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Dames of the Games

Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Category: Sunday Express

Dame Mary Glen-Haig, 87, lives in West London. She competed in the fencing event in the 1948, 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games and is a double Commonwealth gold medallist. She is the honorary president of the British fencing association, an honour only held before by Winston Churchill.

My father fenced in the 1908 Olympic games and was instrumental in the forming of the fencing Club before the First World War and then when he was asked to teach the Ladies Section he took me along. I must have been about ten years old and I was allowed to join in the class work and got to know everyone. I liked it immensely. I started to compete and then gradually began to compete at international level but it was very amateurish then, nothing was laid on for you; I remember going to a competition in France and my father insisting that my brother come with me. The cheapest way to do it was for us to sit up all night on the overnight ferry, and then at the other end get a train and then I’d compete after all that.

Taking part in the Olympics was just a natural progression from that point and it was thrilling to be a part of it but life was very different in those days- there was a war on and rations made life much more difficult. We had to go to a haberdashery shop in Oxford Street called Bourne and Hollingsworth and buy a white button through dress with our own money and coupons, I think we were given a badge for our blazers. One of the competitors, Macdonald Bailey, had connections with the rag trade and he gave every lady in the Olympic team a cocktail dress which was really rather thrilling because no-one had such a thing and we were all delighted with it. There were one or two parties and generally it was a happy, sociable time.

The night before my event I was working until 8pm in my job as an administrator at Kings College Hospital. That was probably a good thing because I don’t remember being nervous, how could you be nervous when there were air raids and casualties every night? I remember leaving the hospital with my fencing kit when I realised I didn’t have my ration book with me and I had to go back and find the cook and get some butter and sugar from her before I set off again. We were billeted in an empty house behind Victoria station with four of us to a room sleeping in camp beds, it wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury.

On the day itself I reached the semi finals and was very confident because I had beaten everyone but in the intervening time between events someone suggested I should rest and I was taken to a house in Harrow where I promptly fell asleep in the sun in the garden.; quite the wrong thing to do before competing in an Olympic event, but in those days athletes were a docile obedient bunch and of course we had no managers or coaches as such. I came eighth in the final and I’ve always thought that if my father had been present – he was assisting at the modern pentathlon event in Aldershot – it may well have been quite a different result; I don’t think I’d have won but I’m sure I’d have got a medal. However that may well have sent me down a different path in life and I don’t regret anything because I’ve had huge pleasure from fencing my whole life. It’s enabled me to travel the world, I went onto compete in three more Olympic Games, although I was over the hill for medals I was good enough to retain my place in the team and participated in Three Commonwealth Games, winning gold in 1950 and 1954.

The world has changed hugely since those days and it saddens me that sport, as well as all walks of life has become about money and oneself. In those days money wasn’t an issue. It just didn’t matter but that’s all changed and that makes me sad. But it’s wonderful that the 2012 Olympics are going to be held in Britain I think it will be wonderful for the whole country.

Sprinter Sylvia Disley competed in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. She won a bronze medal in the 1952 Helsinki Games for the relay race. She’s married to fellow Olympian steeplechaser John Disley who co-founded the London Marathon. They live in Hampton and have two daughters Emma, 40 and Kate 38 and two grandchildren Alexandra 12 and Olivia, 2.

As a child I was aware that I was a fast runner- no-one had ever beaten me- but I never imagined I’d compete at Olympic level. When I was 16 I read in the newspaper that the Women’s National Athletics Championship was going to be held the next day and I phoned up and asked if I could take part. I couldn’t because entries had closed three weeks earlier, but I was put in touch with my local club and the following year I won the British Championship.

However in many ways I’d prefer to forget the London Olympics- I tore my hamstring a few months before and it didn’t heal until after the Games so it wasn’t my finest hour –I remember being terribly proud and excited that they were being held on my home turf and that’s exactly how I feel about them being held here in 2012.

My Mother came to see me and she had to buy her own ticket - I had complete strangers asking me for a free ticket to watch the games and my answer was always the same : “”Even my Mother had to buy her own ticket.” It was regarded as a strange thing for a girl to do in those days – people used to think you had to be ugly and muscle-bound with piano stool legs to be a runner. I went through my life trying to highlight that women athletes are feminine; I always made an effort to dress properly and wear make up . Funnily enough in the European Championships in Oslo in 1946 it was discovered that two of the fastest women there were in fact men; and so in 1948 in London that was the year they introduced sex testing which involved a somewhat embarrassing dropping of the shorts. That probably isn’t necessary these days because of the very tight-fitting shorts they wear.

