BBC

Previous Page

 

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.

Wyndham Halswelle

© RHF Museum

The row with the Americans, started by the omission of the American flag from the stadium at the opening ceremony, and intensified when the America standard-bearer, discus thrower Martin Sheridan, refused to dip the flag on passing the Royal box, raised tensions between the sporting communities of both countries – a fact which undoubtedly had an impact on what happened later.

The controversy was played out to the fullest on the track in the final of the 400m. Halswelle won through to the final, setting a new Olympic record of 48.4 seconds in his heat, where he lined up against three American runners: William Robbins, John Carpenter and John Taylor. The drama unfolded as the runners made their way into the final straight. Robbins was in the lead, with Carpenter and Halswelle competing for second place. As Halswelle and Carpenter moved to pass Robbins it appeared that Carpenter blocked the Scot, running diagonally and forcing him to the edge of the track.

Although the practice of blocking was permitted by the American athletics federation, it was most definitely not allowed in the Olympics. The line judge cried "Foul!" and the finishing tape was removed by the Scottish finishing judge just before Carpenter crossed it. After an hour of deliberation, Carpenter was disqualified and the race was scheduled to be rerun the following day.

Unsurprisingly, in the atmosphere, the other two American runners refused to participate in the re-run. Halswelle himself had no taste for it, and only ran under duress, after AAA officials insisted. This constitutes the one and only time an Olympic athletics event has been decided by a walkover. While the debate over the rights and wrongs of this decision raged at the time, picture evidence of the race certainly seems to indicate that Halswelle was indeed blocked.

Wyndham Halswelle

© RHF Museum

Halswelle gave up running shortly after, making his swansong at the Glasgow Rangers sports in 1908. The tragic postscript to this story comes seven years later, however, when alongside many great talents of that generation, Captain Wyndham Halswelle lost his life during the Great War.

Commanding his troops at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle he was shot and wounded by a sniper. After receiving treatment in the field he heroically returned to his post only to be shot through the head by the same sniper.

However, his name has not been forgotten, as his regiment, now the Royal Highland Fusiliers, award the Wyndham Halswelle Memorial Trophy to the winner of the 400m at the Scottish under-20 championships. Despite the controversial nature of Halswelle's greatest success, no-one should doubt that he was one of the true greats of his time, as his other outstanding achievements testify, and he remains the only British athlete to have won gold, silver and bronze medals in individual Olympic events.



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy