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17 October 2014

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Athletics

Wyndham Halswelle

Wyndham Halswelle

© RHF Museum

Perhaps one of the most remarkable stories, as well as one of the most tragic, in the history of Scottish sport concerns the winner of Scotland's first Olympic track gold, won in highly controversial and dramatic circumstances, Captain Wyndham Halswelle.

Halswelle, like Eric Liddell, was not actually born in Scotland, but in London, on 30 May 1882, to Scots parents. His athletic prowess was noted during his schooldays at Charterhouse, and also at the Officer's Training College at Sandhurst.

Upon leaving here, however, athletics had to take a back seat as Halswelle accepted a commission in the Highland Light Infantry who were soon after posted off to fight in the Boer War in South Africa. Although Halswelle was a keen participant in regimental sports during this time, he was not to take up running seriously until his return to Britain in 1904.

Upon the resumption of his sporting career it soon became apparent that the young officer had a great talent for sprinting, although, judging by regimental records, despite his enthusiasm for the sport, he was a poor cricketer.

The year after his return he won the Scottish and British 440 yard title, and a year later, he achieved his first major international success at the Intercalated Olympics in Athens. These games were organised to regain some credibility for the Olympic movement after two badly-organised events in Paris and St Louis. Although the games are not officially recognised today, they were taken very seriously at the time and breathed new life into the Olympics. Halswelle was a big hit at the Athens Games, collecting a silver in the 400m and bronze in the 800m, a foretaste of the success he was to enjoy two years later.

That same year Halswelle produced a phenomenal piece of running, when, at the Scottish athletic Championships at Powderhall, he won the 100, 220, 440 and 880 yard races all in the space of a single afternoon creating two national records on the way! 1907 was a write-off for Halswelle due to a leg injury, but he returned to the track in 1908 eager to do more, and began by setting a new world record for the 300 yard distance.

Wyndham Halswelle

© RHF Museum

If Halswelle was ready and raring to go for the Olympics, the same can hardly be said for the Games themselves. After two dismal Olympiads, the movement really needed a successful show to keep momentum moving. However, things did not quite run to plan. Rome was the original choice for the 1908 Games, but the eruption of Mt Vesuvius caused an economic crisis in Italy and the government quickly cancelled plans to host the Games. London took up the mantle and became the new host city.

However, the drama did not end there. Irish athletes, wanting to flag up demands for Home Rule, boycotted the games while the opening ceremony descended into farce, with a series of rows over flags involving Sweden, the USA and Finnish athletes who objected to running under the Russian flag.

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