January 30, 2014

Olympic Gold

A 1948 Olympic medal comes to our archives
The Department of Special Collections and University Archives of the UMass Amherst libraries boasts impressive collections in the history of social change among other areas. Every so often, the department acquires a piece of history that is outside its specialties, but still intriguing. The latest such gift is a gold medal from the 1948 Olympics. How did this medal come to rest in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library?

The 1948 Olympics, the first after World War II, is remembered as the "austerity Olympics." The games were held in London, a city still physically and fiscally battered from the war. Athletes had to bring their own towels to London and meat was so scarce there that some contestants ate whale meat. Former Axis powers Germany and Japan were banned and the Soviet Union was absent, but much of the rest of the world was ready to resume international athletic competition.

For the first time, women’s long jump was an Olympic event. Fanny Blankers-Koen of Holland, the world record holder in the long jump and a formidable favorite, chose to focus on running events, creating a golden opportunity for a 23-year-old track star from Hungary, Olga Gyarmati.

Gyarmati, a champion sprinter, flew down the cinder track at Wembley stadium and soared 5.695 meters, winning the inaugural women’s long jump. The gold medal she earned that day features the goddess of victory on one side and a crowd holding a champion aloft on the other.

In her track and field career, Gyarmati set 23 national records in Hungary in six different events. She competed in two more Olympics—Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956. While Gyarmati competed in Melbourne, the Hungarian Revolution was crushed by Soviet forces and she and many members of the Hungarian Olympic team made the agonizing decision not to return to their country. Gyarmati met and married the renowned Hungarian writer Tamas Aczel in England. The couple later moved to the United States, where in 1966 Aczel became a professor at UMass Amherst. He passed away in 1994.

After Gyarmati’s 2013 death at age 89, donor Maryellen Burnowski entrusted the treasured gold medal, slightly worn from its travels, to UMass Amherst. It will remain in the archives along with a silver box presented to Gyarmati by the Hungarian Workers’ Party, photographs, and other mementos of her Olympic victory.