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The Curious Anomalies of the 1896 Athens Games

Do you want to take part in the Olympics? Well, join the group and you’re in the team

The curious anomalies of the Athens Games of 1906


There was no selection process for Great Britain’s athletes at the “intercalated” Athens Olympic Games of 1906. If you wanted to compete, regardless of your ability, you merely let England’s Amateur Athletic Association know and no vetting process was applied.  When only a dozen or so prospective competitors had been in touch, the AAA even extended an open invitation for others interested in making up a party of 30 who would benefit from a group travel rate by train (2nd Class) and ferry (1st Class) for the round trip to Greece of just under £17 each (more precisely, £16 17s 6d).  “Anyone desirous of availing himself of the reduced fare should communicate at once with the hon. sec. AAA” was the published plea. In 2019 financial terms, this is equivalent to about £2000 or 2600 US dollars.

The “Sporting Life” described the AAA attitude to the Games as “luke-warm” and strongly criticised the decision not to “select a team to represent the country”. On 9 March, with the opening of the Games less than seven weeks away, the AAA published a list of the 12 athletes who “have notified their intention to go to Athens”, and this included several who most certainly would not have been obvious choices for any sort of official GB team. For example, in the previous December’s annual  cross-country race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities two of the competitors who were Athens-bound,, Francis Edwards and Henry Weber, were 7th and 8th out of 10 starters more than two minutes behind their winning Cambridge team-mate, A.H. Pearson, who was not joining them on the venture..

In January “The Sportsman” newspaper had predicted  that “a fairly large number of University men will manage to get away to take part in the Games”, but the only others to do so in addition to Edwards and Weber were Sidney Abrahams (elder brother of Harold), Arnold Churchill and Reginald Crabbe, also  of Cambridge, and Stephen Carnelley, of Oxford, and though, so far as we know, they performed creditably enough in Athens they were all to achieve greater distinction in later life. Abrahams was knighted as a lawyer, while  Churchill became a barrister, Carnelley a senior magistrate in Kenya, and Crabbe the Bishop of Mombasa. Only recently, the proper identity of the 400 metres runner, William Anderson, who reached the Athens final, has been revealed in the UK historical journal, “Track Stats”, and it would be interesting to know what motivated the Welsh hurdler, David Wallis Walters, and the Liverpool walker, Richard Wilkinson, to undertake the three-week excursion to Greece, and whether they afterwards thought it was worthwhile. Walters was eliminated in his heat and Wilkinson was disqualified in both walks, having crossed the line 1st in the 3000 metres event.   

To some extent, the British were saved embarrassment when the highly accomplished Irish field-events exponents, Con Leahy and Peter O’Connor, had their expenses paid by the “Irish Field” magazine, and the sponsors’ money was well spent as Leahy won the gold medal in the high jump and O’Connor silver in the long jump. Ireland would remain part of Great Britain until 1921. Yet what counted for far more elsewhere in Britain, where running was a much preferred discipline to jumping or throwing, was that there was only one victory in the eight track events for the assorted bunch of Britons, compared to six for the carefully chosen and well prepared Americans. That one British success was achieved by an officer in the Royal Engineers who had spent much of the preceding five years of his life on constantly alert service duty enforcing British control over the West African protectorate of Sierra Leone and then in Ireland, which also had its share of unrest at that time in its pursuit of independence..      

Lieutenant Henry Courtenay Hawtrey, born in Southampton on 29 June 1882, was the son of a vicar in the Royal Town of Windsor and had been an athletic prodigy, finishing at the age of 20 within a yard or so of Joe Binks when he set a British mile record of 4:16.8 at the 1902 AAA Championships. Army service then intervened, including two spells of duty in Sierra Leone, and returning late in 1905 Hawtrey set about reviving his running career. One wonders what motivated him to take up the Olympic challenge, and could it be that there was some sort of Army backing for his endeavours ?

In February of 1906 he came up against the Inter-Varsity winner, Pearson, over the noted Gog-Magog cross-country course at Cambridge and was beaten by 1min 9sec, which reinforces the belief that Pearson might well in other circumstances have become an Olympic champion. Even so, there is yet another Cambridge distance-runner who would also  have enjoyed a Grecian outing – A.R. Welsh won his University Sports three miles on 12 March in a heavy snow-storm, recording an admirable time of 15:08 and beating Pearson by 120 yards. Having said this, there is no doubting Lt Hawtrey’s rediscovered talent because three days before his departure for Athens he ran a track three miles at Stamford Bridge in 15:01.4 which passed virtually unappreciated in the London press. The existing World record was 14:17.6, set in 1903 by Alfred Shrubb, but Shrubb was in a class of his own.  

