58 years late, Helsinki heroes get their medals

From Philip Barker in Nottingham
They’ve had to wait 58 years, but two of Great Britain’s hockey players have finally received the bronze medals they won at the Helsinki Olympics.

Sir Winston Churchill was still Prime Minister when Derek Day and Neil Nugent both played their part in getting Great Britain into the last four in 1952, but because the Games organisers provided only 11 medals for each squad, both men missed out. In a quaintly old-school British manner, the team drew lots to see who should receive one, and it was Day and Nugent who drew the metaphorical short straws.

They were forced to watch the medal ceremony from the stands as their team mates mounted the podium alongside winners India and silver medallists Holland.

“The Olympics meant a great deal, but it didn’t then have the cachet and the glamour that it does now,” said 83-year-old Sir Derek, who was knighted for his career in the diplomatic service. “But actually to be in an Olympic Games and to see all these other athletes performing and to be a modest part of it yourself was very exciting.”

Only now has the Olympic omission been rectified, thanks to the efforts of a 1952 team mate, Tony Nunn, and some delving by 1988 gold medallist Richard Leman and Jan Paterson, of the British Olympic Association.

The International Olympic Committee determined that any competitor taking part in the preliminary round of an event at a Games ” within a team event ” should be presented with a medal, and so Lausanne ordered the striking of two new medals from the original moulds.

Because of the Helsinki oversight, the pair have received much more media coverage in the 21st century than they ever did in the 20th, when a 2-1 win over Pakistan had clinched the bronze medal play-off.

Yesterday the pair was kept busy for an hour with interview requests and even a BBC Television crew joined the queue. All a far cry from the days in 1952 when the only moving pictures of the Olympics came on the cinema newsreel .

Back then neither man could recall doing any interviews at all. “The papers didn’t come to see us,” said Sir Derek.

“There was, I think, one hockey correspondent, probably from The Times or the Telegraph, who came out for the Games. Sport didn’t really attract the media interest then that it does now. There were a few stars, like Roger Bannister, but for the rest, we were all amateurs and we just got on with it.”

Yesterday, they were joined by the surviving members of the squad to watch the Four Nations match between Great Britain and Germany. At the interval, they marched out, clutching an original Olympic torch from Helsinki, to receive their medals from British Olympic Association chairman Lord Moynihan (in the picture, Sir Derek is on the left, in the red tie, shaking hands with Lord Moynihan, with Nugent to his right).

“It really was a very strange experience because you must remember was this was about something I did nearly 60 years ago and here I am being given something for that,” said Nugent, also 83, who enjoyed a RAF career that took him to the rank of Wing Commander. “So it was odd but it was very moving and I enjoyed it immensely.”

At least to him, the travel arrangements for the team will have held no terrors, as the BOA’s official report from 1952 describes how the team flew to Finland in a converted wartime bomber.

The British team had to make do in training too. “When I think of the very amateur way we prepared to the best of our ability, but looking at what they do now it was very amateur,” Nugent said.

“For instance, every time that a corner is given now, a member of the team goes to the touchline and has a word with the coach and there was some information passed. We didn’t do that. You went on the pitch and you played the game.”

Derek Day was the team’s first-choice goalkeeper, in an age when there were no face masks. “For the Olympics, those of us who lived in London were expected to get together once a week and train. We didn’t have anyone to train us, we just went up to some sports ground ran around three or four times, hit a hockey ball a little bit, then decided it was time to have a drink.”

Day kept a clean sheet to take Britain into the semi-finals, where they performed valiantly against the all-conquering India team. India had won every Olympic tournament since 1928. At a time when substitutes were not allowed, Britain was reduced to 10 men when Nugent was injured, and the Indians went on to win 3-1.

“There were two goalkeepers,” Sir Derek explains. “I played the earlier games and I merely suggested to the manager that if they’d like to give the other goalkeeper a game… It seemed a pity to come all the way to Helsinki and not play a game. So he decided, perfectly understandably, to ask the Welsh keeper Graham Dadds to play in the bronze medal match.”

The BOA’s official report of the tournament, written by assistant team manager M.G. Cowlishaw, makes no mention of the gesture.

At least now though, both Nugent and Day will have something to show the grandchildren.

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