London 1948 to London 2012: Rags to riches for the 'high-class Del Boy' who dreamt of gold, not money

The Austerity Games rescued the Olympics and were a fairer reflection of the ideal than today's financial frenzy. By Alan Hubbard

Sunday 17 February 2008 01:00
Bill Nankeville, who finished sixth in the 1500 metres at the 1948 London Olympics, enjoys a joke at Ashford Manor Golf Club
Bill Nankeville, who finished sixth in the 1500 metres at the 1948 London Olympics, enjoys a joke at Ashford Manor Golf Club

Bill Nankeville growled: "Drugs? We'd never heard of them. All we ever got was a spoonful of glucose and maybe a shot of sherry and eggs if you weren't feeling too clever. It was all very different then."

Indeed it was. Sixty years ago, Nankeville was one of the biggest names in British athletics, a champion miler who took part in the last Olympic Games to be held in London, in 1948, finishing sixth in the 1500 metres.

He shakes his head sadly. "When they talk about the Olympics still being about taking part rather than winning, it's a load of bullshit. Everyone wants to win an Olympics so they can be a millionaire. That's why so many of them take drugs. But there should be no compromise. If they are prepared to dope themselves then they should also be prepared to be banned for life if they get caught."

Nankeville, who is the father of the entertainer Bobby Davro, the comic impressionist now starring in EastEnders, will be a spry 83 next month, one of the few-dozen surviving members of that 375-strong Olympic team. Most are in their eighties or nineties. At his golf club, Ashford Manor, situated near his home in Staines, Middlesex, he recalled the post-war Austerity Games, when food and clothing were still rationed.

The British team for Beijing will prepare in a five-star resort in Macau, off the Chinese mainland, at a cost of £1 million. The men in the Class of '48 were housed in RAF Nissen huts at Uxbridge, while the women were dispersed throughout various schools and convents. A temporary cinder running track was laid at the old 83,000-capacity Wembley Stadium, and swimming events were held in a portable metal tank.

"Mind you, the grub was quite good," Nankeville says. "It was supplemented by food parcels from Canada. My wife's cousin had a butcher's shop,and as there was no weighing machine I used to go down there and weigh myself by hanging like a carcass. Then he slipped me a nice bit of steak for my breakfast. A different world then."

In so many homes like Nankeville's it was the age of tin baths, outside toilets, a Lilo on the floor and one fire to heat the whole house. A milkman's son from Woking, Surrey, he went to the same school as Alec and Eric Bedser, and says he took up athletics because "I wasn't any good at anything else". He left school at 14, worked at the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft factory and became a founder member of Walton Athletics Club. "In those days we had no idea of training," he says. "Most Saturdays and Sundays we were out drinking and dancing."

It was also the age of gentlemen and players, sport's great social divide. There were the toffs from public schools and universities, and the toilers like Nankeville who, you might say, had been born on the wrong side of the athletics track. The sport was dominated by Oxbridge types, and blazers proliferated. "Yes, there was class distinction, but you didn't seem to worry much about it. It was just wonderful to be able to represent your country, especially for someone like me, coming from where I did. And to get in the Olympic team, well, words can't describe it."

It was not until he was called up by the Army, where he became a physical training instructor, that he began to take the sport really seriously, running in meetings with the likes of the great Emil Zatopek. "A lovely man, kind and generous. He spoke five languages."

Nankeville, who began as a sprinter, won the Amateur Athletics Association mile title four times in five years between 1948 and 1952 and also took part in the '52 Helsinki Olympics beforeretiring two years later. His best recorded time was 4min 8.8sec, set in 1949. With Don Seaman, Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway he ran a world record time of 16min 41sec for the mile relay in August 1953, as well as a world record 15:27.2 for the 4 x 1500m the next month, running with Ralph Dunkley, David Law and Gordon Pirie.

"Tooting Bec track, where we trained most of the time, was like one big dustbin, litter all over the place and kids running around everywhere. We also used Herne Hill, where the showers were rusty and there was only cold water. Our coach, Bill Thomas, who was 75, used to go for a run himself, and he'd get someone to throw a bucket of water over him. He'd say to us, 'If I can do it, you can; now get in those showers'. And I never once caught a cold."

But there were perks in the form of under-the-counter payments. "Everybody at the top in athletics was at it. Not brown envelopes, it was cash in your hand. They all used to take it. I got a hundred quid once when I ran in front of 80,000 people in Glasgow, but there were rigid amateur rules in other areas; for instance, if you were a boxer or professional footballer you couldn't be an athlete too.

"Once I put in my expenses for a 10-shilling lunch. Jack Crump, who ran the sport, said: 'Where have you been eating, the Ritz?' If you ever got money for a radio or TV interview, it always went straight to the Board."

He got a month's leave from the Army for the'48 Games, but admits : "I went into those Games with the wrong attitude. I never thought I could win the Olympics, although I think I did lead for a time. It was a cinder track and it had been raining – I always seemed to be running in the rain in those days. I was also terribly nervous, always was, that was my trouble.

"Sydney Wooderson, one of our greatest-ever runners, should have lit the flame, but at the last minute they picked some university bloke. I thought thatwas terrible. I don't want it to seem that I have a chip on my shoulder, but it was so much about class then.

"And my view is that the Olympics should always be where they began – in Athens. They should build a permanent Olympic city there, and at least it would stop all this junketing all over the place, with cities bidding for the Games. Of course I am pleased they'll be in London in 2012, but £9 billion? Think of what that could do to improve sporting facilities all over the country, not just in London.

"I still don't understand why London had to fight to get the Games anyway. In the two previous Games held here, in 1908 and 1948, we stepped in to save the Olympics when other cities dropped out. The IOC should have said to us, 'You did us a favour, now we'll do you one.'

"And another thing that bugs me is why are they having to build a new stadium? Why couldn'tthey have used Wembley, like they did in 1948? What good is that stadium going to be for the youth of the country afterwards?"

Nankeville met his wife, Janet, in 1947 and they have been married for 60 years. After leaving the Army in 1948, he worked first as a nurseryman then as a sports- goods salesman for Lillywhites: "I've always been a natural salesman." After 10 years he opened his own warehouse, then a chain of discount shops. "I've always been ducking and diving – Bobby calls me a high-class Del Boy." But, like his son, still a class act.

The flying housewife cleans up at the XIV olympiad

The XIV Olympic Games in 1948, originally scheduled for London in 1944, cost £600,000 to stage and made a profit of £30,000. A record 59 countries attended, but not Germany, Japan or the Soviet Union. Television coverage made its debut via an estimated 80,000 black-and-white sets.

With 23 medals, Britain came 12th in a medals table headed by the USA and Sweden.

Britain won only three golds, all on the water – Richard Burnell and Bert Bushnell in the double sculls; Ran Laurie and Jack Wilson in the coxless pairs; David Bond and Stewart Morris in the Swallow class sailing.

Among the 14 silver medal winners were Tom Richards (marathon) and cyclist Reg Harris. High-jumper Dorothy Tyler again won silver after finishing second in Berlin 12 years earlier.

The US high jump winner Alice Coachman was the first black woman to win a gold medal in any sport. The star of the Games was the Flying Housewife, Dutch mother-of-two Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won a record four track medals at the age of 30.

Decathlete Bob Mathias became the youngest-ever male Olympic champion, aged 17 years and 263 days.

1948 was the first Olympics to have a political defection. Marie Provaznikova won a gold medal with the Czechoslovakian gymnastics team, then refused to return home, citing "lack of freedom" in the Soviet bloc.

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