London prepares to host the Olympics for a record third time this summer, and a large contingent of Vancouver-born and -based athletes gears up to represent Canada-just like 64 years ago at the 1948 London Games when nearly one in five athletes was from Vancouver. That summer, 24 of Canada's 118 athletes lived and trained in Vancouver.
After a 12-year pause, these were the first Olympics after six years of warfare in Europe, North Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.
"Athletes from around the world joined in friendly competition," said Pat McGeer, one of eight University of B.C. students who played on the Canadian basketball team. They finished ninth. "In some ways it was like a healing experience from World War II," he said.
After a cross-country train trip to the Olympic trials in southern Ontario, selected athletes departed by boat from Halifax aboard the Aquitania, a Titanic-era troop ship that survived both world wars. During the seven-day voyage, the athletes were confined mostly below-deck in third class steerage.
"To get up to first class, we put on shows for the first-class passengers," said Shirley (Gordon) Olafsson, laughing. "We'd make up songs and dances during the day and then go perform them at night." Remarkably, Olafsson finished 10th in the high jump despite competing with a club foot against able-bodied competitors.
To maintain their training and fitness, most did little but battle seasickness and walk briskly on deck. The cyclists balanced their bikes on stationary rollers.
Once in Southampton, the Canadians took another train and saw war-torn London, rubble and gaping bomb craters still evident in the streets.
The Athlete's Village was a converted air force base at Uxbridge. Rationing was still in effect and food was poor: tasteless mutton and rock-hard kippered herring.
"It was difficult to cut, impossible to chew. Then we just pushed it away and said, 'No way," remembered Bill Parnell, who competed in the 800m and 1500m, failing to finish his heat in the latter event when a piece of cinder track became lodged in his eye.
The Opening Ceremony at Wembley Stadium was a highlight. "It just blew my mind," said Kaye Neale-then Kay McNamee-a swimmer who competed in the 100m and 400m freestyle. "I couldn't believe the beauty of the music and the very moving Pierre de Coubertin quote on a huge screen at one end of the stadium." De Coubertin is credited with reviving the Olympics as an international amateur competition and is widely quoted, including for this passage: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."
Parnell, along with Vancouver track teammates Jack Hutchins and Ez Henniger, watched the ceremony on television, their first time in front of a T.V.
Many Vancouver athletes who competed in London have died.
Lorne "Ace" Atkinson was the only westerner selected to the Canadian cycling team. Like half the field in the 120-mile road race, Atkinson failed to finish, suffering multiple tire punctures before reaching the 25-mile mark.
In addition to competing, George Athans was captain of the dive team and its coach. To save money, the Canadian Olympic Association also brought on Athans, a medical student, as the team doctor. His first patient was himself. He had the flu. "I was doctoring all the other swimmers," he recalled years later. "It's no wonder I got sick."
Athans finished eighth in platform and ninth in tower diving.
Sprinters Diane Foster and Patricia Jones produced the best result for Vancouver athletes in London. Foster and Jones helped the Canadian women's 4x100m relay to a bronze medal, one of only three medals won by Canadians at the 1948 Olympics.
"I got the baton in either fifth or sixth position and I thought, 'Gosh, I've really got to run to catch up to these people,'" recalled Jones. "I was really surprised that we came in third."
The Canadians finished in 47.8 seconds, just 0.3 seconds behind the Netherlands, powered to gold by the star of the 1948 Games, quadruple gold medallist Fanny Blankers-Koen. Jones anchored the Canadian relay team and also raced against Blankers-Koen in the 100m final, finishing fifth in a time of 12.4 seconds. Later on, Jones came second to Barbara Ann Scott in a vote for the Canadian female athlete of the year.
Regardless of era, one thing remains constant through 1948 to 2012. Some Canadian athletes will write themselves into the history books, some performances will be forgettable, but all will create memories to last until the next time London plays Olympic host.
Jason Beck is the curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Visit bcsportshalloffame.com for more Vancouver sports legends.