Although it will be so different from 1948 not least because of the number of events and the facilities that will be on offer. In 1948 it was very impressive because they did the whole thing on a budget the whole thing cost £600 000 and they made a £10 000 profit and they did that by using existing facilities. For example they used nurses’ homes and schools to house athletes; and they put a track down at Wembley Football Stadium and used that for athletics events. One very nice touch was that next door to Wembley was the Empire Pool which had been a dance hall during the war and when they took the floor up there was a 50 metre pool underneath and so all they had to do was put in the seats and the facilities for the press and it was ready. As soon as the swimming events were over they boarded up the pool and used it as the venue for fencing, boxing and wrestling they made that change in the space of 48 hours, when you look back it was very well done considering what they had to work with.

Of course there was no sponsorship in those days and that meant that we all had to work. I was a journalist and I had to train in the evenings after work and any holidays I had were taken up competing abroad. But I rather liked having a life outside athletics; I wouldn’t have liked my whole life to have been dominated by it. Although in many ways it has because I married a fellow athlete, as did many of the other girls. I think it’s because we met up at so many events that it was inevitable.

Our daughters have never found it hard to live up to being the daughter of two medal winners ; they were both very sporty in their own right but I think competing at that level has to be something you come to yourself. The training has certainly given me the mental attitude that you should keep active – I still swim, cycle and do aerobics every week and have only just stopped skiing. We’re still involved with The Olympian Association and like to feel that we have something to pass onto younger people.; I know our granddaughter is quietly proud of us.

Sprinter Dorothy Parlett 78 lives in Woodford Green, Essex and has three children 4 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren. She is married to her second husband John Parlett who is also a former Olympian. She won a silver medal in the 100 metres race at the 1948 Olympic Games.

If you had told me I’d have won a Silver Olympic medal for sprinting six months before I did I’d never have believed you because until 1947 my sport was the high jump. Then in 1947 they were drawing up a list of possible names for the Olympics and I was put forward. I was put in the hands of Sandy Duncan who was an international long jumper and I began to train with him. He didn’t think I would make the grade as a high jumper but thought I was a great sprinter .I started sprint training with him in March and won a silver medal in August of 1948.

I trained four evenings a week for a couple of hours and competed on a Saturday. I had a full time job in the city as a typist and so could only train after work for a couple of hours. People were excited by the Olympics in London but you can’t compare it to 2012 in any way, they were entirely different times- we didn’t have as long to prepare for it; I think we only knew it was going to take place two years beforehand, it was altogether more low key. Of course there was rationing but as an Olympic hopeful we were given a little bit more, we had extra meat.

On the day I was competing I remember I felt incredibly nervous as I came out into Wembley Stadium in front of the thousands of people who were there - I’d never even competed in an international event before the Olympic Games which seems extraordinary in today’s terms. My parents and fiancé were there watching me and for years afterwards people said to me. “I saw you run, I was there.” which was lovely. It had been beautiful weather when I won the heat which suited me very well, but unfortunately the weather broke and it was wet and horrible on the day of the final but I was exhilarated to get the silver medal. I was beaten by Fanny Blankers-Koen of The Netherlands and she was a superb athlete.

In those days coming second was a great feat as was simply being selected to take part but nowadays the emphasis is all on being number one and the important part about taking part has been lost. I think money entering sport has changed everything- we were much lighter hearted about it all; we competed because we loved it. I give talks to schools sometimes and take my medal with me and I always try to convey to children the importance of enjoying what they’re doing, not just winning. I do however feel heartened when I overhear them saying “Mummy I held an Olympic medal today” on their way out of the school, it makes me feel that it is still valuable.

And athletes nowadays are national celebrities which is a new phenomenon too, although I did have my share of publicity I suppose: after the heat on the Saturday I was on the front pages of The Sunday Pictorial and I was recognised by people in the street. I was invited to open jumble sales and sports meetings and when they were showing the Olympic film at various cinemas I was invited to go on stage to introduce it which happened in about 6 cinemas in East London- it was all quite exciting.

I’m not sure if it’s difficult having a mother with a silver Olympic medal: my children were very sporty at school and I had high hopes that they would follow in my footsteps but I think in many ways it was too much to live up to. People would say to them, “Your mother won the silver, how about you trying for the gold?” and that naturally put them off. It was a disappointment to me but they are all very proud of me.

I am thrilled London won the Olympics although it’s a long time off, I just hope I’ll still be around for them. Very strangely the day the bid was being announced I had a German film crew in my home watching my reaction to the news and I had to be very exuberant but I’m not naturally like that, but I am absolutely delighted.

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