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The Olympics, My Grandmothers and Me

  • By Joe Mason
  • 7th December 2012
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Our Politics & Olympics season from the summer featured contributions from, among others, young Hackney resident Joe Mason. As our memories of the Games fade into the past, Joe speaks to his grandmothers about their experiences of the London Olympics from 1948, and contrasts their stories to what we've seen of London 2012.

The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games are now well and truly in the past and everyone has memories of some of the action. As I live down the River Lea, which runs past the Park, I was lucky enough to not just go the Games and enjoy the two weeks of constant sport, but also to witness the whole process of building the site since we won the bid seven years ago. There has been so much change in my area, and this got me wondering about London in 1948, when we hosted the competition in a time of postwar austerity and destruction, and how things might have been different for someone of my age back then.

On a summer’s evening I spoke to my eldest Grandmother on her balcony overlooking the London skyline. She grew up during the war in Hemel Hempstead, just outside London, and has spent most of her adult life in the city. She was telling me how much the city has changed during her lifetime. Because a vast amount of the capital was bombed during the war, she grew up in a time when a lot of regeneration was taking place. The same has been the case for me. Normally, when she tells me tales of that time it's about the war, and since she remembers so much from then, I thought: who better to ask about the 1948 Olympics?

She did have a tale or two. She recalled cycling to Wembley with her friend and then leaving their bikes unlocked outside the arena. Stadiums were very different back then and she remembers sitting on one of the grassy banks watching the long distance running as the sun shone above. As the day went on, she got hotter and hotter and eventually passed out through sun stroke. She finally recovered with the help of some much needed water and a flannel and then embarked on her 20-mile journey back home. It was nice hearing how such a wonderful little story had stayed in her memory from a time she usually reflects on with more melancholy.

Poster for the 1948 London Olympics

It's amazing how her experiences from 64 years ago can be compared to mine so easily. I too cycled down to the Park, but locked up my bike in one of the free bike racks. I'm not sure how long anyone could leave a bike unattended and unlocked in London before someone stole it these days, and yet to her it wasn't even a matter worth considering. The fact that she could just turn up to the venue and get a ticket on the day was also surprising. The main question everyone asked each other prior to the 2012 Games was “have you got a ticket?” – they felt as rare as one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets. And as I watched Handball this year, there was no chance of me passing out from the heat thanks to the indoor arena's air-conditioning.

I decided to ask my other Gran about it all to see if she had any stories. She is a few years younger, although has equally strong memories of growing up during the war, living in Bomb Alley. She didn't visit the Olympics but told me how it was probably too expensive for her and her family. This was a familiar problem that many people, especially locals, faced in 2012. If you were lucky enough to get a ticket, they were expensive: especially if you wanted to go with your family. And as a young person, you only really went if your parents could buy you one. I was disappointed when I heard that many people from my community didn't go to the Games because of the price.

My Gran went on to tell me how following the Games back then was difficult, because the only way one could do so was through the radio. She had two radios in her house – both operated by her parents – and as a young person in those times, you were rarely lucky enough to have your own radio. That's the biggest difference from then to now: technology. The coverage this year was incredible. You could watch every single event on your computer, tv, smartphone or even tune in to the radio like in 1948, which is why a lot of people without tickets were still satisfied in the end.

I've always found it difficult to picture my Grandparents' youths, but trying to do so through comparing their versions of the 1948 Games with what I’ve experienced of 2012 has been a surprising help.

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  • Mary Welsh

    I’m the older Granny in the story. I enjoyed your article very much. It was lively and interesting. I liked the way you contrasted the two events and filled in all the background. I actually passed out because I had to stand in the heat – I would not have seen anything if I had sat down. Best of luck.

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