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A century Ago in War-time: How Athletics Survived and a Swedish Runner Prospered

“You Can’t Out-run a Bullet”. A Century Ago in War-time: How Athletics  

Survived and a Swedish Runner Prospered


“Don’t you know, there’s a war on ?” It would be natural to assume that athletics was on hold a century ago. The battle-fronts had been set remorselessly in Flanders fields since 1914, and in April of 1917 President Woodrow Wilson won a 74-to-nil vote of confidence from Congress to bring the USA into the conflict. Mere sport was bound to suffer when hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men in uniform were being slaughtered, but the story is rather more complicated than that.

Naturally, track and field competition had been very largely suspended by Great Britain, France and Germany, and by their respective allies, as soon as World War I had begun, but by no means did this remain the same state of affairs until peace was declared in 1918, and other countries were not affected at all – at least through to 1916. Scandinavia was the main beneficiary from neutrality, as it would be again in World War II, and athletics activity had continued entirely unabated in the USA until the German submarine attacks on American ships transporting supplies to Europe became too persistent to be ignored in the pursuit of isolationism.  

Even British and French athletes had some outlet during the war years, though the circumstances might have been unusual, to say the least. Whenever allied troops were brought back from the front-line trenches for much-needed rest and relaxation, there were ceaseless sporting competitions organised by the officers, and it may well be that some notable performances were achieved in the rough-and-ready athletics meetings which took place frequently in the French countryside or in prisoner-of-war camps – we will never know ! 

We do know, however, that there were those who found some unexpected wartime solace in athletic pursuits. The history of Britain’s most famous distance-running club of that era, the Birmingham-based Birchfield Harriers, written by Professor W.O. Alexander and Wilfred Morgan in 1988, records the fact that one of their members, Walter Freeman, did not take up running until he served with the Royal Worcestershire Regimant in France during World War I: “The regiment alternated a week at the front with a week at rest camp, but Walter did not rest, he ran, and outstripped the opposition in any race that was organised”. So adept did Freeman become at his new-found leisure-time activity that he was selected for the 1920 Olympic cross-country and won the English National and International titles the next year. He worked in a bicycle-shop and lived to the age of 94, dying in 1987.  

On the British Pathé cinema newsreel website there are several sequences of military sports events taking place during those wartime years, including one of a cross-country race near Paris in 1916 in which it was claimed – probably correctly – that 1000 soldiers competed. There is no mention, though, in the caption to this silent film as to how many among that thousand volunteered to run and how many were simply obeying orders !

During 1917 the London Athletic Club held track & field events regularly at the Stamford Bridge stadium, primarily for servicemen, and at one of these a Sergeant P. Scott ran three miles in a capable 15:39 2/5. A steeplechase winner at the army headquarters in Aldershot was Eddie Owen, the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) mile champion of 1909 and 1912 who was now a Private in the Irish Guards. In Scotland there was a remarkable amount of activity, and the “Glasgow Herald” newspaper reported on as many as half-a-dozen meetings in each of its Monday-morning editions throughout June, July and August of 1917. 

The majority of these Scottish promotions were multi-sports galas, mainly involving handicap races and five-a-side football tournaments, and were held for charitable purposes, including, for example, one which raised the vast sum of £700 in aid of the Red Cross when 40,000 spectators were in attendance at Celtic Park, Glasgow. The winner of the two miles there was a Corporal J. McDonald, of Glenpark Harriers, whose name appeared regularly among the prize-winners during that summer. The 880 yards handicap at the Clydebank Football Club Sports on 16 June, watched by a crowd of 15,000, was won by J. Cuthbert, of Bellahouston Harriers, who is almost certainly Jack Cuthbert, who later emigrated and was to place 13th in the 1924 Olympic marathon for Canada. 

