Unusual tale of Edinburgh’s forgotten Olympic champion

Wyndham Halswelle crosses the line
Wyndham Halswelle crosses the line
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IT had taken years of preparation to get to this stage. Sweat and pain, running for all he was worth, pushing his body to the limit.

Now Wyndham Halswelle was on the brink of Olympic glory, a gold medal in his sights to add to the bronze and silver in his collection.

As the Scot lined up for his 400m race, the eyes of the London crowd on his every move, there was just one vital component missing.

There was absolutely no-one to run against.

Army lieutenant Halswelle cut a lonely figure on the starting line. And when the gun sounded at London’s White City in summer 1908, he was off and running, all by himself.

Today, Halswelle remains the only Olympian to have won gold as the result of a walkover.

As the countdown starts to London 2012, his story serves as a reminder that sport can not only unite nations but divide them too, make men heroes and leave them emotionally wrecked.

Halswelle’s name has long been overshadowed by the spectacle of Allan Wells, charging down the 100m track at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the inspirational story of another Edinburgh gold medalist, Eric Liddell. Liddell entered sporting history in 1924, snatching gold in Halswelle’s event, the 400m, having withdrawn from his preferred 100m because its Sunday scheduling clashed with his religious beliefs.

But it was the bizarre sequence of events which surrounded Halswelle’s gold medal victory that make his achievement so unusual.

“They didn’t have properly thought out rules,” explains Dr John Burnett, principal curator of Scottish ethnology at the National Museums of Scotland, who is also a member of the selection panel for the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, where Halswelle’s achievements are recognised alongside more familiar names from sporting history.

“One nation would say ‘this is the way we have always done it’, and another would say ‘well this is how we do it on this side of the Atlantic’,” he adds.

And it was those differences that led to surely the strangest Olympic final ever.

Halswelle was the son of Edinburgh-trained landscape artist Keeley Halswelle and his Scots wife, Helen Gordon, daughter of Major General Nathaniel Gordon. At Charterhouse School, he excelled in athletics and impressed at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and when he served with the Highland Light Infantry.

His regiment served in South Africa in 1902 during the Second Boer War, where he was spotted by a former professional athlete-turned-coach Jimmy Curran and persuaded to consider pursuing athletics seriously on his regiment’s return to Edinburgh in 1904. Halswelle quickly showed his prowess on the running track, becoming army champion that year and following it up with a string of Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) titles.

When Greece decided to revive interest in the Games with the Athens Intercalated Olympics in 1906, Halswelle stormed to a silver medal in the 400m and a bronze in the 800m.

And on one afternoon at Powderhall, he demolished opponents at the Scottish championships, winning the 100, 220, 440 and 880 yards races – a remarkable and unmatched series of victories.

“He was an amazing natural talent. He didn’t need a lot of coaching and training. Of course, you can only judge people against their own competitors but he was clearly an exceptional athlete,” adds Dr Burnett.

The seeds of what would come to pass at the 1908 Olympics, however, had already been sown at those 1906 Games in Athens.

Some who watched Halswelle en route to picking up his silver medal believed he had been impeded by US runners taking part, among them the winner Paul Pilgrim.

While debate raged about the fairness of Pilgrim’s victory, Halswelle was planning his response at the 1908 Games. There he blitzed the opposition on his way to the 400m final, reaching it with the fastest qualifying time ever, 48.4s, an Olympic record, and setting himself up, surely, for a gold medal.

In those days races were not run in lanes and started from a common line, not staggered like the familiar races of today. The rules of the Amateur Athletic Association made clear that “any competitor wilfully jostling or running across or obstructing another competitor shall forfeit his right to be in the competition” – hopefully preventing a repeat of the 1906 final. But blocking your opponents was still allowed in the United States.

Halswelle lined up against three Americans: John Carpenter, William Robbins and John Taylor. After 50 metres Robbins obstructed Halswelle. The Scot was in third place as they entered the home straight, but as he attempted to power past Carpenter, the American strayed into his path and elbowed Halswelle in the chest.

