Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Racing Past Bob Phillips The 1920 Olympic Steeplechase: Hodge wins for Britain. Nurmi Is Otherwise Engaged

The 1920 Olympic Steeplechase. Hodge Wins for Britain. Nurmi Is Otherwise Engaged


The Olympic steeplechase of 1920 in Antwerp was not the first such event to be held at the Games since they were revived in 1896, but it was the first to be staged at the distance of 3000 metres which has since become standard and also the first to have something approaching genuine international competition – 16 entrants from Finland, France, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden and the USA. Even so, these were still the formative years of steeplechasing, and only the British and the French had any firmly established experience, their respective national championships dating from 1880 and 1888, though inevitably interrupted for four years by World War I. The USA had introduced the event in 1889 but had not held it between 1906 and 1916.

Finland’s distance-runners were very largely dominant at the 1920 Games – 2nd at 5000 metres, 1st at 10,000 metres, the marathon and cross-country – but seem to have treated the steeplechase as something of a poor relation. Paavo Nurmi would surely have been a contender but could be readily excused further duties because he had already run the heat and final of the 5000 metres and the heat of the 10,000, and was to win the 10,000 final the same day as the steeplechase final. He would, also, incidentally, add individual and team gold in the cross-country three days later. To be fair, the steeplechase was never to figure very largely in Nurmi’s considerations, even though he won Finnish and English AAA titles and a silver medal in rudimentary fashion at the 1928 Olympics.

The competitors for the three heats on Wednesday 18 August were the following: Finland – Oskari Rissanen, Ilmari Vesamaa. France – Edmond Brossard, Robert Geyer, Georges Guillon, Frédéric Langrenay. Great Britain – Percy Hodge. Italy – Ernesto Ambrosini, Carlo Martinenghi. Sweden – Lars Hedvall, Josef Holsner, Gustaf Mattsson. USA – Michael Devaney, Patrick Flynn, Albert Hulsebosch, Ray Watson.

This entry-list was, in effect, representative of the entire hierarchy of distance-running. All of these countries except Finland provided the finalists in the 3000 metres team race two days later (the Finns did not enter). All except Italy provided the first five team places in the cross-country race the day after that. Comparing individual form beforehand would have been a tricky business, had anyone been interested in doing so, bearing in mind the variations in steeplechase courses and distances, and again it makes sense to examine the situation country-by-country:

Finland – there had been some form of steeplechase competition in the country since 1905, and in 1915 Albin Stenroos, who would be Olympic marathon champion in 1924, had run 9:57.6, though there had been no water-jump in that race. There would not be a steeplechase at the national championships until 1923, when Nurmi would win in 9:54.8.

France – a 4000 metres steeplechase event had been contested at the national championships until 1914 but had not been revived after the war. The first steeplechase title race at 3000 metres would not be until 1922  when Edmond Brossard would win in 10:13.2. Brossard had won the national title at 800 metres in 1919 in two minutes exactly.

Great Britain – Percy Hodge, born in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, on Boxing Day 1890, and employed at the Vickers aircraft factory in Surrey, had served in the army as a Private and was not released from duty until towards the end of 1919. He had won the AAA two miles steeplechase that year (and would do so again n 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1923), and had placed 9th in the International Championships cross-country of 1920, though only the 5th scorer in England’s totally dominant team Possessed of exceptional basic speed, including apparently a 440 yards in 50.2 in 1917, he regularly gave spectacular exhibitions to excited crowds at athletics meetings of his hurdling prowess, carrying a tray with a glass of water placed on it , and never – or at least rarely – spilling a drop !

His winning times in the AAA steeplechase events had not been exceptional, but even so it seems odd that he was the only Briton sent to the Games for this event. A case could have been made out for Charles Ruffell, in 2nd place at the 1920 AAA race, who had competed on the flat at the 1912 Games and won the National cross-country title in 1914. In addition, the 1920 Midland two miles steeplechase title had been won by Jack McKenna in 10:56.0, though he does not figure in the AAA results that year. “The Times” was to remark after the Antwerp final that “it is to be regretted that there were not more English entries for the event”, though their correspondent’s further claim that “it is apparent that we have the men in the United Kingdom who would have won almost all six places” was fanciful, to say the least !

Hodge had enjoyed a successful cross-country season, after starting with a modest 6th place in the South of the Thames championships over Epsom Downs on 14 February, almost a minute behind his Surrey AC clubmate, James Hatton. The Southern title was won at Kenley Aerodrome a fortnight later by another Surrey member, James Pratt, with Ruffell 2nd and Hodge 3rd. The National, at Windsor Great Park on 13 March, went to the visiting Frenchman, Joseph Guillemot, and Surrey AC lost the team title by only six points to Birchfield Harriers, as Hatton, Hodge and Pratt all finished in the first 10 to gain selection for the International at Belvoir Park, near Belfast, on 3 April, where Hodge’s 9th place and Hatton’s 14th helped England to an easy team success. On the track Hodge beat Ruffell by 10 seconds in the two miles steeplechase at the Olympic trials meeting at Stamford Bridge on 12 June.  