Elsewhere on the same page of the “Glasgow Herald” was the chilling headline, “Casualties – 280 officers, 4870 men”, and at the Kirkconnel Games later that month there was a race for wounded soldiers, won by Private W. Allan, of the Grenadier Guards, who must have counted himself lucky to be there. In September George Butterfield, the AAA mile winner in 1904-05-06, was killed in action, serving as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, and at least 13 other Olympians died during the year, though uncertainties about this toll remain. Another member of the Birchfield Harriers club, Harold Wilson, has long been reported as being killed in action in 1916, but over a century later it has been discovered that he survived the war and went to live in South Africa, though still dying prematurely at the age of 47 in 1932. Wilson had been AAA mile champion and Olympic 1500 metres silver-medallist in 1908.

Page after page of “The Times” during 1917 carried long lists of casualties, and there was a dreadful poignancy about the brief profiles of officers killed in action. When the death was reported in March of Major Cuthbert Bromley, adjutant of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, who had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, it was written of him that “he had made the Lancashire Fusiliers the champions in Inida in military training, boxing, football and cross-country running”. The commanding officer of Second Lieutenant Percy Bradford, of the Durham Light Infantry, who had won the Military Cross, wrote to his parents after his death at the age of 22 in September that “he was absolutely cool and fearless, and the men much loved him, not only for his fearlessness but for his excellence at athletics, which always appealed to them”.  How perfectly that tribute encapsulates the fervent sacrificial patriotism, so carefully class-structured, of 100 years ago !   

One of those “men” referred to by the c/o of the Durham Light Infantry in what would now be regarded as such a patronising manner, but was taken for granted a century ago, would have been Lance-Corporal Frank Raine, who though twice wounded not only survived the war but lived to the age of 100, dying in 1996. Nine years before the end of his life he was interviewed for the oral archives of the Imperial War Museum, and among his vivid recollections was that of a race he took part in during a respite from the trenches: “I’d just ran 2nd in the division cross-country of eight miles, and if I’d known what I know now I’d have won, because I didn’t bother at the beginning. I didn’t think I’d much chance. I went on running and running and running, and I was passing these people as they’d fallen out until I saw only the fellow in front of me who was 1st. Oh ! I was in tip-top trim. I was fit as a fiddle. I could out-run the German army, although – of couse – you can’t out-run a bullet”.   

The annual New Year professional athletics meetings in Edinburgh continued uninterrupted through the war years, as the pre-eminent historian of the series which had begun in 1870, David A. Jamieson, has explained: “The policy pursued by the management of the Powderhall grounds was that of a continuous entertainment provided every week by the promotion of dog and foot handicaps. There were also provided at the Gymnasium and Hawkhill enclosures in the city ample opportunities for servicemen and civilian workers alike by the promotion of mid-week and Saturday competitions over various distances”. There was even an international element as the 15-mile  Powderhall “marathon” was won in 1915-16-17 by one of the greatest of all Scots professional runners, George McCrae, and his beaten rivals included Willy Kolehmainen (brother of Hannes Kolehmainen, the multiple Olympic gold-medallist of 1912), Hans Holmer and Eddie Wood, who were from Finland, the USA and Canada respectively. Wood had won the International cross-country title for England in 1909 and 1910 but had emigrated and was now a Private in the Canadian army. Ironically, Jamieson’s book, “Powderhall and Pedestrianism”, was published in the midst of another conflict in 1943.

Although the third Battle of Ypres was raging in 1917, the French athletics authorities felt sufficiently confident to revive their national championships in Paris, and the 1500 and 5000 metres events were won by Jacques Keyser in 4:15.0 and 16:07.0. Keyser had also been 1500 metres champion on six occasions before the war, though he was not of French nationality as his father was Dutch and his mother Belgian. Those 1917 French Championships enterprisingly included events for women, though there was no question of them running any further than the sprint distances, and even after the first international ruling body for women was formed in 1921 it would be another seven years before they could compete in an Olympic 800 metres … and not again at that distance until 1960 ! Mention should be made, if only as a footnote (literally !), of three redoubtable young Frenchwomen who took part in the Paris-Rouen or Paris-Bernay walking races of 131.6 and 150 kilometres respectively during the years 1916 to 1919 – Raymonde Cottard, Pauline Vasseur and Marie-Louise Ledru.

