Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / PROFILE

How George Bonhag Won his Odd Gold Medal

“Going along at a merciless chip”. How George Bonhag Won his Odd Olympic Gold

George Bonhag became the leading American distance-runner of the early years of the 20th Century, and it seems that, somewhat surprisingly, he had a British Army officer to thank for that. Bonhag went to the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens and did not do quite as well as might have been hoped for in his favoured events – 4th in the 5 miles and 6th in the 1500 metres. Then, bizarrely, he entered the 1500 metres walk on impulse the next day and won after the first two competitors to finish were disqualified.

Whatever satisfaction Bonhag might have derived from becoming an Olympic champion in an event which he had never contested before and never would do so again other than at local club level, he came home to New York with his ideas about running completely turned around, according to a news agency article syndicated in US newspapers in April 1907. “While Bonhag ran some slashing races before that time, he may be truly said to have learned to run at the Olympic Games of Athens”, wrote the unnamed but seemingly well-informed correspondent. “Before that time the crack indoor runner, like most American distance men, depended upon his finish rather than running all the way to win his races. After seeing Lieutenant Hawtrey and other crack Englishmen run at Athens, Bonhag figured out that their ability lay in being able to make the race from start to finish. In conversation just after the big meet Bonhag said, ‘When you see Bonhag in a race after this you will see him racing in the lead from the start and not finishing up in any grand sprint’ ”.

The writer concluded, “Bonhag has followed up the first part of his program, but he has retained the sprinting finish in spite of the fact that he goes along at a merciless chip in the early stages of the race”. Later in 1906 Bonhag had shown how much he had benefited from his Athens adventure by setting the fastest ever indoor times for 2 miles, 9:39⅕, and 3 miles, 14:45⅗. At the Olympics Henry Hawtrey, aged only 23, had won the 5 miles (a standard event in those days) by some 50 yards,  and the other highlight of a brief career curtailed by distinguished military service which led to him becoming aide-de-camp to King George V had been the 1902 Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) 1 mile final when he lost by a stride or so to Joe Binks, who set an amateur World best of 4:16⅘.  

Whatever opinions might be expressed regarding Bonhag’s brief foray into race walking, there is no doubt about his ability as a runner. In 1911 the US Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) ratified seven records set by Bonhag indoors at 1¾ miles, 2 miles, 2½ miles, 3 miles and 4 miles, and outdoors at 4½ miles and 5 miles. The 2 miles in 9:14⅕ and 3 miles in 14:29⅗ both bore very fair comparison with the IAAF-recognised outdoor World records of the peerless Alfred Shrubb, at 9:09⅗ and 14:17⅗. Bonhag also had a US indoor record ratified by the AAU of 30:42.0 for 6 miles, plus 52:34⅘ for 10 miles outdoors. He was AAU champion indoors at 2 miles in 1906, 1907 and 1911, with a best winning time of 9:20⅘ in the last of those years. Also in 1911 he was AAU outdoor champion at 5 miles, which would remain the championship event until replaced by the six miles in 1925, and was credited with World indoor best times for 1½ miles of 6:47⅖ and for 3000 metres of 8:52⅖ and 8:35.0. His 3000 metres record stood until 1922, and his indoor 5000 metres of 15:05⅘ in 1912 was unsurpassed until 1923. Yet another earlier indoor record in which he was involved was for a 4 x 1 mile relay in 1906 at Madison Square Garden in which he joined with fellow Irish-American AC members James Patrick Sullivan, Harvey Cohn and Mel Sheppard to run 17:58.0, which was not beaten outdoors until 1911.

Bonhag had some interesting observations to make concerning the differences in indoor and outdoor competition, telling a reporter from “The Pittsburgh Press” newspaper, “If the conditions outdoors are as ideal as indoors there is no real reason in the world why just as fine a time can’t be made. Of course, when you race indoors you are practically assured that you’re going to run on a track  that is all to the merry, but all the same if an outdoor track is fast you can easily make a good time”. 

