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Independent on Sunday, The,  Aug 8, 2004  by Adrian Turpin

1948 London

The first summer Games since Berlin in 1936 is an austere affair, with food still rationed and competitors housed in military camps and colleges. Germany and Japan are not invited

Karoly Takacs The disabled hero

Many of 1948's competitors had suffered the misfortunes of war, few so dramatically as Takacs. Born in Budapest in 1910, he had been a member of Hungary's pistol-shooting team at the World Championships in 1938. While a sergeant in the army, however, he handled a faulty grenade which exploded, shattering his right, shooting arm for good.

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Initially, he was distraught at what seemed like the loss of both his career and his hobby. But he emerged from a month in hospital with new resolve: he would begin the laborious process of learning to shoot with his left hand. Within a year he had won the Hungarian pistol-shooting championship.

When Takacs arrived in London to compete in the rapid-fire pistol event, the world-record holder Carlos Enrique Diaz Saenz Valiente, asked why he had entered: "I'm here to learn," Takacs replied, before taking gold. From the second place on the medal rostrum Diaz Saenz Valiente turned to Takacs and said: "You have learnt enough."

Takacs successfully defended his title in Helsinki. After that, almost nothing was heard of him until his death in 1976, although oddly his story has become a favourite with Christian websites in America, which find inspiration in his tale of Lutheran faith, high- power weaponry and triumph over adversity. n

1952 Helsinki

The USSR's first appearance at the Games, and the first Russian presence for 40 years. But the Eastern bloc athletes have their own Olympic village, an unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated happening

Emil Zatopek The political pawn

With the emergence of the Communist bloc after 1945, it was only a matter of time before sport became a Cold War weapon. And Czechoslovakia's legendary long-distance runner Zatopek's triumphs in Helsinki were destined to make him a political figure.

Zatopek was not a pretty sight. He ran with a grimace on his face and his tongue lolling out. The New York Times even described him as "the most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein". He once said, "My running was very simple. I was sometimes like a mad dog." As a soldier, he trained by night, wearing heavy boots and a head torch. After he married, he did the washing by putting it in the bath and jogging on it.

While his idiosyncrasies may have endeared him to fellow competitors, Zatopek's raw talent and nonchalance must have driven them to distraction. After triumphing in the 10,000m in Helsinki, he entered the 5,000m - because "the marathon won't be for some time yet, so I must do something until then" - and won. That he'd never run a marathon didn't bother him. He simply sought out the world- record holder, Britain's Jim Peters, introduced himself on the starting line, then copied him. By the time the second competitor finished, Zatopek was signing autographs. Within eight days, the "Locomotive" had won three of the most gruelling events in the Olympics.

The dramas did not end on the track. He became a member of the Czech Communist Party. It was an offer he couldn't refuse, but meant that he had further to fall in 1968 when he supported Alexander Dubcek's reforms and opposed the Soviet invasion.

The consequences were savage. Zatopek was dismissed from the army and sent to work in a mine. It was seven years until the ministry of sport rescued him with an archivist's job.

By then his spirit was broken. In 1971, he recanted his deviation from Communist orthodoxy. He'd never meant to be a "wild one", he said; he would now be a loyal servant of the regime.

It was a sad postscript to his sporting life. But, after the fall of Communism, few held it against him - Zatopek, who died in 2002, was just too well-loved and his athletic achievements too great. And if he was, perhaps, the greatest athlete to fall foul of superpower politics, he was hardly alone. n

1956 Melbourne

The first southern-hemisphere Games are played out in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez crisis

Barry Larkin The joker

At the end of the phone line in Melbourne, Barry Larkin sounds slightly gruff about being made to relive his moment of Olympic history again. "It's 50 years down the track, you know." Only slowly does he thaw, as he remembers how he and his friends pulled off the greatest hoax in Olympic history.

It was 1956, and the Olympic flame's journey took it from Cairns to Melbourne. Everything went smoothly until Sydney. "A few of my friends and I thought too much was being made of this Olympic torch business," says Larkin, now 68. "It was being treated as a god, whereas in fact it was originally invented by the Nazis for the Berlin Games in 1936. So we got a chair leg, some silver paint and an old plum-pudding can, and we made our own torch.

"We had a guy in white shorts and a white top to carry it, and another guy to dress up in his reserve airforce uniform and pretend to be a motorcycle outrider. One of them had some old army underpants from his national service days, so we covered them in what I guess must have been kerosene and chucked them in. Then we went into the crowd where everyone was waiting for the real torch and lit it."