The only international representative track & field meetings to be held anywhere in the World during 1917 were the Northern Games on 2 September, involving Norway, Sweden and Denmark, in Kristiania (originally Oslo and restored to that name in 1925), and the third Far Eastern Games in Tokyo, 8-12 May, in which Japan and the Philippines each won eight titles and China two, but the oriental standard, frankly, was very ordinary. The 880 yards and mile were won in 2:12.2 and 4:56.4 and no time was recorded for the 10 miles. However, the winner of that event, Genichi Hashimoto, ran a commendable 2:31:23.2 for 25 miles in Tokyo some time during 1917, and Japanese interest in marathon-running would soon be fully awakened. Four Japanese would run at the 1920 Olympics, with a highest placing of 16th. Japan and the US-governed Philippnes both had some part to play in World War I, as the Japanese Navy sent four destroyers to Malta to support the British presence in the Mediterranean, and some 25,000 Filipinos volunteered for the American armed forces.   

Surprisingly, there was plenty of competition to be had for German athletes during 1917, but all this took place far away from the armies locked in battle in Northern France. According to detailed ranking-lists compiled by Wilhelm Böhning, there was racing at 800, 1000 or 1500 metres in Berlin, Dresden, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Kiel, Leipzig, Lubeck and Magdeburg, though much less at longer distances. The standard of performance was understandably modest, with best times of 2:07.9, 2:43.7 and 4:26.0, but there was at least one runner of real potential. He was Emil Bedarff, who would continue his career in peacetime, achieving the 3rd fastest 10,000 metres in the World of 31:56.4 in 1922, and he could have been a contender for a top-six placing at the 1924 Olympics, had his country been allowed to compete. Bedarff’s life-span encompassed two other years of Olympian significance as he was born in 1896 and died in 1960.

During 1916 – the year of the cancelled Berlin Olympics – a few World records, ratified or not, had been set at 440 yards, 880 yards, 120 yards hurdles, 220 yards hurdles and the 4 x 220 yards relay in the USA, and at 1000 and 2000 metres in Sweden and Finland. The US governing body, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), had even sent a five-man group of athletes to Scandinavia on what must have been a hair-raising transatlantic voyage because after evading the German U-boats their ship would still encounter the heavily-mined seas round the coast of Denmark, commanding the entrance to the Baltic. 

The redoubtable (or maybe reckless ?) “tourists” were only partially rewarded for their bravado, as Ted Meredith, the World record-holder and Olympic champion at 800 metres from 1912, was beaten out of sight in Stockholm when the local stars, Anatole Bolin and John Zander, shared a World-record 1000 metres time of 2:31.2. Regrettably, neither got the credit for it, but while Bolin improved to 2:29.1 in 1918, which the IAAF was to approve, Zander would suffer other misfortunes in a long and varied career, as will be related in due course. By way of explanation regarding Bolin’s differing experiences, the Swedish statistical expert, Rooney Magnusson, points out that the first list of official IAAF records was issued in June 1914 and the next not until May 1921, and on the latter occasion only the most recent improvements on the original World records were ratified.    

The US indoor season occupied the opening months of 1917 uninterrupted and was highlighted by a World best performance for the mile of 4:16.0 in Philadelphia on 10 March by Johnny Overton, a Yale University student who was originally from Nashville, Tennessee; He also won the AAU Championships 1000 yards in New York a week later in a record-breaking 2:14.0 – and more would be heard of him, though his life was to come to a dismal conclusion. The US declaration of hostilities against Germany three weeks later certainly had some effect on domestic track programming, but very much less than might have been supposed. 

By far the most significant impact was the cancellation of the prestigious ICAAAA (Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America) Championships, which involved the “Ivy League” universities of the USA’s East coast and had been scheduled for 25-26 May. The organisers had met on 28 April in Philadelphia during th famed annual Penn Relays, which had gone ahead as planned, and had made their decision “by reason of the state of war now existing and the general participation on the part of the students of the members of the ICAAAA in military training or other activities”. Until the NCAA (national collegiate) Championships would begin in 1921 the ICAAAA meet was the premier of its kind in the country.

