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Bob Ryan

In 1948, London Olympics provided different challenges

A look at three of the medalists in 1948, when London last hosted the Summer Olympics.
A look at three of the medalists in 1948, when London last hosted the Summer Olympics. AFP/Getty Images/File

LONDON — I’m here with John, Chad, Scott, and Shira. Jerry Nason was in London, Helsinki, Melbourne, Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Munich with Jerry Nason.

Yes, the great Jerry Nason covered those seven Olympics by himself for the Boston Globe, for which he was sports editor, and then executive sports editor, from 1942 through 1975. He was available at his Winchester, Mass., manse for a cold beer and advice until his death in 1986.

Those London Olympics of 64 years ago were a tad different than the Games that actually got underway Wednesday with women’s soccer matches — good to get the first political gaffe out of the way early — but that will be formally begun Friday evening with the Danny Boyle-produced Opening Ceremonies. There were 59 nations with 4,104 athletes competing, only 390 of whom were female. But one of those women, 30-year-old Dutch Fanny Blankers-Koen, a housewife — as was pointed out approximately 7 zillion times — emerged as the Star of Stars at the Games, winning gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the 80-meter high hurdles, and the 4 x 100-meter relay.

I can only imagine how excited 39-year-old Jerry Nason was to be reporting on the first postwar Olympic Games, especially with regard to what has always been the premier event in any Summer Games. For Jerry Nason was America’s foremost expert on track and field.


He was present, of course, for the astonishing victory of 17-year-old Californian Bob Mathias in the decathlon. It was a 12-hour concluding day, and here is Nason’s summary:

“The scanty illumination from a few grandstand lights was matched watt for watt by the distant Olympic flame itself as the young superman finished his last two events, the javelin and 1,500 meters. His father, mother, and kid brother sat through to the bitter end — cold, wet, and hungry.”


Jerry was quite taken with the aforementioned Dutch housewife, although his powers of description, so classically typical of the times, might not pass PC muster today.

Sample: “She swooped over the 80-meter sticks in a pair of qualifying heats today like she was chasing the kids out of the pantry.”

And this on the subject of the 200 meters: “She fled through her trial heats as though racing to the kitchen to rescue a batch of burning biscuits. Frankly, Fanny looks like a shoo-in for three titles.”

But Jerry had his eye on more than just what was going on at Wembley Stadium, which brings us to the Some Things Never Change Department.

The one sport 100 percent guaranteed to produce judging controversy in any Olympics was front and center back in ’48. Under the headline WEIRD OFFICIATING MARS OLYMPIC BOXING, Jerry reported that, “The only available eggs being laid in England at the present time are those being laid by the Olympic boxing judges. These overworked refugees from the hen house have committed such palpable errors that already six referees and 11 judges have been ordered to Siberia by the Olympic committee.”

Later on, Jerry opined that, “Unless the boxing can be more competently judged it might best abandoned on the Olympic program for it is a wonderful agency for igniting at least interglobal strife.”

Now turn over your hourglass to await the first 2012 boxing outrage.

When he wasn’t monitoring the track and field folk, Nason was following boxers. When he wasn’t doing either of those things he was on the Thames watching the rowers, or perhaps taking a look at the USA basketball team, which actually had a scary game with Argentina (59-57) amid the predictable annihilations of hapless Uruguayans, Czechs, and Koreans, leading up to a gold-medal game with France, whose outcome was in so little doubt that the only flag brought for the gold-medal ceremony was the Stars and Stripes.


In addition to the event coverages, he churned out features, including one rather controversial (I’m sure) defense of the otherwise infamous Avery Brundage, head of the USOC and an historical punching bag of epic proportions.

“If travel broadens one,” wrote Nason, “then this journey has caused my estimation of Avery to expand immeasurably. This, I know, is an unpopular point of view, one which is shared by a minority of the press and not at all by the Walter Brown Marching and Chowder Society.”

As the Games progressed, Jerry became infatuated with the British press, most specifically in its reaction to the sparse success being enjoyed by local athletes.

And so: “An amazing journalistic retreat into the Dark Ages by the British press has been a source of constant amusement to the 62 scribes from the States here for the Olympic Games. No five-cent weekly could be so hopelessly provincial and editorially biased as the London papers with their millions of readers.”

Continuing on, Jerry noted that, “The British are desperately low for a hero to worship that if the local scribes ever get a champion out of this Olympiad the feat will be reported like the second arrival of the Spanish Armada.”


(Great Britain did win 23 medals overall, three gold.)

Oh, Jerry was a wordsmith, all right. His football stories were marvels, and his Saturday notes column featured Grantland Rice-style verse. I can still see him arriving each morning at 10 sharp, always wearing a signature fedora, and always with a “Buongiorno, everybody.” He produced five or six columns a week and he covered a college football game each Saturday.

He was, above all, Mr. Marathon. He covered 50 of them in succession for the Globe, came up with the designation of Heartbreak Hill, and has never been equaled as a chronicler of the greatest of all marathons.

And in case anyone should doubt his stature, consider the following dispatch from Harold Kaese in his notes column of Aug. 10, 1948.

“Jerry Nason, Globe sports editor covering the Olympics, was the ONLY reporter from the Western Hemisphere on the London Marathon course last Saturday.

“The British organizing Committee, which gave scant consideration to the press during the Olympics, limited course coverage to only a dozen writers. The American Press Association and independent sports writers then got together and voted to have Nason cover the race for the United States delegation, the vote being 60 to 0!”

Into those gigantic shoes step we humble five. That may be half as many as needed to match what Nason used to do all by himself at the Olympics.


Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.