Thrift shop find turns out to be a sporting treasure

Terry O’Neill loves watching reality TV programs like Antiques Road Show and American Pickers. So he’s well-versed in the old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Tuesday, it happened to him.

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O’Neill, a former Coquitlam city councillor, was searching through the racks and shelves at the Crossroads Hospice Society’s thrift shop on Barnet Highway after dropping off a donation of used clothing when he spied an old purple and gold felt banner hanging from a nail on the wall.

The banner, with a price tag of $15 attached, commemorated the 1954 British Empire Games, where British runner Roger Bannister contested Australian John Landy in the “Miracle Mile.”

“I did a classic double-take,” O’Neill said of his disbelieving find and subsequent purchase. “My first thought was ‘this is a historical treasure.’”

His second thought was to contact the BC Sports Hall of Fame, which he did, on speakerphone so staff at the shop could listen in.

Jason Beck, the hall’s curator, said he gets two or three such calls almost every day. Usually they’re from people cleaning out a closet or attic, never from the sales counter of a thrift shop.

But O’Neill’s call had a particular interest to him. 

Beck also happens to be a collector of memorabilia from the 1954 games, that were a precursor to the modern Commonwealth Games, so he knew the significance of O’Neill’s find.

“That was the event that put Vancouver and B.C. on the world sports map,” he said. “Before that you would very rarely see Vancouver or a Vancouver athlete end up on the front page or in headlines in newspapers around the world.”

Beck has a similar banner in his own personal collection, along with other souvenirs like tea sets, plates, autographs from athletes including Bannister and Landy, as well as timing slips from the famous race, ticket stubs, programs and even the South African flag that flew at Vancouver city hall during the event.

“I knew exactly what he’d found,” Beck said of the banner O’Neill described to him over the phone.

O’Neill said the banner had likely been stored away in a box or a drawer for many years, because it’s colour hadn’t faded and there was a crease down the middle of the felt.

Beck said when he takes such calls, he tries to glean as much information as he can about the artifact’s history, where and how it was found, who owned it and how they got it, as well as the motivation of the person to contact the hall.

“The story is as much a part of the item,” Beck said. “If you don’t get the background, you’ll never know.”

For an item to be added to the hall’s collection of more than 27,000 artifacts, Beck said it has to have some sort of definable connection to B.C. sport, either to an athlete or event held in the province, or an achievement attained here. Then he has to ascertain the hall doesn’t already have the item in its collection.

If it meets those parameters, he said, paperwork is filled out and arrangements are made to collect the item.

O'Neill said he’ll bring the banner to the hall, which is located at BC Place stadium, in the next couple of weeks, or mail it in. He’s thrilled his little shopping stop reaped such a reward.

“I’m glad people repurpose things and not just throw them away,” he said. “It’s important we treasure these things.”

Beck said the banner will eventually get a place in the hall’s current small display dedicated to the 1954 games that includes a stop watch that timed the Miracle Mile and even the shell casing from the bullet in the starter’s pistol that set the runners off.

“We rotate our exhibits regularly,” he said. “Over the course of a five year period, more than three-quarters of our items will go on display at any given time.”

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