist. She is 91, but is more than capable of lighting up London.

As 16-year-old schoolgirl Dorothy Odam, she won high jump silver at Berlin in 1936, becoming Britain's youngest athletics medallist. Twelve years later, after the ravages of war – not to mention marriage and motherhood – she did so again in London.

She was 11 when a teacher in Mitcham, Surrey asked her to jump over a skipping rope strung between two posts. "I did, and that's how it all began," she recalls. She could jump 5ft by the age of 15, and later she would practise by leaping over a washing line in her garden. "No one taught me, it came naturally. It wasn't like today, when they are all overtrained and get injured. I just went out there and jumped."

Although she won the silver in Berlin, had the high jump countback rules been as they are today, she would have taken the gold. And in 1948 when, as a mother of two small children, she competed at the London Games, it was those same rules that denied her the gold once more.

During the war, Dorothy served as an HGV lorry driver and physical training instructor with 617 Squadron – the Dambusters. She won Empire Games golds in 1938 and 1950, and was a national long jump champion and pentathlete, competing at the Olympics in 1952 and 1956 before retiring after reaching the final in Melbourne to become Britain's first official female athletics coach.

In 1939, her 1.66-metre jump was a world record and it prompted one of the earliest sporting sex scandals. Officials wrote to tell her that Dora Ratjen of Germany had jumped higher. "They told me I didn't hold the record and I wrote back to them saying: 'She's not a woman, she's a man!' They did some research and found 'her' working as a waiter called Hermann, who had earlier served in the Hitler Youth, so I got my world record back again.

"There were no sex tests in those days. No men were allowed in the women's quarters yet we heard plenty of deep-throated male voices. When we turned round they were all women. I swear the first three in the women's 100m were men."

After 75 years her memories of the "Nazi" Olympics remain vivid. In Berlin, the nerveless teenager had sidled up to Adolf Hitler at a party thrown for the women competitors by Joseph Goebbels, whom she described as "a bit of a womaniser".

And what did she make of the Führer? "A little man in a big uniform. I felt I wanted to slap him. When the German girls dropped the baton in the relay he fell off his seat with rage.

"When we got there, there were Nazi flags everywhere, everyone seemed to be in uniform. It was all very militaristic. We were staying in a large dormitory. The first morning, I was woken up by the sound of marching, and outside there were hundreds of Hitler Youth parading with shovels held like rifles.

"When we went shopping we were greeted with: 'Guten Morgen. Heil Hitler.' We responded: 'Guten Morgen. Heil King George.' Outside another shop the interpreter told us 'No Jews'. So we all walked in."

She adds: "I received a smuggled letter from an inmate of a concentration camp telling me of the atrocities and asking me to take it back to England. I showed it to my chaperone but never saw it again."

Among her own souvenirs is the torch used at the opening ceremony in Berlin, which one of her two sons found on eBay. Astonishingly it was discovered on a rubbish tip in Suffolk. It resides with her two Olympic medals in a safe at her local golf club near Sanderstead, South London.

She is still a feisty lady. A few years ago at an awards lunch in London, she told Dick Fosbury, originator of The Flop, his form of jumping was cheating. "You can't go over the bar head first," said the arch exponent of the straddle and western roll.

If Dot doesn't play a significant role on 2012's big day, Britain's oldest Olympic flame says she will be content with her two promised free tickets for the women's high jump finals – and will happily watch the rest of the Games "with my feet up in front of the telly and a nice cup of tea".

Favourites for the flame

Sir Steve Redgrave Bookies' choice, 4-6

Dame Kelly Holmes Would bring woman's touch, 6-1

Daley Thompson Coe's nominee, 10-1

Sir Chris Hoy Arrives on his bike, 12-1

David Beckham Same odds for jointly with the missus, 16-1

Lord Coe Rules himself out but still 20-1

Tom Daley Diving in for youth, 25-1

Other contenders Sir Roger Bannister, 33-1; Princess Anne, Prince William, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Dorothy Tyler, all50-1; Eddie Edwards 100-1; Sir Bruce Forsyth 500-1.

(Odds by William Hill)