Other college and open meets continued during 1917, and the “Spalding’s Athletic Almanac” covering that year contains dozens of pages of results, Regional championships backed by the AAU were held by numerous associations nationwide – Central (Chicago), Hawaiian (Honolulu), Metropolitan (New York), Middle Atlantic (Philadelphia), New England (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Southern (New Orleans) and Southern Pacific (Los Angeles) – and it seems very likely that there was any amount of other competition for students which was not recorded by the editor, James E. Sullivan.

A logical suggestion by Rooney Magnusson is “that it is possible that the Spalding’s handbooks are rather complete regarding AAU meetings, but far from complete when it comes to students’ athletics, and the only way to attempt USA coverage inevitably includes countless hours going through local newspapers”. Athletics historians could start the task by benefiting from the vast number of such North American publications to be found on the google newspapers website, and all free of  charge, but many of them are parochial by format and only a minority cover the World War I years. Magnusson is co-editor of the invaluable series of four ATFS handbooks containing top 50 year-lists from 1921 through to 1950, and so he knows full well the immense amount of research required to form as complete a picture as possible of the degree of track & field activity in any one year.       

There was quite sufficient action on US tracks in 1917 for both an “All-America” and an “All-America College” team to be nominated on merit at the season’s end, and Johnny Overton was the collegiate choice for two miles. The AAU Championships were not held until 1 September, in St Louis, and Overton was 2nd in the 880 yards there, though by now he was listed among the competitors as “Lieutenant J.W. Overton, US Marine Corps”. The winner in 1:57.0 was Michael Devaney, born in Belleville, New Jersey, but clearly of Irish descent, and the mile went in a meet record 4:18.4 to Joie Ray, who was a cab-driver by occupation and would pick up further AAU mile titles in each of the next six years. Devaney and Ray would both take 5th places at the Olympics – in the 1920 steeplechase and the 1928 marathon respectively. Sadly, Johnny Overton never had the chance to join them. He was killed during the Battle of the Marne on 19 July 1918.

There was, too, no lack of competition for longer-distance runners in the USA during 1917. The most notable of them that year was the first of the “Flying Finns”, Hannes Kolehmainen, whose 1912 Olympic victories had been at 5000 metres (in a World-record time), 10,000 metres and cross-country and who would add a fourth gold medal in the marathon in 1920. Like others of his fellow-countryman, he had emigrated to the USA to escape the tyranny of the Russian Empire and in 1912, 1913 and 1915 had won the AAU five miles, which was the longest track event at the Championships from 1880 until replaced by the six miles in 1925. 

In 1917 Kolehmainen had a notable success in a race sponsored by the “New York Evening Mail” and oddly described as a “modified marathon”. In truth, it was more of an emasculation than a modification because it was only 12¾ miles in length, finishing at City Hall, and in 2nd and 3rd places were two other immigrants, Willie Kyronen and Charles Pores, who would race each other frequently on tracks, roads and over the country as their adopted land’s military authorities began the process of mobilising four million men. Kyronen and Pores had both also taken part in the 1916 Boston Marathon, and Kyronen was 2nd but had misjudged his finishing speed, cutting Arthur Roth’s lead from 600 yards to 75 in the last couple of miles, while Pores was forced out with cramp after moving from 12th to 5th.    

The 1917 Boston Marathon took place as usual for the 21st successive year on April 19, less than a fortnight after the USA had entered the war, and the most authoritative historian of the race series, Tom Derderian, writing in 1995, probably summed up aptly the attitude towards impending war service of most of the 48 who toed the start-line when he claimed of the eventual winner, Bill Kennedy, who was a brick-layer by occupation, that “all he wanted to do was race marathons”. Both Kolehmainen and Kyronen, another Finnish refugee who had been AAU five miles champion in 1914, clearly felt the same way, though with contrasting outcomes, as Kolehmainen was 4th and Kyronen dropped out. Another Finnish-born athlete, Carl Linder, who was a shipyard pattern-maker by trade and whose original surname was Heinonen, was 7th and would win the race two years later and be 11th in the 1920 Olympics. The next two places in that 1919 Boston marathon were also taken by ex-Finns – the quaintly-named Willie Wick, who was only 4ft 10½in (1.49m) tall, and Otto Laakso.

