Saturday 20 August 2016

Jamaican Olympic success began in Wembley - in 1948

Guest blog by Philip Grant

The headlines from the Olympics are full of the achievement of Usain Bolt, in winning three sprint gold medals for the third successive Games. But Bolt was only following the giant strides of one of his predecessors. For a “small island”, Jamaica has produced some fantastic athletes, but where did this Olympic success begin? The answer is: Wembley.

The first time that a team from Jamaica took part in the Olympics was at the London Games in 1948. The people of the island had raised the money by public subscription to send them, and most of their athletes reached England after a 24 day voyage on a banana boat. There was no specially-built athletes village for the competitors at these post-war “austerity Games”, and while the men were housed, along with some other Commonwealth teams, at Wembley County School in Stanley Avenue (now part of Alperton Community School), the women stayed as guests of local families. You can read more about this on the Brent Archives website  LINK

The Jamaican Olympic Team at Wembley County School, July 1949 [Courtesy of the 'Old Alpertonians']

The Jamaican team captain, Arthur Wint, was already in England, having just finished his first year as a medical student at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Born into a middle-class family at Plowden, Manchester County, in 1920, his life had already been interesting. At 17 he was named Jamaica’s “Boy Athlete of the Year”, and in 1938 he won the 800m gold medal at the Pan American Games in Panama. The Second World War put an end to international competitions, and when the RAF started to recruit from the British colonies, he joined up with his brothers, Lloyd and Douglas, in 1942. Along with many other Jamaicans, they were trained in Canada. He gained his “wings” in 1944, and saw active service as a Spitfire pilot until 1947, when he left the RAF having won a scholarship to train as a doctor.

At Wembley Stadium, the Jamaicans showed the world what their athletes were capable of. Wint won silver in the 800m, then went head-to-head with his team-mate Herb McKenley (who had finished 4th in the 200m) and several top Americans in the 400m final. McKenley was the favourite, having recently broken the world record, but the long-striding, 6’5”, Wint overtook him in the home straight to win Jamaica’s first Olympic gold medal. McKenley took the silver medal, and they were both hoping for gold in 4x400m relay. However, disaster struck when Wint pulled a muscle while trying to chase down the leading USA runner on the final lap. 

Arthur Wint taking gold ahead of Herb McKenley in the 400 metres final [Source Brent Archives - 1948 official Report]

Arthur Wint promised his disappointed relay team-mates that they would have a gold medal at the next Olympic Games. At Helsinki, in 1952, that promise was delivered. In the individual events Wint again won silver in the 800m, while McKenley took silver medals in both the 100m and 400m. As part of the Jamaican 4x400m relay team they then won gold, in a world record time of 3:03.9.
The 1952 Olympic 4x400m relay champions, Jamaica. L-R: Arthur Wint, George Rhodon, Herb McKenley and Les Laing


After qualifying as a doctor at Bart’s in 1953 (and running his final race, in an athletics meeting at Wembley Stadium in the same year), Wint went back to Jamaica in 1955. He worked as the only doctor and surgeon in Hanover Parish for many years, and in 1973 was awarded the Jamaican Order of Distinction for his service to charities, schools and business. He returned to England in 1974 for four years, as his country’s High Commissioner in London, before working as Senior Medical Officer at Linstead Hospital in Jamaica from 1978 to 1985. He died at Linstead in 1992.

Usain Bolt is a modern giant of athletics, but Arthur Wint, who was known as “the Gentle Giant”, set a high standard for Jamaica’s Olympians to follow. If Bolt can follow his glittering career on the track with a life of service to his country and people like that of his predecessor, he will rightly be remembered as a true Great.

Philip Grant.


Maggie Vickers said...

Thanks Philip. Do you think that it will be worth while doing an exhibition/talk about these kind of aspects of this? It is also possible that some of the Jamaican community who came over in the 1950s may have known these athletes or be related to them and might like to relate their tales. Similar could be done with other communities. There are still a few of the original residents of Wembley around who might include those who acted as guest families to the female competitors. It may be a very good community exercise in dredging up and co-ordinating all available data before these members of the community pass on (even those of us who were pushed up to the stadium in our prams during the celebrations are now approaching 70). Let's all think about it.

Philip Grant said...

Thank you, Maggie. Your idea is something that Brent Museum and Archives might like to consider as a project, and I will pass it on to them.

I first came across Arthur Wint's achievements when doing some research on the 1948 Olympic Games ahead of "London 2012", and learned more about him (and other West Indians who served in WW2) from the "Pilots of the Caribbean" exhibition at the RAF Museum a couple of years ago. Inspirational stories like his deserve to be shared, and the success of Usain Bolt (who was, himself, inspired by Wint's achievements) in Rio seemed a good opportunity to do that.