Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Just William

The Olympic Games, by its very nature, has always been a magnet for controversy. The Nazi Olympics of 1936; the shooting of protesting students in Mexico City and the Black Power protests of 1968; the killing of kidnapped Israeli athletes in 1972; the boycotts of 1976, 1980 and 1984; the Ben Johnson doping scandal of 1988 and this year the protests over Tibet have all made news’, as opposed to just sporting, headlines.

Add to these the fact that the spiralling costs of building for and staging the Olympics has always been good copy and it is no wonder that the media in Britain, because they are aware of the Olympics’ propensity for disputation, have been metaphorically sharpening their pencils with glee ever since the awarding ceremony.

You have to go back exactly a hundred years to find the first glimmerings of such wrangling. The Games were held in London for the first time when the original host city Rome withdrew, some said through an eruption of Vesuvius causing the Italians economic difficulties. London volunteered and the IOC gratefully accepted.

The ‘story’ of these Games has always been that of Dorando, the diminutive Italian marathon runner, who staggered into the White City stadium in a state of total disorientated exhaustion, was helped over the finishing line by sympathetic officials to the tremendous cheering of the crowd and was promptly disqualified. It was rumoured that the taking of strychnine (common for distance runners in those days) had been a contributory factor to his fatigue. Another view, less charitable, was that the amount of alcohol offered to him (and accepted) from admiring pub owners as he journeyed through west London from Windsor explained his condition. Whatever, an admiring Queen Alexandra presented him with a cup almost as big as he was for his “sportsmanship.” Subsequently the English have always admired a good loser over a worthy winner.

But this was not the real controversy of 1908; this concerns what became known as the “Halswelle Affair” and it caused an enormous, acrimonious rift between the sporting authorities of Britain and those of the USA.

William Halswelle, born of Scottish parents in Mayfair, was a fine athlete. A product of Charterhouse School and of Sandhurst College this commissioned Army officer had won the AAA 440 yards title three times and had a respectable personal best of 48.4 seconds. On one memorable afternoon he won four running events at the Scottish Championships. In 1906 he won a silver medal in the “Interim Games” in Athens at 400 and a bronze at 800 metres and was undoubtedly the favourite for the gold medal in London.

The 25 year old sailed through the heats to the final and there he met three Americans, John Carpenter, William Corbett and John Baxter Taylor. In those far off days 400 metres was not run in lanes which often led, to say the least, to interesting racing. In the early stages of the Olympic final the Americans led, closely shadowed by Halswelle. As the field entered the home straight it was a battle between Halswelle and Carpenter. The Scotsman takes up the story.

“I did not attempt to pass Carpenter until the last corner,” he said, “reserving my efforts for the finishing straight. Here I attempted to pass Carpenter on the outside…Carpenter’s elbow undoubtedly touched my chest and as I moved outwards he did likewise keeping his right arm in front of me. In this way he bored me across two thirds of the track.”

Carpenter crossed the finish line first but just before he did the British officials lowered the tape and immediately declared the final “no race.”

To the Americans it was the final straw of a frustrating Olympics. They had been suspicious of the motives of the host nation ever since the opening ceremony when an American flag for the stadium could not be found. At the march past the US team did not dip their flag to King Edward. Friction was already in the air and they complained to the New York Herald: “The British ridiculed our flag; they fixed the lane draws in favour of local athletes and favoured their own Tug of War team.” They appealed the Carpenter disqualification.

The Jury of Appeal (all British) met and studied the evidence well into the night. The trackside officials were adamant that Halswelle had been fouled. One of them, Dr Roscoe Badger, said that Halswelle made a big effort down the finishing straight “but the faster he went the wider Carpenter went.”

The problem was that ‘blocking’ was allowed under USA rules, but not under those of either the AAA or the Olympics. The American case was not helped when a Harvard rower said that “Carpenter ran Halswelle off the track” and representatives of Belgium noted that the Scotsman was “bored in the most odious way possible.”

The Jury announced that Carpenter should be disqualified and the final re-run “in strings” so that athletes could not stray from their lanes. There was outrage in the American team and the remaining two American runners refused to take part in the re-run race.

Halswelle reluctantly went to his marks by himself. The Times recorded that he had expressed the wish, “in the best public school spirit not to run unless the Americans took part,” but he was persuaded to run solo in the interest of the Olympic Games.

The controversy went on long after the Games were over. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the “American Athletic Union will break off relations with the British because of the spirit shown by them towards American athletes.” An American official, Gustavus T. Kirby produced a pamphlet that included a so called reconstruction of the Jury of Appeal’s deliberations which showed the errors of their conclusions. The British responded with a booklet of their own which, point by point, rebutted the American allegations.

Time healed these so called affronteries and by 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm all was sweetness and light between the two countries. It was the year that the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) was founded and from then on judges and officials were recruited from around the world and a standardised set of competition rules evolved at a Congress in 1914.

Halswelle was tragically not able to enjoy his Olympic triumph for too long. Like millions of other men of his generation he perished in the mud of northern France, shot by a sniper’s bullet in 1915. He is remembered as a great Scotsman and a great Olympian.

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