Herne Hill, Going for Gold

Herne Hill 018

Medals won by Tommy Godwin at the 1948 Olympics

Herne Hill velodrome in south London is the only surviving venue from the last London Olympics in 1948. I don’t take a great interest in track cycling. Going round in circles, especially indoors, is the very antithesis of what I enjoy about cycling. However as I was at a bit of a loose end in London on Sunday morning I thought I’d go and have a look at the ‘Going for Gold’ event that was happening there.

The morning’s activities were geared very much towards families. Members of the Veteran Cycle Club did a few laps of the track while dozens of excited children eagerly awaited their opportunity to do likewise. Photographing other people’s children is much frowned on these days so I didn’t capture the eager faces riding everything from balance bikes to scaled down racers. A roller racing contest was also set up for the more competitive amongst them.

Children’s Roller Racing

The veteran cyclists then joined forces with disabled riders to lead a procession to a fete at the local art gallery where Olympic medallist Tommy Godwin was to give a talk before leading the procession back to the velodrome.

Ninety one year old Tommy Godwin is Britain’s oldest surviving Olympian and is not to be confused with the annual mileage record holder of the same name. Strange that there were 2 top cyclists of the same name at the same time! He won bronze medals in the team pursuit and 1000m time trial and was to give a talk at Dulwich Picture Gallery along with fellow cyclists Jim Love and Wally Happy. At 91 Tommy still looked like an athlete, resplendent in his blazer with its badge ‘1948 Olympics, Cycling’. His Olympic medals and jersey were on a table at the side and his BSA bike was propped against the lectern. He was absolutely bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. He had clearly enjoyed his long life and the talk that he gave was fascinating.

A greater contrast between the hype of this year’s event and the Olympics that Tommy described is hard to imagine. The velodrome itself was in a pretty poor state as it had been used for storing barrage balloons during the war. Food was still rationed but competitors were entitled to food parcels from overseas. Tommy received one from Australia in May. This was meant to last him until August! As Jim Love was only selected as reserve he had to return any uneaten food from his parcel to the olympic committee. He had 4 brothers and sisters so there was not much left over! Athletes’ uniform was white flannels – ex navy, and a black beret – ex army. There was no luxurious athlete’s village. Tommy and his fellow cyclists lodged with the editor of ‘Bicycle’ magazine who happened to live near by. As they had no one to cook for them Tommy’s mum came down from Birmingham and cooked his favourite spam fritters and toad in the hole. It wasn’t easy even to get time off work to take part, Jim Love’s employers needed 4 letters from Olympic officials before they would agree to his absence!

Team tactics were worked out by themselves during practice sessions but despite this lack of preparation every member of the cycling team won a medal. In fact the time recorded by the team pursuit squad in their semi final was actually faster than the winner’s time in the final. When Tommy rode his 1000m time trial it was 9.30 and dark. The stadium had no lights and the journalists wrote their copy by torchlight!
Compared to the more recent Olympic Games it was almost like hearing an account of a school sports day given by a man who is as enthusiastic now as when he was winning medals 64 years ago.

Tommy Godwin’s Olympic track bike