Back in their birth-land there was a national track & field championships at Tampere in August 1917, and it was of a very respectable quality, with winning times of 4:13.5 for 1500 metres, 15:24.8 for 5000 metres and 33:08.1 for 10,000 metres. The 5000 winner, Sameli Tala, prolonged his career to the 1924 Olympics, as a non-scorer for his country’s winning 3000 metres team, and there would eventually be a spring in his step, and for each one of his compatriots, in years to come. The Russian Revolution enabled Finland to declare its independence on 6 December 1917, though there was still turmoil to be endured by the Finns, with civil war between the opposing left-wing and right-wing factions from January to May 1918, in which Tampere was the scene of one of the key battles. Paavo Nurmi, aged 20, was no more than a club-class runner then, almost unknown outside his native Turku.     

War-time eventually intervened at the Boston Marathon of 1918 which was re-arranged as a bizarre 10-a-side relay for servicemen, and Tom Derderian seems to strike the right note in his criticism of the organisers, who were presumably anxious to demonstrate their allegiance to the flag: “When Congress declared war against Germany, the Boston Athletic Association went on record saying they would do everything possible for men in the service. What they ultimately did was to cancel their marathon. To support the boys who were about to go ‘over there’, they replaced the two-decade-old marathon with a special event … this perfervid display of patriotism perhaps assuaged a guilt rising because an athletic association could do little to help the war effort”.  

Willy Kyronen was to do rather better later in 1917, winning the AAU 10 miles title in November by two seconds from Charles Pores. Pores had been born in 1887 in Vilnius, in Lithuania, and with his parents had escaped persecution of the Jewish population by Russia’s Czarist regime. Coached by Mel Sheppard, the Olympic 800 metres champion of 1908, Pores was a member of the multi-ethnic working-class Millrose Athletic Association, in New York, as was Kyronen. Later in November of 1917 Kyronen and Pores took 2nd and 3rd places behind Jimmy Henigan, who was of Irish ancestry, in the AAU cross-country. Pores won the AAU five miles in 1917-18-19, setting a national record of 24:36.8 in 1918, by which time he was serving in the US Navy. His competitive career deserves more recognition, as does that of the man who would surely have been chosen as “Athlete Of The Year”, if such an accolade had existed then. He was the imposingly-named Swede, John Adolf Fredrik Zander, who set a World record for 1500 metres.   

Zander’s best mile for the year was 4:17.5, and the World rankings were led at 4:15 4/5 by Eddie Fall, from Chicago, who was the 2nd-placer to Joie Ray at the AAU Championships, but Zander’s 1500 metres record was equivalent to a mile in around 4:13. There was also a report of another American named Joe Stout running 4:11 2/5 on a straight course at a motor-racing circuit in Chicago, which presumably could be considered as a road-running World best performance. He figures in the results of the AAU mile for 1917, 1918 and 1919 as Clyde J. Stout, of Chicago University,without ever achieving comparable times. 

In those years Sweden was predominantly rural and impoverished, with a population of 5.1 million – half of what it is nowadays – and there had been 1.3 million emigrants to the USA since the 1840s. By 1890 there were reckoned to be 800,000 Swedish-Americans. Zander had been born on 31 January of that same year in Stockholm, and his athletics career was pursued as a member of a Stockholm club. He spent his working life as an actuary in the city for the government’s pension office, and he died there on 9 June 1967. 

By contrast to such steadfastness, Zander’s World 1500 metres record of 3:54.7, set in Stockholm on 5 August 1917, has very much of a transitory appearance to it. It improved only marginally on an unofficial 3:55.0 by the USA’s Norman Taber, en route to his 4:12.6 mile in 1915, and it was demolished by Paavo Nurmi as soon as he got to grips with the event – 3:53.0, again during a mile race, in 1923, and 3:52.6 a year later. Nevertheless, Zander was an outstanding athlete who might – with a shade more luck on his side – have become as remarked upon in history as even Nurmi, Hägg and Anderssson. Well, maybe on reflection, not quite as exalted as that !                 