Italy – the first steeplechase at the national championships would not be held until 1923, and Ernesto Ambrosini had won the 800 and 1500 titles on the flat in 1920. He had already run in the 800 heats and semi-finals in Antwerp and would also be taking part in the 3000 metres team race. It might thus have been thought that the steeplechase was no more than a time-filler for him, except that he was eventually to become a very proficient exponent, setting a World best of 9:36.6 in 1923.

Sweden –  a Swede, Josef Ternström, who was a 1912 Olympic cross-country team gold-medallist, had run a commendable 9:49.8 “steeplechase” in 1915 on a bizarre figure-of-eight course in Malmö which included stone walls as well as hurdles and a water-jump. One of the three Swedes in Antwerp, Gustaf Mattsson, had finished 6th in that race and in a long career would eventually set a personal best of 10:05.4 in 1923.

USA – the Americans had the greatest strength in depth, headed by Patrick Flynn, who had won the AAU national title in July in a national record 9:58.2 by 40 yards from Mike Devaney, with Albert Hulsebosch another 10 yards further back. Flynn, as his name suggests, was Irish-born, in Bandon, County Cork, on 17 December 1894, and had been an undistinguished distance-runner until persuaded to take up the steeplechase. Soon afterwards he had placed 2nd to Devaney by only 20 yards in the 1919 AAU Championships.

Devaney’s full first names were Michael Aloysius, which is also indicative of Irish heritage, though he had been born in New Jersey. He had won the AAU 880 yards in 1915 in 1:57.0 and the indoor two miles and outdoor steeplechase in 1916 and would eventually run his fastest 3000 metres steeplechase of 9:44.4 in 1924.  Hulsebosch was of Dutch descent but also born in New Jersey. Ray Watson, 4th in the US Olympic trials, would later switch to the half-mile and mile and would also compete on the flat in the Games of 1924 and 1928.

The first three in each of three heats of the Antwerp Olympic steeplechase were to go through to the final two days later. As was so often the case in that era of Olympic competition, the organisers showed no inclination to re-arrange the heats to allow for late withdrawals. Thus there were only four runners in the first heat, with just one to be eliminated. There were five runners in heat two and seven in heat three. All four Frenchmen, a Finn, an Italian and a Swede were out of the qualifying places, and as can be seen from the results there was not much competitiveness about the whole business.

Heat 3 1 - 1 Devaney 10:23.0 (Olympic record), 2 Ambrosini 10:32.6, 3 Rissanen 11:07.5, 4  Brossard. Heat 2 - 1 Flynn 10:36.0, 2 Hedvall 10:43.5, 3 Watson 10:49.0, 4 Geyer 11:11.9,  Holsner dnf. Heat 3 – 1 Hodge 10:17.4 (Olympic record), 2 Mattsson 10:23.0, 3 Hulsebosch 10:27.0, 4 Vesamaa 10:31.5, 5 Langrenay 10:39.8, 6 Guillon 10:44.3, Martinenghi dnf.  Thus the finalists were Devaney, Flynn, Hulsebosch, Watson (all USA), Hedvall, Mattsson (both Sweden), Rissanen (Finland), Hodge (GB), Ambrosini (Italy),

No better accounts of the manner of Hodge’s victory in the 1920 AAA Championships two miles steeplechase at Stamford Bridge on 3 July and the Olympic Games 3000 metres steeplechase in Antwerp on 20 August are to be found than those of the renowned English coach, Captain F.A.M. Webster, in his book, “Great Moments In Athletics”, published in 1947. Captain Webster, who was an accredited journalist at the Games, described Hodge’s unusual style of running and the outcome of the races in fascinating and informative detail, as follows. 

“This pale, long-limbed, red-headed fellow”

A man whose steeplechasing always amused and thrilled me was Percy Hodge, of Vickers and the Surrey Athletic Club. This pale, long-limbed, red-headed fellow first came on the scene in 1919 to take the English title in 11min 53.6sec. There was nothing unorthodox or particularly outstanding about his form that year, but a year later, when he won again in slightly faster time, he gave an exhibition of cool courage and great determination which I have seldom seen equaled.

“Coming to the water-jump in the second lap Hodge seemed to slip, floundered over the obstacle, and fell right into the water-filled ditch. There was a gasp of horror from the spectators as the man following jumped right on top of him and spiked him badly in the heel. Hodge, however, appeared to be quite unperturbed, splashed his way on to dry land, removed his shoe, which had been torn partly off his foot, replaced it with the most meticulous care, and then set off in pursuit of C.H. Ruffell, who by that time had secured a lead of nearly 100 yards. In the next furlong Hodge cut down the leader’s advantage by 30 yards. In the next two laps he was once again on terms with his field, and in the penultimate lap he overtook Ruffell also. At the bell he was leading by 80 yards, and he won by 60 yards in 11min 22.8sec. This was an almost incredible performance, and I have often wondered at what figure the record would now stand had that early accident not occurred.