Hawtrey won the Olympic five miles on an unhelpful track in 26:11.8, which makes reasonable comparison with the time of 20:27.4 for the standard four miles at the AAA Championships the following July by Freddy Hulford. The US AAU five miles title was won later that year in 26:22.6 and the next year in 26:04.0 – respectively by Will Nelson, who was English, and John Daly, who was Irish.  Both Hulford and another leading English distance-runner, Joe Deakin, had shown fine cross-country form in the winter months immediately before the Athens Olympics and would have been yet more  medal contenders there, but presumably they couldn’t afford the cost of going or the time away from work. The same could be said with confidence about Albert Aldridge, the AAA 10 miles track champion on 7 April, and any of England’s winning team, including Deakin, in the International Cross-Country Championships at Caerleon Racecourse, in South Wales, on 10 March.

A running career which ends in being “struck off”

The Athens Olympics represented  more or less the end of Hawtrey’s competitive career, and it may be that a severe ankle injury which he sustained in the race there was the cause, though the widely-read UK sports publication,“Athletic News,” was to rightly remark in August of 1907 that “the claims of his profession have prevented the gallant officer from maintaining a close association with athletics”. He was entered for the 1908 Olympic “trials” 1500 metres organised by the AAA; but if he actually ran he was unplaced, and the last mention of him in an athletics context was when he was ignominiously “struck out” of the entries for the 1909 South of the Thames cross-country race by scrutinising officials, presumably because he had not served enough time at his new club, Eastbourne AC.. His army career proceeded much more smoothly as he was appointed an aide-de-camp to King George V and retired with the rank of Brigadier. He died in Aldershot in 1961 at the age of 79. . 

Further credit accrues to Hawtrey for his Olympic success because he beat into 2nd place a pioneering  Swedish athlete of international renown, Johan (“John”) Svanberg, who five days later was also 2nd in the marathon, and in 1908 in London he would be 3rd at five miles to the British duo, Emil Voigt (born in Manchester of German parents) and Eddie Owen. In the Athens five miles John Daly, who had paid his own way from Ireland, finished 3rd but was disqualified for obstructing another Swede, Edvard Dahl, in the home straight. The other Britons in the race were the “Oxbridge” contingent of Carnelley, Churchill, Edwards and Weber, and the Scotsman, John McGough, but quite what happened to them is a mystery because the placings and times after 6th are not known. McGough may not have been too bothered because four days later he was 2nd at 1500 metres

The organising committee of the Games published their official results, but these were sketchy and inconsistent, which is particularly disappointing as one of the committee-members was J.E. Fowler-Dixon, a prolific long-distance runner and walker who was also a journalist by profession and might have been expected to recognise the need for full disclosure. Only the first three were listed for the finals of track events, and yet the complete series of three rounds was given for every contestant in the long jump and triple jump. 

In the five-mile race there were certainly 28 competitors (seven from Great Britain, six from Greece, three each from Sweden and the USA, two from France, one each from Australia, Austria, Bohemia, Egypt, Germany, Italy and Norway), and it is assumed that they all started. The German and the Norwegian were lapped and were pulled out of the race by the judges, which would seem to indicate that all the others completed the distance. But did they? Hawtrey won by 50 metres and Dahl’s time in 3rd place puts him about 80 metres down. Were there really another 23 finishers within the next 270 metres? It seems unlikely.

Behind Hawtrey, Svanberg and Dahl in 4th place was George Bonhag (USA); in 5th was Patrizio Pagliani (Italy); and 6th was George Blake (Australia). Later in the Games Bonhag won the 1500 metres walk (in a mystifyingly slow time) and Blake was 6th in the marathon, and there were capable runners among the remainder in that five miles, including the two other Americans, Harvey Cohn and William Frank, and the French pair, Louis de Fleurac and Gaston Rageneau, but some – such as Arthur Pitt-Marson, who was London-born but competing for Egypt – had no form of consequence.  Pitt-Marson’s subsequent life, though, was one of infinite variety, working in public health, the intelligence service and for the Foreign Office before being ordained and becoming a missionary. 

A question of recognition of “Olympic character”

This lack of full official information about so many events at those 1906 Athens Games is a pity not only from the statistician’s point-of-view but also because it lends credence to the ambivalence with which the International Olympic Committee was to treat these 1906 Games, held as a 10th anniversary celebration of the revival of the Modern Olympics, and intended to be the first of a regular four-yearly series. This bizarre situation was neatly explained by a respected Hungarian Olympic historian, Sándor Barcs, in a rare and undervalued English-language book entitled “The Modern Olympics Story’, which was published in Budapest in 1964 and was at that time available at the Collet’s bookshop in Central London which specialised in publications from behind the Iron Curtain. Collet’s was – if I recall correctly – something of a literary Mecca for youthful members of the newly formed organisation of enthusiasts, t he National Union of Track Statisticians. They were of no evident political persuasion but merely in search of Eastern European revelations of a strictly sporting nature.  

