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In Nurmi's Wake: Lost Track Medalists of the Chariots-of-Fire Games

In Nurmi’s Wake. Lost Track Medalists of the Chariots- of-Fire Games


The “Chariots of Fire” Olympic Games of Paris in 1924 are among the most publicised and dramatised since the series began more than 120 years ago. Paavo Nurmi was inevitably the champion of champions, winning five gold medals, including the 1500 and 5000 metres within an hour or so. Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell and Douglas Lowe are forever remembered as Great Britain’s winners, and yet there are three other British competitors who have never yet received recognition for the silver medals which they rightfully earned – and no less than14 more from Finland, France and the USA who equally deserve recognition.   

The 3000 metres team race had been previously held in 1920 but was struck off the schedule after the 1924 Games. Nevertheless, it was of considerable significance at the time, and not least for the fact that it provided Nurmi, “The Flying Finn”, with his fourth gold medal in four days. Nine countries had each entered up to six runners, with three to score, and to nobody’s surprise Finland easily won the final, with Nurmi the first individual home in a World-record time.

Recent research by the French athletics historian, Jacques Carmelli, has shown that at the International Olympic Committee Congress in Lausanne in 1921 it was decided as follows for the 1924 Games: “Dans les épreuves par équipes tous les participants ayant effectivement pris part à l’épreuve auront droit à la médaille et au diplôme correspondant aux prix gagné par l’équipe”, which translates as  “In the team events all the participants taking part in the event have the right to the medal and the diploma corresponding to the prize won by the team”. Precisely the same wording in the French language is repeated on page 76 of the organising committee’s Official Report published after the 1924 Games.

Great Britain took 2nd place in that 3000 metres team race, thanks to Bertram Macdonald, Herbert (“Johnny”) Johnston and George Webber, who were 3rd, 4th and 7th respectively. The USA was 3rd. GB’s Harold Porter was 10th of the 23 competitors, Arthur Clark 14th and William Seagrove 16th, and all three should also have been acknowledged as silver-medalists. They may even have received them, but if so they have never been officially credited with the accomplishment and certainly deserve to be.  Seagrove had already been a scoring member of GB’s silver-medal team in the same event at the 1920 Games.

In addition to Porter, Clark and Seagrove, there are at least four more athletes from other countries who should now also be regarded as bona fide medalists in Paris: James Henigan, Leo Larrivee and Joie Ray, of the USA, and Sameli Tala, of Finland. Henigan was 11th in the heat-wave cross-country race, in which only 14 of the 38 starters completed the course, but was the first non-scorer for the silver-medal-winning US team. In the 3000 metres team race Tala was the only other Finnish finisher (it had to be said!) in 13th place. Larrivee and Ray were the non-scorers for the bronze-medal US team –  Larrivee 17th, Ray 18th

It could even be argued that those who failed to finish their races, but whose scoring team-mates received medals, are also entitled to the same reward. That would add for the cross-country event three more Finns for gold (Eero Berg, Vainö Sipilã, Eino Rastas), two Americans for silver (John Gray, Verne Booth) and three Frenchmen for bronze.(Lucien Dolquès, André Lausseig, Robert Marchal). For the 3000 metres there were two other Finns (Frej Liewendahl and Eero Seppãlã) and an American (James Connolly) who qualify for gold and bronze respectively..

 No proviso was made in the IOC ruling for excluding non-finishers, and so in theory any one of the Finns could have taken a token single step in their races, dropped out, and still received gold medals. Well intended as the IOC ruling might have been, it was not too well thought out. Yet the fact is that there are as many as 18 unpublicised medalists from those much written about Games.

The Americans, Joie Ray and Jimmy Henigan, also ran in two other Olympics. Ray was the leading US miler for much of the 1920s, placing 8th in the 1920 Olympic 1500 metres, and then moved up to longer distances for 14th in the 1928 10,000 meters and 5th in the marathon. Henigan ran in 20 Boston Marathons, winning in 1931 and twice placing 2nd, but in the Olympic marathon he was 39th in 1928 and a non-finisher four years later. Another of the US distance-runners, Leo Larrivee, lived a tragically short life, killed in a car crash in 1928 at the age of 25. The Finn, Frej Liewendahl, is one of only two Olympic athletes born in the Swedish-speaking Aland, an archipelago of islands in the Baltic Sea (the other is Janne Holmén, the European marathon champion of 2002 who ran in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic marathons, placing 22nd and 19th).

Among the living descendants of all these athletes from the 1924 Games there could very well be some who have among their family heirlooms the medals presented to their grandfathers or great-grandfathers. If so, it would be proof of the fact that the Games organisers honoured their obligation, but that proof might be hard to find.

A nephew of Harold Porter’s, Mike Race, has been seeking since the 1990s to establish whether his uncle was presented with a silver medal in Paris, and he says, “There was little else to show for the years that my uncle spent running, apart from an Olympic competitor’s medal, an Olympic badge, a few photos, and one or two other bits and pieces. Yet he’d won dozens of medals and cups during his career. All had gone. No one knows where”.      .   .

