On August 5, 1948, a pretty young woman, at 28 married and the mother of a 2-year-old boy, ran in track and field for France in the 14th Olympic Games. She broke the French record for the 80-meter hurdles there and ran relays as well. Her name was Janine Lamouche (“the fly”), but now everybody calls her “Jamie” (pronounced “ZjahMEE” in that lush way the French pronounce everything.)
In 1948 (or indeed pretty much always) I was unaware of the Olympics. I can say with near-certainty that on the US night that would have been the English day in 1948 when Jamie, running like a particularly determined antelope, broke that record, my dad was sitting in the kitchen reading Victor Hugo over soda crackers dipped in milk. In the morning he would note that Hugo’s facility with description bordered on excessive. “Seven pages to describe a cart!” I heard analyses of Victor Hugo’s style all my life, but never a word about sports. The world of athletics was not disdained in my house; it simply didn’t exist. I would later spend four years at Indiana University, where basketball is The First Cause, without ever managing to get to a single game. Blasphemy, but I just couldn’t see the point. There were no stories at basketball games.
But 64 years later I am privy to a story about sports, about the Olympics, in London. It is Jamie’s story from a world of which I know nothing and a time before mine. But Jamie, now 92, is a friend, an admired personage in my life, and so I am honored to share it. And it isn’t really about the Olympics.
In 1941, Jamie had a wisdom tooth extracted and an infection set in. Dentistry back then was only a step away from the blacksmith, oil of clove being regarded as a panacea, and France was occupied. Even if there were antibiotics equal to her infection, they were in German hands. It was one of those infections that spread, and kill. They still occur. The infection settled in her right leg, which swelled to elephantine proportions. In a Paris emergency room they had to slice off her gabardine slacks with a scalpel. For a month her fiancé, Claude, took turns with her parents, sleeping on the floor beside her hospital bed and giving her sulfa powders every four hours. It was a life-and-death struggle but she survived, at 5’8” weighing only 77 pounds and unable to walk a single step.
“You’ll never run again,” doctors told her.
Jamie’s parents had insisted that she become a bilingual secretary. She had rebelled and was training to become professeur d’éducation physique, something sterner and more refined than the American “gym teacher.” Now a sedentary life behind a typewriter seemed an inevitable doom.
Jamie was taken to the family farm near Trézelles, where her grandparents and great-grandparents raised livestock, a truck garden and made brandy from the plums in their orchard. Tough old Gauls, they’d just survived WWI and now endured WWII Same Germans, different year. They fed the chickens, milked the cows and merely watched as their pretty granddaughter slowly walked, then jogged, then ran like the wind through the potato fields. There was no point in trying to stop her and they didn’t try. When she returned to Paris she resumed training amid German tanks on the streets and earned her degree. And kept running. French champion at the eighty meter hurdles several times, she married Claude when the war was over, produced a son a year later, and kept running. In two more years she would be one of only 37 French women athletes at the 14th Olympic Games.
London was still in ruins from Nazi bombs in 1948, and rationing was even more severe than it had been during the war. Each British citizen was allowed, for example, only six eggs and one ounce of bacon per month! England could barely feed the 3,714 men and 390 women who struggled across a war-torn continent and the English Channel to compete in the first Olympic Games since 1936. The athletes were allowed only the same rations given dockworkers, but some countries sent additional food for their teams.
Hearing this, I imagined barges loaded high with baguettes as they chugged across the Channel to feed French athletes the delicacies to which they were accustomed. Other barges of salty butter, complicated pâtés and at least six varieties of mushroom, dried and packaged in little burlap bags, each with a fleur-de-lis medallion on a red ribbon. Tins of exotic canned meats, fresh produce still trailing the dirt of Normandy. And one whole barge devoted exclusively to pastries and chocolate. We’re talking France for crying out loud. And the Channel is only 21 miles across at Dover. How hard could it be?
Too hard, apparently.
“For breakfast we had semolina cooked in water; we ate very poorly,” Jamie says in an interview televised on July 28, 2012, linked here. (In French, but you can see her Olympic badge and the numbered cloth patch she wore pinned to her shirt when she ran, and pick out a few English words, since Jamie is a Shakespeare buff and reads the Bard in his own language.) “At that time we ran for the pleasure,” she tells the young interviewer. “We were using our natural abilities; we weren’t machines. We didn’t have private coaches or the hours, hours, hours of training. It was better. Now it’s all business and money, money, money. It’s a circus.”
And it is, but Jamie’s story is the story of everyone who gets the stuffing kicked out of them and then refuses to stay down. The Olympics are just the flashy, athletic tip of an iceberg in which getting up and running when you can’t even walk is the submerged, and metaphoric, mass. A skinny girl, running in a potato field. A good story.