One British official snapped the finishing tape, the race was declared void and promptly disqualified Carpenter. Spectators booed the Americans off the track and there was fury among the British press, matched by howls among US newspapers that the decision to halt the race was “highway robbery”.

America threatened to withdraw all its athletes from the Games, then reluctantly accepted that the race be re-run. However, with Carpenter barred from taking part, his countrymen Robbins and Taylor refused to participate – leaving just one runner, Wyndham Halswelle.

He ran under duress, on orders from the AAA. Photographs from the time show the moustachioed Scot charging towards the finishing line, his footprints leaving a lonely trail in the ground behind him, his arms raised in a half-hearted victory salute, head thrown back and eyes closed as if in the midst of a dream, with a line of top hat wearing officials watching at trackside.

Halswelle’s gold medal was undeniably tainted.

The event sparked a 16-year split between the British and US authorities. And Halswelle, disillusioned, raced only once more, at the 1908 Glasgow Rangers Sports, before announcing his retirement.

“He never actually said I’m giving up because I don’t like all this stuff,” says Dr Burnett. “But then that’s often a characteristic of that type of person at that time. They could be very good at something like sport and then just turn around and say, ‘That’s it, I have done it, there’s other things I want to do in my life’ and walk away.

“Part of the tragedy is what happened next.”

Halswelle rose to the rank of captain and distinguished himself as a military leader. In France during the First World War he wrote a vivid account of trench warfare at Neuve Chapelle for the Highland Light Infantry magazine. Ironically, it appeared in the same edition that reported his death, shot by a sniper in 1915.

“I called on the men to get over the parapet,” he wrote. “There is great difficulty in getting out of a trench, especially for small men laden with a pack, rifle and perhaps 50 rounds in the pouch, and a bandolier of 50 rounds hung around them, and perhaps four feet of slippery clay perpendicular wall with sandbags on the top.

“I got about three men hit actually on top of the parapet. I made a dash at the parapet and fell back. The Jocks then heaved me up and I jumped into a ditch – an old trench filled with liquid mud – which took me some time to get out of.”

It was a horrific challenge in order to gain 15 yards – a distance he would have covered in a couple of seconds on the running track. For three hours they dug in before retreating, having lost 79 men in the process.

Within days, he was among the dead, aged just 32. His grave was marked with a simple wooden cross, his name etched in charcoal. In a Japanese internment camp 30 years later, a similar cross would mark the grave of Scotland’s next Olympic 400m champion, Eric Liddell.

Halswelle’s body was eventually re-interred at Laventie, near Armentieres. And there he lies today, with no mention of athletics or Olympic glory on his stone, his feat all but forgotten.

Less than glorious

LONDON won the honour of hosting the 1908 Games after original hosts, Italy, pulled out, claiming they were too busy dealing with an eruption of Vesuvius.

According to Graeme Kent’s recent book, London’s Olympic Follies (Robson Press, £8,99), the Games were fraught with problems.

The opening ceremony caused upset when the Americans realised their flag was the only one not present at the stadium.

Later, when flag bearers were to dip their flag in respect as they passed the royal box, Irish American shot-putter Ralph Rose kept his upright, offending Edward VII, who took no further part in the Games.

Athletes from Finland, under Russian control, refused to walk behind the Russian flag while Irish competitors, told to compete with the British team, distanced themselves as much as possible.

The Australasian team adopted a typically laissez faire approach – while other competitors dressed smartly in blazers or suits, they rolled up in casual shirts and shorts, and even swimwear.

There was confusion over the events. Italy had offered money to pay for horse-riding events that didn’t exist, a Hungarian weightlifter arrived to discover his sport had not been included. He entered wrestling instead – and won gold.

Meanwhile, the Russian six-man military rifle team didn’t appear at all, apparently because they were using an old Julian calendar 13 days out of date from the Gregorian one used in Britain.

Some others might have been as well not bothering. French competitor Jean Bouin’s three-mile race flopped after he was arrested the night before for a pub brawl.

Events were marred by rain and empty seats. Then fist fights broke out as spectators tried to enter the stadium without paying.

Once inside they were confronted by chaos – cycling was held at the same time as running events and even football. And the swimming pool was filled with filthy and smelly water.