Woodford Green Olympian recalls storming to silver in 100m final of 1948 London Games
PUBLISHED: 09:00 06 May 2012 | UPDATED: 12:24 06 May 2012
The experience of winning an Olympic medal in your capital city is one that most athletes can only dream of.
The 1948 Olympics
• London had been due to host the 1944 Olympic Games, before the Second World War forced its cancellation
• Great Britain won three gold medals at the 1948 Games, considerably fewer than the 56 won at the 1908 London Olympics.
• The BBC paid £1,000 for the broadcasting rights of the Games.
• Wembley Stadium hosted the opening ceremony, watched by 85,000 spectators.
• Fifty-nine nations took part in the Games, bringing 4,104 athletes to London.
• Runner John Mark lit the Olympic flame.
• The United States topped the medals table with 84, of which 38 were gold.
Britain’s current crop of stars will be hoping to taste that feeling during this summer’s London Games but in Woodford Green, an 85-year-old former sprinter can offer an early insight.
Dorothy Parlett, then Manley, of Harts Grove, won a silver medal in the 100m in her home city during the 1948 London Olympics, dubbed the Austerity Games.
And little did she know that a young man, John Parlett, proudly running in the same Olympics for Britain, would give her his name 31 years later.
Speaking from their home, the happy couple told the Recorder about Dorothy’s Olympic triumph, how their lives came together and their memories of a very different sporting world.
Dorothy, who has three children, five grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren, said: “We were amateurs. We did it for the love of it.
“I trained for four months, now they train for four years.”
As far back as her school days at Ray Lodge Primary, Snakes Lane East, Dorothy had a talent for running.
John, 87, who failed in his bid to win a medal in the 800m in 1948, looked back at old school photos with his wife, who has lived in Woodford Green since the age of five.
A presentation stand lovingly created by him shows newspaper clippings, photos, and mementoes from Dorothy’s career highlight.
But that was some way off when she started running at county level just before the Second World War.
An athletics meeting in West Ham proved her ability with winning performances in the 100yds, 150yds and high jump. The latter discipline was initially going to be her 1948 event.
At the end of 1947, a list of potential British athletes was brought out and Dorothy was assigned a coach, Sandy Duncan, who two years later became the British Olympic Association’s general secretary.
She said: “Sandy came to me and said you’re not going to make it as a high jumper but I can see potential in you as a sprinter.
“Of course I said yes. That was in March and on August 2 I got the medal.”
Her preparations, training four times a week, fitted around a full-time job as a short-hand typist for the Suez Canal Company, from whom she had to take unpaid leave to compete in the Olympics.
And to maintain her nutrition in the tough post-war years, she benefited from an extra steak ration from the government.
But winning a medal was very far from her mind.
She said: “I didn’t think about things like that.
“I just loved running and I wanted to do my best.”
She also had to battle her nerves – something British athletes competing on the track in Stratford’s Olympic Stadium in August will need to control.
Walking out in front of 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium was “very nerve-wracking” for Dorothy, but in her heat, in glorious sunshine, she recorded one of her fastest times ever – 12.1 seconds.
Two days later, she qualified in her semi-final. The final was on the same day.
It was then that the anxiety really got to her.
Dorothy said: “My coach came to me and made me lay down on a bed to try to relax.
“I couldn’t help feeling a large proportion of the people there were rooting for me.
“Without being a show-off, you normally think it’s your country, you don’t want to let them down.”
Wearing her 691 race number, Dorothy got off to such a good start she thought she had false-started.
Just 12.2 seconds later though, she had written her name into the Olympic history books, just three-hundredths of a second behind Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen, famously known as the Flying Housewife.
Dorothy said: “I’m glad it was in London.
“I wouldn’t have beaten Fanny. She was a fantastic athlete. She was a powerfully built woman and a lovely person.”
The British press quickly made a bee-line for Dorothy when she returned to her hotel, but as her husband explains, there were none of the flamboyant celebrations likely to be witnessed this summer.
He said: “There was no showing off at the end of the race.
“People would shake hands, there was no flag waving. It just wasn’t done in those days.”
The couple met prior to the Games at a camp in Clapton, put on by entrepreneur Billy Butlin for the Olympic hopefuls. They were sitting at the same dinner table.
But there was no romantic connection, and Dorothy, who was engaged at the time, married Peter Hall in 1949.
Following the Games, Dorothy and John continued to compete and both took home medals from the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland.
John recalled bumping into Dorothy again at a dinner before they departed for New Zealand.
He said: “Coming down the stairs, I saw this smiley girl I’d seen before and I recognised her smile.”
Eventually his future wife, who has spent 35 years as a piano teacher, had to give up running, suffering from a poisoned thyroid gland which ended her preparations for the 1952 Helsinki Games.
A meeting with another British team-mate in 1976 led to John remembering Dorothy, whose husband Peter died in 1973.
John said: “I found her phone number and gave her a ring and we met.”
Three years later they wed and this year they will walk into the Olympic Stadium together to watch the 2012 final of Dorothy’s event.
Though cricket and football, particularly her beloved West Ham, exercise her attention nowadays, her stature as a medal-winning Olympian has led to the offer of free tickets this year.
And should any British athletes need a last-minute word of advice, they can always dash over for a quick chat with Dorothy.