By Bob Phillips
20th February 2018
The tragedy of an “old friend” from Poland
Of the three men who had the temerity to challenge the Flying Finns in the 1936 Berlin Olympic 10,000 metres, two lived to a grand old age – Alec Burns, of Great Britain, to 95 and Kohei Murakoso, of Japan, to 92. The third of them was the man who had won the English AAA six miles a month or so previously, Józef Noji, of Poland, but his destiny was a tragic one. Like his fellow-countryman, Janusz Kusocinski, who had beaten the Finns for the Olympic 10,000 metres title in 1932, Noji died at the hands of the Germans during World War II, murdered at the age of 33 after being sent to Auschwitz concentration camp.
The AAA six miles was run on the Friday evening of the meeting, and the banner headline across the top of the sports page in the following morning’s “Daily Herald” newspaper was “Pole’s Fastest Ever Time in 6 Miles Thriller”. The time was actually 29:43.4 to Burns’s national record 29:45.0, and was only seven seconds slower than Paavo Nurmi’s World record, also set at London’s White City Stadium in a specially organized handicap event in 1930.
The reporter for the “Daily Herald” enthused that “few runners could have resisted the Pole’s magnificent finishing effort”, but Noji’s running action was described by E.A. Montague, the eminent athletics writer who had run in the 1924 Olympic steeplechase, in less than complimentary terms – “far removed from a stylist, he had the barrel chest and legs of a great stayer” – and this impression is borne out by the film of the Berlin 10,000 metres. Noji’s manner looks distinctly laboured, with his head rolling from side to side, but this may be simply because he was nearing the end of his tether, running half-a-minute above his best in an attempt to keep pace with the leaders.
It is also worth remembering that British coaches and reporters were obsessed with the style of runners in the 1930s, and this reached its ludicrous nadir in a chapter by Montague contributed to the coaching manual produced by the Achilles Club (membership restricted to Oxford and Cambridge University graduates) in 1938. One of the photographs shows the future European champion, Taisto Mäki, beating Peter Ward at 5000 metres in the Finland-v-GB match of the previous year, and despite his victory Mäki is criticised for “a last desperate effort in which he has lost his form”, and Ward is commended for “keeping his form well” !
Kusocinski had suffered an injury which prevented him defending his title in Berlin, and the Poles thought of Noji as his natural successor. Not quite able to fulfill such expectations, Noji was nevertheless undeterred by his demise in the closing stages of the 10,000 metres and finished 5th in the 5000 metres five days later in a national record 14:33.4, one place ahead of the 10,000 metres champion, Ilmari Salminen.
Noji had been born on 8 September 1909 in the village of Peçkowo in the district of Poznan, and had a hard upbringing as his father died in 1917. As a teenager Noji became a carpenter’s assistant after leaving school early to support his mother, and even so he took up running in 1927, racing at distances of as much as 24 kilometres, before going into the Army until 1932. Given jobs in Poznan and then Warsaw which allowed him time for training in Warsaw he joined the city’s oddly-named Mermaid club, and became a tram-driver. He won the national title at 5000 metres every year from 1935 to 1939, beating Kusocinski’s meeting record with a time of 14:52.6 which would survive from 1938 until another Polish track hero, Jerzy Chromik, who would be European steeplechase champion in 1958 and a World record-holder, was to run six seconds faster in 1953.
Only one other Pole has ever accumulated five national titles at 5000 metres, and he is yet another of the nation’s athletics icons, the “great unpronounceable”, Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak (pronounced “Jees-lav Kuh-sheesh-kov-ee-ak”, as far as I can judge !), who won both the European 5000 and 10,000 in 1958. Noji was also his country’s cross-country champion from 1936 to 1939, and is yet one more of those numerous European distance-men whose presence would have enhanced the International Cross Country Championship of those years contested between the various countries of the United Kingdom, Belgium and France.
Noji returned to England to race in 1938 and won the three miles from a star-studded international field at the August Bank Holiday Monday meeting at the White City Stadium, in London. O.L. Owen wrote affectionately of Noji in “The Times”, “The crushing defeat of both P.D. Ward and C.A.J. Emery in the three miles was chiefly by an old friend, J. Noji, of Poland, and in a slow-run race like yesterday’s he would seem to be as devastatingly effective in his unstylish way as ever”. Only Giuseppe Beviacqua, of Italy, who had been one of the many lapped by the Finns in the Olympic 10,000 metres of two years before, could stay with Noji and he was “outfought and finally outpaced in an exciting duel that extended for most of the last lap” Noji’s time was 14:23.2, Beviacqua’s 14:25.8 and Jack Emery’s 14:33.6. Emery, incidentally, had won the International cross-country title five months before. Like Burns and Murakoso, he lived a very long life, dying in 2013, aged 99.
E.A. Montague’s description of the last lap of that three miles conveys a most vivid impression of what the 50,000 spectators saw on a sweltering hot day when the temperature was recorded at 82degF in the shade: “The race was between the big lumbering Pole and the little dark scuttling Italian. Noji was in front, and as they came into the back straight he suddenly changed before our eyes; the lolling head came forward, the huge chest and shoulders were straightened, the shambling legs began to stride longer and longer, and away he went like a runaway elephant. Beviacqua, scuttling gamely and well, dropped ten, fifteen, twenty yards behind. It was all over. And then suddenly, as Noji came into the straight, we realised that he was really unhappy. He staggered as he ran; once and again he cast a rolling eye over his shoulder. Beviacqua saw the signs and mustered one more scuttle, the best and the last. He got back five yards. He got back ten, and then Noji flogged himself into one last effort, and amid a roar of cheers not unmixed with laughter he lurched over the line”.
What a wonderful description ! How many other athletes in history have ever been depicted in such gloriously graphic terms ? Perhaps only one other whose head also tended to loll a bit. Zátopek, of course.
At the European Championships in Paris a month later Noji was not in the same form, finishing 5th in the 5000 metres, more than 20 seconds down, as Taisto Mäki won for Finland in 14:26.8 and Emery was 4th. Beviacqua took 2nd place at 10,000 metres to the Olympic champion, Salminen. Noji was well beaten again by Mäki at three miles when they met at the White City for the August Bank Holiday meeting of the following year, back in 5th place once more as the Finn set a British All-Comers’ record of 13:59.4, with András Csáplar, of Hungary, a close 2nd, though the Pole still finished ahead of the 1934 European 5000 metres champion, Roger Rochard, of France, and Beviacqua, who were 6th and 7th respectively. Noji’s last race was a 5000 metres in Helsinki on 18 August, in which he was 2nd in 14:42.2.
His renowned compatriot, Kusocinski, had made a successful comeback that year and ranked 6th in the World at 5000 metres with 14:24.2, thus beating Noji’s national record. For a time Kusocinski and Noji had joined forces – not on the track but in co-ownership of a restaurant in Warsaw.
The Germans marched into Poland 12 days after Noji’s last race. Kusocinski by then was an officer in the Polish army and he joined the resistance but was arrested on 25 March 1940 and executed on the following 21 June. Noji also became a resistance fighter, was arrested on 19 September 1940 and was sent to prison and then to Auschwitz, where he died on 13 February 1943. Altogether, 37 Polish Olympic competitors lost their lives during World War II, and 50 Olympians from 12 different countries died in Nazi concentration camps.
Józef Noji’s memory is preserved in the name of the athletics stadium in the village of his birth.
Note: acknowledgments for help to Janusz Rozum.