“By the time Hodge went to Belgium to win in 1920 the Olympic steeplechase title for Great Britain he had evolved his purely personal and most peculiar style of steeplechasing. In fact, the USA coaches, with whom I sat while we watched Hodge win his race, one and all agreed that never in their lives had they seen an athlete with so many glaring running faults travel and take his obstacles at such an astounding speed. He was running like a man who is trying to save himself from falling flat on his face, and he continued to do so right up to the end of his career some years later, when he retired and took a hotel. His shoulders were bowed, his body bent in at the waist, and in the early stages of the race he took each hurdle in the old-fashioned bent-legged manner. But so soon as he felt the least sign of fatigue overtaking him he altered his action. His leading leg then went straight up and was thrown outwards across the hurdle, over which he passed with a sort of falling-forward action. This looked ludicrous but was in reality far faster and far less exhausting than the style he had employed earlier in the race. His speed increased as he approached each water-jump, which he did with set determination. He went over the hedge in such a way that he always landed with one foot in the water and the other on the slope leading to dry land. This meant that he always got back into his running stride at once and so was away quicker than his rivals.

“When we got to Antwerp, Percy Hodge raised our hopes considerably by his performances in the preliminary heats. These were held at 10 a.m., which is a horrible hour from the competing athlete’s point of view. Hodge started by beating G. Mattsson, of Sweden, just as he liked in 10min 17.4sec. The other two heats both went to the USA. Before the final, which took place two days later at the even worse hour of 9 a.m., poor Percy was as nervous as a kitten, pale and perspiring perceptibly, but thus also I have seen many brave soldiers on the eve of battle.

“The fact that the final contest began with one false start, simply due to over-strained nerves, did not improve matters. The impulsive nature of the Italian, Ambrosini, caused him to rush right into the lead at the flash of the pistol, and the normally steady but now startled Swede, Mattsson, dashed after him. Hodge and Flynn, however, of the more phlegmatic temperament of the English-speaking peoples, although already ahead of the rest of the runners, were steadying themselves for the first of the fences.

“A sudden rush took Hodge into 2nd place at the end of the first lap, and in the next he was in the lead. At the half-distance Flynn produced a strong challenge, but Hodge was entertaining no opposition. He fought off the American’s effort and forged ahead to win comfortably by 50 yards. The state of tension in which he ran, although he was to all outward appearances perfectly calm, is illustrated by the fact that he never heard the clatter of the bell rung as a warning for the last lap. His language later on, when he realised this circumstance, was even more surprising than his own revolutionary style. He had won the race by 10.4sec from Flynn and Ambrosini, but it might have been much faster had he heard that bell and produced his usual fast finish.   

The 1920 Olympic steeplechase final: 1 Hodge 10:00.4 (Olympic record), 2 Flynn 10:21.0, 3 Ambrosini 10:32.0, 4 Mattsson 10:32.1, 5 Devaney 10:34.3, 6 Hulsebosch 10:37.7, 7 Hedvall 10:42.2, 8 Watson 10:50.3, Rissanen dnf.

By 1924 the Finns had begun to take the steeplechase seriously, and Ville Ritola won the Olympic title from his compatriot, Elias Katz, in 9:33.6, with all of the first six, including Britain’s Evelyn Montague – a future athletics correspondent of renown for the “Manchester Guardian” newspaper – in 6th place, breaking 10 minutes. Montague’s 9:58.0 beat Hodge’s inaugural British record. Finns would also win Olympic steeplechase gold in 1928, 1932 and 1936.

Although Hodge was selected for the two miles team race in the 1920 post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA match, he has no track times to his credit of any note at all at flat distances beyond one mile. His best performances in addition to the surprising 50.2 for 440 yards mentioned above were 880 yards in 1:58.5 in 1921, one mile in 4:32.6 in 1916, and the two miles steeplechase in 10:57.2 in winning the 1921 AAA title.  He also won for England against France at Stamford Bridge when the steeplechase was enterprisingly held over the 3000 metres distance.

Hodge’s birthplace of Guernsey is not actually part of the United Kingdom but is a crown dependency, together with Jersey, Alderney, Sark and other small islands situated off the Normandy coast of France with a current population of 164,541. Hodge spent his childhood on Guernsey but moved to England in his teenage years. He died on 27 December 1967, aged 77, and it was not until the 2012 Olympics that another Channel Islander won a gold medal – in the equestrian team dressage event.    

Note: thanks to Matti Hannus for information on Finnish steeplechasing.




















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