'A dream come true': 1948 Olympians remember the last London games

With the Olympics only 100 days away, TODAY’s Natalie Morales sat down with four gold medalists from the previous London Olympic Games — held 64 years ago in 1948.

Thirty-eight athletes from the American team won gold medals that year. Among them was Alice Coachman for the high jump, Sammy Lee for diving, Mal Whitfield for track and field and Ray Lump for basketball.

“What I remember most was the awards ceremony in Wembley Stadium,” said Lump, who was part of the gold medal-winning basketball team. “There were 80,000 people in the stands, they award you a gold medal, they play the national anthem, they raise the American flag. It is a moment in time that you never forget. You’re so proud to be an American.”

London was a very different place in the 1948 Olympics than it will be for the 2012 games. The 1948 Games came after a twelve-year hiatus, as the world had been grappling with war. Britain was still rationing food and clothing when the games began; housing was in short supply and contestants were asked to bring their own towels. The limitations led to the games being nicknamed the “Austerity Games.”

“To be an Olympian was a dream come true,” Lump added. He played the guard position for the men's basketball team, which was undefeated in its run-up to gold. After his win in 1948, Lump continued his basketball career as a guard for the New York Knicks, Indianapolis Jets and Baltimore Bullets.

Video: Olympic hopefuls arrive on the plaza

Alice Coachman not only won the gold for the women’s high jump that year, but was also the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in any sport. Born and raised in Georgia, where she still resides, Coachman began training for the Olympics in 1939, after training for years on dirt roads and without shoes, since local facilities were still segregated. Coachman was awarded the gold by King George VI. “It was fine,” she smiled, “fine to have the king to award me the medal.”

Sammy Lee, now 91 years old, had the distinction of not only being a double medalist in 1948, but was also the first Asian-American to win the gold. He told Morales that during his winning dive he thought, “It’s taken me sixteen years to get here and I hope I don’t throw.” He didn’t need to worry, as he won the gold for the platform dive and bronze for the springboard. Lee went on to break another record in 1952, becoming the oldest diver to win a gold medal at 32.

Video: 100 days to go before the Olympics

Morales also spoke with Mal Whitfield, once known as “Marvelous Mal” for being the finest 400/800 meter runner of his time.

 “I won a few medals,” he said nonchalantly.

He won three in 1948, including the gold in the 800 meter, for which he set an Olympic record. He returned to the Olympics in 1952 and won two more medals, a gold for the 800 meter and a silver for the 1600 meter relay. 

TODAY.com contributor Jillian Eugenios already has her London 2012 pin on her favorite running shoes and can't wait to see the American team break records one more time.  

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Today Show producers, the next time you interview senior citizens, please don't have them outside in cool weather. Seniors require more heat than others. They were clearly cold during this interview. Thanks for their stories.

    Reply#1 - Thu Apr 19, 2012 7:29 AM EDT
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