Zander’s 1500 metres record was achieved in the typically extravagant manner of that generation. His intermediate times were 59.5, 2.02.5 and 3:07.5, and he won by a huge margin, as the 2nd finisher was timed in 4:07.8 ! Zander also brought off what must rate as one of the best “doubles” of the pre-Nurmi era when he won the national 1500 and 5000 metres on successive days in August in 3:57.6 and 14:59.6 – the latter time being the best in the World for the year. In other races he produced his national record of 4:17.5 for the mile and 14:38.7 for three miles. He also anchored his club’s 4 x 1500 metres relay team to a time of exactly 17 minutes which seems to have escaped the attention entirely of the IAAF so far as record-reocnition is concerned.. He was of classic middle-distance build, 1.80m (5ft 11in) in height, and his characteristic style of winning was described as being by use of “a long, hard spurt”, though there was clearly no need of it on the occasions of these victories. 

The previous month, and yet again in his home city, he had set World records for 2000 metres (5:31.0) and 3000 metres (8:35.7) within four days, 9 and 12 July, and in the latter race he was aided by lapped runners. However esoteric it may seem, no one else has ever set World records so close together at those two distances, though another Swede, Edvin Wide, came very, very near in 1925, covering five days. Neither of Zander’s times were ratified by the IAAF, but he was to get official credit in 1918 for a 5:30.4 and 8:33.1. 

The 3000 record was achieved in a carefully-arranged handicap event, with two other runners starting 300 metres ahead of Zander, and the venue was once more Stockholm, but he had ventured as far as Malmö earlier that summer for another 3000 in 8:34.8. For some reason, even though this was an international meeting, the time was not even accepted as a Swedish record. Of Zander’s nine World records, only three were ever officially recognised by the IAAF. 

Zander competed in both the 1912 and 1920 Olympics and missed out on medals at each, though under the rules now in force he would have been awarded them. In 1912, in Stockholm, having finished 7th in the historic 1500 metres won by Great Britain’s Arnold Jackson (later Strode-Jackson), he was 9th in the 3000 metres team race and therefore not among Sweden’s scoring three for the silver medals. In 1920, in Antwerp, where he was suffering from a rib injury, he failed to finish in the 1500 metres, again won by a Briton, Albert Hill, but qualified for the 3000 metres team final, only to be replaced (coincidentally, by Edvin Wide) and thus be denied a bronze medal.   

In 1913 Zander had made a big impression on a visit to England. As a member of a strong Swedish national team, he won the mile in a match against the most prominent of the English clubs, London AC, on 28 June in 4:23 3/5, leading home his compatriot, Nils Frykberg, by 10 yards, and then the next Saturday he took the AAA title in 4:25 4/5 by an eight-yard margin. Zander’s times might seem desperately slow to 21st Century readers, but before rushing to judgment it’s worth taking a look at the afternoon’s time-table for those Championships. The mile final was at 3 p.m. followed by the 880 yards heats at 4.35 and the final, in which Zander was 5th, with other Swedes 1st and 4th, at 5.30 ! Zander’s career best mile was 4:16.8 in 1918, which then ranked 7th fastest of all-time.     

Zander had got to know the US miler, Abel Kiviat, when they both competed in the 1912 Olympic 1500 (Kiviat took the silver medal), and this was particularly noted when Kiviat’s biography was written by Alan S. Katchen, and published by the Syracuse University Press in 2009. Katchen said admiringly of Zander: “By 1917 he had matured into a great distance-runner and, with neutral Sweden still engaged in a normal athletic life, he took aim at his friend Abel Kiviat’s World record”. Kiviat’s 3:55 4/5 from 1912 was still the official record in 1917 and would remain so until the IAAF’s 1921 meeting. 

Incidentally, Katchen’s book (“Abel Kiviat: National Champion – Twentieth Century Track & Field and the Melting Pot”) is immensely interesting as Kiviat, who was the son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrant parents, lived to be the oldest surviving US Olympian, dying in 1991 at the age of 99.    