Mr Barcs wrote, “Today, when these large-scale Games of Athens are mentioned, one never knows whether they should be considered as an Olympic event. What happened was that after the contests the International Olympic Committee refused to grant the Second Athens Games the Olympic title. In other words, it would not recognise the ‘Second Athens Olympic Games’”, which was most peculiar. It was not only so because it had given its approval to the organisation, recognising the Olympic character, but it had allowed the Greeks to call the competitors togethet for Olympic Games. The athletes competed for the title ‘Olympic Champion’ and the winners of the 71 contests were given Olympic medals”. .. 

Particularly observant readers of this article will have already noticed an African link between Lieutenant Hawtrey, spending so much of his military duties there, and the future denizens of British power and influence in Kenya, Bishop Crabbe and Judge Carnelley. In 1921, when there were 9,651 residents of Kenya who were European-born, and the vast majority of them British, Stephen Carnelley was already established in the Colonial Service, having served during World War I in the East African Protectorate Force, and apparently also qualified as a pilot because he was a member of the exclusive Royal Aero Club.  Reginald Crabbe did not become Bishop of Mombasa until 1936, but how fascinating it is to speculate as to whether these two old athletic rivals – 4th and 5th, divided by only three seconds, in that 1905 Inter-Varsity cross-country match – would have eventually met up again in their common adopted land and talked about old times.

Carnelley lived to the age of 95, dying in 1976, and is buried in Nairobi. He had left Exeter College, Oxford, where 40 years later Roger Bannister would be an undergraduate, without taking a degree but qualified as a solicitor, joined the Colonial Service, and was appointed a Resident Commissioner in Kisumu, in Kenya, in 1921, and then in 1929 he became a Resident Magistrate in Nairobi. At some stage of his judicial life he acquired 6200 acres of land at Hippo Point, on the shores of Lake Navaisha at almost 2000 metres altitude, 47 miles (78 kilometres) north-west of Nairobi, and what a good investment that turned out to be! The area is now a National Park, and Hippo Point is an exclusive and expensive safari centre for tourists, promising its visitors somewhat lugubriously on its website that they will be “smothered by the stars of Africa, soothed by sounds of Hippo and Hyena”. One of the luxurious stopping-off points is named Camp Carnelley, and descendants in the Carnelley family still work prominently in the Kenyan tourist industry.   

From 1937 to 1950 the lake was a staging-point for the Imperial Airways six-day flying-boat service from Southampton to Durban and Cape Town. In the 1960s Joy Adamson, of “Born Free” fame, was a neighbour of Stephen Carnelley’s, and Hollywood stars Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr stayed nearby while making the films, “King Solomon’s Mines” or “Mogambo”. Maybe they called in on Judge Carnelley for a refreshing cup of tea and a chat in between camera sequences .

Reginald Percy Crabbe (he may have preferred to use his second Christian name) had run the 800 and 1500 metres in Athens, though rather disappointingly (4th and 7th) considering that he had won the Cambridge University 880 yards on 8 March in 1:55.8, which was more than five seconds faster than the US winner in Athens, Paul Pilgrim. Crabbe was ordained in 1907 and from 1911 to 1914 was chaplain to the Bishop of Sierra Leone, thus following somewhat in Lieutenant Hawtrey’s footsteps of six years and more previously. As Bishop of Mombasa his diocese covered the entire country of Kenya, and he was noted for overseeing the first appointment in 1952 of Masai-born Anglican priests.     

I wonder, too, if Judge Carnelley and Bishop Crabbe ever met up with one of the very first milers of the modern athletics era, Charles Bulpett, who had run in the Inter-Varsity match of 1875? Even by Victorian standards of extravagant gentlemanly behaviour, Bulpett led an exceptionally colourful life, having for a wager swum the River Thames fully-clothed, wearing a top-hat and carrying a cane, before going out to Kenya in 1904. His profession was that of a barrister – increasing no end the likelihood that he encountered Judge Carnelley – but he earned a public reputation as a big game hunter and a war correspondent. When he died in Nairobi on 11 July 1939 at the age of 86, he was reported as being the oldest surviving European settler in Kenya.                           

Statistical footnote: Thanks to Bill Mallon, the renowned US Olympic historian, for providing a copy of the official results of the 1906 Games.  

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