Walter Harold Porter, had been born on 30 August 1903 in York. He left school at the age of 14 to work in the electrical department of York Corporation and stayed there for the next 50 years until his retirement as a clerk in 1967 from what had become the North Eastern Electricity Board. It is very doubtful that he ever made a fuss about not receiving his Olympic medal, and it is possible that he was never aware throughout his life that he was entitled to one. Certainly he did not complain to his colleagues at work because at his retirement presentation they were apparently astonished to hear that he had even once been an Olympic runner.

This tale illustrating Porter’s unassuming nature was told in a book about York’s Olympic competitors over the years, written by a local author, Van Wilson, and published by the York Archaeological Trust in 2012. The information for the article by Ms Wilson (“Van” is an abbreviation of “Evangeline”) was provided by Mike Race, who wrote eloquently in the “York Family History Magazine” in 2009 about his frustrating experiences in his search for the truth!

Now in his 80th year, Mr Race tells of the background to his quest as follows: “Harold Porter was married to my Aunt Agnes and I knew him quite well. I was very close to Harold’s son, Noel, when I was young and visited him regularly at the family home in York in the late 1940s and through to the 1950s. Harold was a very pleasant chap but not out-going. I was quite staggered when one day my Dad told me that ‘Uncle Harold had won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games’. That was it for a number of years until the 1990s when I had occasion to visit Noel, who had moved away from York, He showed me the medal, and it was, in fact, a competitor’s medal. Before leaving, I told Noel I’d do what I could to find out more”.     

In his article for the local history magazine, Mr Race describes in detail his trail of local inquiries in newspaper archives: “The ‘Yorkshire Evening Press’ of 12 July 1924 had 10 lines of text concerning the Olympic Games but didn’t mention Harold Porter’s semi-final run. However, the following Tuesday, 15 July, there it was, although tucked away and not given anything like the prominence of the headline stories of the week, in an article describing his achievements, the team’s success in coming 2nd, and how he was received by the Prince of Wales in Paris”. Mr Race added, “The confirmation of my uncle’s entitlement to a medal was made to me on an inquiry to the British Olympic Association, but after further checking on the internet I found a site  which said he was not a scoring member of the team that won the medals”

All this confusion is perfectly understandable. Not surprisingly, the rules regarding the awarding of Olympic medals have changed over the years, and doubts still remain even concerning gold medals in some sports. For example, when in 2012 I wrote a book about Great Britain’s Olympic champions I pointed out that there were as many as 20 who have never been named because that was the likely size of the crew in one of the winning yachts at the 1900 Games for which only the captain has ever received credit.  

In her book about York’s Olympians Ms Wilson comments about Porter’s experience in Paris that “what made it doubly hard for him was that George Webber, the third British man in the race, did not even finish the semi-final heat … yet was allowed to run in the final”. This is a perfectly fair point based on the facts known to the writer but doesn’t take account that this was a team event with very specific tactical considerations. Whether the International Olympic Committee members were bearing this fine point in mind when they made their Congress decision in 1921, or whether it was merely a rush of collective blood to the head, does not really matter.

The Official Report of the 1924 Games includes numerous excellent photographs of the various athletics events, and those for the 3000 metres team event are particularly instructive. The qualifying heat was obviously a formality because the Report says that “there was no struggle for two qualifying places”. Finns finished 1-2-3 and Britons 4-5-6, with Norway, Italy and Poland trailing in behind. Porter was 4th, Johnston 5th and Macdonald 6th, with Seagrove backing them up in 9th place, whereas Clark was 21st and Webber 22nd of the 23 runners.

It seems logical that, once it was obvious that Great Britain would qualify, this latter pair eased off to save themselves for the final. This strategic awareness is confirmed by a photograph of the first lap of the final two days later (13 July), showing Arthur Clark already dashing some 10 metres into the lead in what must surely have been a bid to lure runners from other teams into a pace that they would not be able to sustain. Furthermore, the Official Report notes that Seagrove, took over from his team-mate and led at 1500 metres. The apparent readiness of two members of the team to sacrifice themselves in the greater interest is further justification that all six Britons deserved silver medals, and not just the scoring threesome. Finland, France and the USA should also thus benefit.

Finland has plenty of other distance-running gold-medalists from that era in support of Nurmi. So it would be nice to think that maybe somewhere in the small town in Western Finland in which Sameli Tala was born and died, or out on an island in the midst of the Baltic, forgotten medals lie hidden away, concealing the identities of other champions still waiting to be to be recognised almost a century late. The reality is that a Finnish expert on complex Olympic history, Veka Tikander, has established on behalf of his fellow-countrymen their right to be considered as champions but confirms  that “none of these gentlemen received gold medals at the time, and they all went to their graves in blissful ignorance of ever having been Olympic champions”. 

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