Zander was also a pioneering steeplechaser before the event was regularised, and he was advised by Ernst Walfrid Hjertberg, the highly-regarded Swedish team coach at the 1912 and 1920 Olympics. Hjertberg, born in 1867, had emigrated to the USA with his parents at the age of five, and his first names had been americanised to “Ernest Wilfred”, familiarly called “Ernie”. He had won the AAU three miles in 1896, when he was still described as being Swedish, and after establishing a reputation as a coach he was invited back to his native land for four months in 1910 (by which time he was a US citizen) and then for six months in 1911 and again in 1912 to prepare Sweden’s Olympic contenders, receiving the massive monthly salary of $1500, paid for by private donors. According to the “Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon”, Hjertberg “introduced from the beginning an intense, rational exercise programme for the Olympic candidates … he updated hitherto lesser demands on the personal way of life; for example, in terms of diet”.

Among the elite athletes John Zander and Anatole Bolin were Hjertberg’s “special pupils”, but he was also responsible for building up a nationwide coaching scheme, and it was later said of the overall impression which he made that “his less conspicuous efforts in training coaches now appear the most significant”.  He would continue coaching in Sweden until 1922, but a disagreement over his income caused him to move on to a similar post in Holland until 1924 before returning to the USA. Hjertberg had written a training manual entitled “Athletics in Theory and Practice” in 1914, and in 1923 he was interviewed by a British Olympic Association committee which met for a fortnight to consider the future of athletics in Britain.

It was reported that in talking to Hjertberg the committee members “questioned the notion of winter training and struggled to see how working-men could train to this extent, particularly if Sundays were involved”. It was also stated that when Hjertberg was “asked whether the Olympic athlete was the product of training or was ‘one of nature’s aristocrats’, he replied that all but one of his athletes had been ‘hand-made champions’ who had been successful through perseverance and coaching”. The BOA committee was chaired by John Graham Hope de la Poer Beresford, the 5th Baron Decies, whose claim to sporting credentials was having won a gold medal with the Foxhunters Hurlingham polo team at the 1900 Olympics. So no doubt he and his fellow-dignitaries, imbued with the philosophy of “effortless superiority” which prevailed among the upper-class English athletes of that generation, thought this all sounded like far too much hard work, because nothing was ever to be heard in the future of their deliberations. Hjertberg died in 1951, aged 84.      

Zander apart, 1917 was simply not a particularly good year for middle-distance and long-distance running, and the fastest 10,000 metres, for example, was 32:07.5 in Stockholm, by Lauritz Dam, of Denmark, which was well outside the 1911 World record of 30:58.8 by the Frenchman, Jean Bouin, who was to be killed in action during the war. Denmark resolutely stayed neutral, and Dam, who was a tram-line inspector in Copenhagen by occupation, was scarcely impeded at all by the horrendous warfare elsewhere in Europe as he won the Danish 1500 metres title every year from 1913 to 1917 and set 23 national records at all distances from 800 metres upwards. In a further outing of his in Sweden in 1918 he was beaten by almost half-a-minute when John Zander ran his 8:34.8 for 3000 metres. Dam continued competing until 1924 but never took part in an Olympics.

If anything, World War I had a longer-term detrimental effect, as not a single World record or World best performance was set at distances of 800 metres and upwards from 1918 until Hannes Kolehmainen won his Olympic marathon (actually 42.700 kilometres) in August 1920 and two months later improved the rarely-run 25,000 metres record. Standards generally did not start to pick up until Nurmi marked the first of his 34 World records in 1921, and Swedish runners played only supporting parts to Nurmi’s lead role. Apart from Edvin Wide’s 2000/3000 double in 1925, the next World records on the track from Zander’s homeland would not occur until 1940 onwards. By which time, of course, another World War was taking its toll.

My thanks to Luc Beucher, Wilhelm Böhning, Jacques Carmelli, Elliott Denman, Manfred Holzhausen, Richard Hymans and Rooney Magnusson for valuable information.     

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