Jack Lumsdaine hated running, but that wasn’t his biggest problem.
“I can ride and shoot and swim,” he’d told his sister. “Those are my good sports. But I don’t know how to fence.”
The war was over. England was laying plans for the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. For the first time since the Modern Pentathlon became an Olympic sport in 1912, teams would compete for medals in addition to individual contests over six days. Athletes from fifteen countries would shoot, fence, swim, ride and run.
“My brother was still in the RAF,” Virginia says. “They looked at all the officers and the men in the RAF that might be athletic, and people would say, ‘You’d better ask Jack Lumsdaine. He seems to know everything about sports.’ “
Everything, Virginia says, except —
“Fencing? Who fences?”
Jack was a pilot. Born John Leon Sydney Lumsdaine, he’d left his home in Shanghai in 1941 to fight for his country, England, a place he’d never been. He was seventeen. By war’s end, Lt. Lumsdaine was a decorated squadron leader in the Royal Air Force. Six-foot-three, looks to swoon for, a Distinguished Flying Cross. All he lacked was an epée.
“So they said, ‘You have twelve lessons to learn how to fence,’ ” Virginia recalls. “And he passed, and joined the team representing England in twelve lessons. That was the kind of athlete he was, you know. He could pick up anything like that.”
Virginia isn’t boasting about her little brother. Andy Archibald, archivist for the Modern Pentathlon Association Great Britain and author of Modern Pentathlon, A Centenary History: 1912-2012, writes that Jack was “… a versatile performer and the best British pentathlete from 1949 to 1954. As an airman, he also competed in, and won, an extraordinary multi-tasking event arranged by the French each year, the Pentathlon Aeronautique International Militaire.”
Multi-tasking? Mr. Archibald gives us Evening Standard journalist Hylton Cleaver’s account of the French event:
“A team of two (one pilot, one crew) was to fly from Paris to Vichy on a specified route, shoot, move dropped weights from one end of a pool to the other, fence, score basketball hoops via obstacles, conduct a 12km evasion exercise wearing a 25 lb backpack, crawl under wire, negotiate a tunnel 50cm in diametre, cross a policed frontier, carry a comrade 100m, scale a wall, and reach a destination by map reading. This Lumsdaine and his partner, Sq. Ldr Podevin, did with great success.”
Mr. Archibald concedes that Cleaver may have broadened his report for the sake of story: “… elsewhere [Cleaver] described the event as ‘involving escaping from prison,’ but it seems entirely consistent with the times and the pentathletes of that extraordinary generation.”
That extraordinary generation.
I would’ve liked to meet Jack Lumsdaine. He’d married and had three children and never lost his love of flying. In 1966, he died on a frozen lake in Québec, ejecting too late from an F-111 he was testing for the Royal Canadian Air Force.*
And the ’52 Olympics? Great Britain finished 10th, and Jack finished 15th as an individual. His best finish was 7th in riding. He finished 16th in swimming, 23rd in shooting, 36th in his worst event —
“Running,” Virginia says, “which he hated.”
He ranked 14th in fencing.
Maybe if he’d had more lessons….
Catch the Modern Pentathlon events at the 2012 London Olympic Games this weekend. Men compete on Saturday, Aug. 11. Athletes compete in all five sports on a single day — fencing, swimming, riding, and combined running/shooting. Women, in their fourth Olympics as pentathletes, compete on Sunday, Aug. 12.
© 2012 First Straw Films • All rights reserved
* CORRECTION – May 30, 2013. The plane Jack was testing was a Canadair CL-41 Tutor jet trainer aircraft, according to news clippings from 1966.