15 December 2017

Olympics then & now

Michael Lapage, Olympic Rower

Michael Lapage is a remarkable man. On the day that we met, he was only available in the afternoon. “Monday mornings I walk on Exmoor with a group of friends”, he explained. He is 88. He has had a full life – RAF pilot, teacher, missionary and Olympic rower. As we chatted, his recall of events long gone was remarkable – referring only occasionally to the diary which he had written up a few years ago.

2012 will be the third time that London has hosted the Olympics – after 1908 and 1948. While the 2012 is a multimillion pound operation which has been planned meticulously since the announcement of the award of the games to London in 2005, the 1948 games were put together at short notice and referred to as the “austerity games”.

They were the first games since 1936, which are remembered as much for the Nazi propaganda as the sporting contests. The 1940 Games were to have been in Japan but were cancelled when Japan invaded China. As the second World War was still in progress, no games were scheduled for 1944. The 1948 games were awarded to London in recognition of the damage the city had suffered in the war.

For the modern Olympian, selection for the games is the culmination of years of dedicated training and sacrifice. Most members of the 2012 Team GB will have been full-time athletes for a few years. Michael was just in the right place at the right time. He was a student at Cambridge at the time and had been in the Cambridge crew in the 1948 Varity Boat Race. He explains what happened: “The 1948 Olympics were mounted in a great hurry. We did not hear about them until April or May. It all went back to the 1948 University boat race. After the race they started talking about forming a crew for the Olympics. Because we had won the boat race, they decided to make Cambridge the basis of the crew. They had to bring in one new oarsman to replace an Australian who was not eligible. The stroke of the Cambridge crew was asked to form a crew”.

The 2012 GB Rowing crew is spending the year in full-time training at the Redgrave Pinsent Lake in Caversham as well as training camps in Italy and other European countries. They have a series of World Cup races to contest as well. Michael and his colleagues fitted training into their studies and exams in Cambridge.

Michael has a vivid memory of the opening ceremony, held at Wembley Stadium. “We were living in Henley where the rowing took place. We had to forego any training that day and went on a bus to Wembley. It was a really hot day in August. As host nation we entered the arena last in the parade. We arrived at 12 noon but did not go into the stadium until 3.45 so we sat under a tree trying to keep cool.”

“There was none of the razzle dazzle of today just a simple opening of the austerity Olympics. Lord Burghley invited the king to declare the games open. Then a fanfare of trumpets gave the signal for 7000 pigeons to be released. There was a 21 gun salute, the Olympic flame was lit, Olympic hymn sung and the Olympic oath sworn. The Games were officially open.”

In 2012 the rowers will not contemplate attending the Opening Ceremony. They certainly won’t be sitting under a tree for 3 hours in the sun! The GB Rowing squad will be in a hotel close to Eton Dorney lake – they will watch the ceremony on TV if they are lucky. All their energy will be focused on the competition starting the following day. Incidentally while the 2012 Olympians will be in purpose built Village accommodation or hotels, Michael and his colleagues “were hosted by two ladies who had big houses in Henley”.

In 2012 all the GB crews will know their opponents, having competed against them in World Cup races. Michael and his colleagues had no clue where they were in the pecking order: “We expected nothing really. The critics did not put us in the top six or expect us to make the final. But you always go into a race hoping to win. I think we were a second and a half slower than the Americans in qualifying and we knew they were faster over the second half of the course partly because of their greater stamina. They were importing red meat from America. We were still on war rations and it was difficult getting red meat which was needed for muscle building so we knew we were up against it. In the end we were delighted to come second”.

As he reflects now on the Olympics – he is amused that there is far more interest in his 1948 achievements in 2012 than there was at the time – he can hardly recognise the modern Olympics as being the same as he was part of: “In 1948 it was very much an amateur and austerity event. There were no Germans and no Russians because of the war. I think none of us realised how important the Olympics were. Now so much more is made of the Games and the medals. Ours was just a plain silver medal. When I went to work in Kenya no one knew what the Olympics were”.

Michael also took part in the 1950 British Empire Games in New Zealand. His account is hilarious. “The flight took 5 days and our boat got lost on the way. We competed in a borrowed boat. We won the bronze medal PAUSE…. but then there were only three entrants.”

After Cambridge he became a teacher at Winchester School and in 1951 he offered himself to the Church Missionary Society to go to Kenya. “I taught two years at Winchester to get experience. People were surprised I didn’t stay on but I had my sights fixed on missionary work. I had been in touch with missionary work through my grandfather who was a minister in the Anglican church. My school Moncton Coombe was a great supporter of missionary work so the example of my forbearers influenced me. I went as a Christian who was a teacher rather than a teacher who was a Christian. In Kenya sadly there was not much scope for rowing.”

He stayed in Kenya for 21 years, ten as a teacher before being ordained and working as a vicar and Diocesan Youth worker.

Pilot, rower, teacher, vicar, his life had one constant: “I couldn’t have done anything I did without the foundation of faith in Christ as my Saviour and one who is leader, friend and guide. I have tried to maintain the habit since youth of reading the Bible every day and praying, if possible with other people… The Christian faith and my faith in Christ has been a foundation of my life and I try still to maintain the witness in everything I am doing whether sport, education, parish work or youth work”.

Along with other surviving 1948 Olympians, Michael has been invited to spend a day at the London Olympics. I bet he loves it!

WORDS STUART WEIR