Bonhag had actually first competed at the Olympics in the flawed 1904 affair in St Louis, held more or less as a fairground side-show, where he was one of seven competitors among the 13 in the 800 metres (10 Americans, two Canadians and a German) whose finishing positions outside the first six remain a mystery to this day. After Athens in 1906 he went on to compete in the Olympics of 1908 and 1912, earning a silver medal and eventually gold in an event which was rather more familiar to him than his race-walking escapade. 

At the 1908 Games he joined forces with John Eisele, the steeplechase bronze-medallist, and Herbert Trube, the AAU mile champion that year, to place 2nd in the 3 miles team race. Great Britain had the first three individual places, with Eisele following in 4th, and then Bonhag 6th and Trube 9th. Bonhag had also run in the steeplechase heats, of which there were six, with only the winners to qualify for the final (!) but had failed to finish, presumably either because  Arthur Robertson, of Great Britain, who was the silver-medallist to be in the final, was too far ahead to be beaten or because of fatigue after the team event heat and final within the previous three days. 

Then, at his fourth Olympics in 1912, Bonhag was in the winning trio in the 3000 metres team event, in which his companions were Tell Berna, a fellow competitor at 5000 metres, and Norman Taber, bronze-medallist at 1500 metres. Bonhag’s Herculean schedule at those Stockholm Games is worth setting out in full: 9 July, 1st 5000 metres, heat, 15:22.6; 10 July, 4th 5000 metres, final, 15:09.8; 12 July, 6th 3000 metres team, heat, 8:52.2; 13 July, 6th 3000 metres team, final, 8:46.6. These bare statistics give no hint, though, of the high drama that these races entailed and nor do they even fully describe the range of activities in which Bonhag took part.

The 5000 metres was a sensational event in which Jean Bouin, of France, took the lead after a couple of laps, with Hannes Kolehmainen, of Finland, on his heels, and these two ran together the rest of the way, drawing ever further ahead of the other 13 finalists. Kolehmainen, who had won the 10,000 metres two days previously, attempted to pass the Frenchman time and time again and was repeatedly repulsed, eventually managing to get by 20 metres from the finish to win by a desperately narrow margin, 14:36.6 to 14:36.7, beating the previous World record by 24.6 seconds. Following at an understandably respectful distance were George Hutson, of Great Britain, 15:07.6, for the bronze medal, and then Bonhag 4th and Berna very close behind, 5th in 15:10.0. A sad sequel was that Bouin and Hutson both died in military action in World War I. Happily, George Valentine Bonhag went on to live a long life, having been born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 31 January 1882, and dying in New York on 3 October 1960, aged 78. 

Even the qualifying round of the 3000 metres team event at those 1912 Olympics was something distinctly out of the ordinary. Kolehmainen was running his fifth race in six days (33 kilometres in total, and with a further win in the 12-kilometre cross-country to come three days later !), and he set a World record of 8:36.9 (not 8:36.8, as wrongly ratified). Undeterred, the Americans took the next five places – Abel Kiviat, Tell Berna, Norman Taber, George Bonhag, Henry Scott – and Finland was eliminated, 9 points for the USA’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th to 12 for Finland’s 1st, 5thand 6th !  In the final Berna was awarded 1st place over Thorild Ohlsson, of Sweden, as both ran 8:44.6. Taber was 3rdin 8:45.2, and only half-a-second separated the vital third-placed scorers – Bonhag 5th in 8:46.6, and Bror Fock, for Sweden, 7th in 8:47.1. Kiviat, who together with Scott was a non-finisher, had been the silver-medallist ahead of Taber in the 1500 metres two days previously. The USA scored 9 points again (1st, 3rd, 5th) and Sweden 13 (2nd, 4th, 7th). Great Britain were a distant 3rd with 23 points, though the 11 individual finishers were separated by only 4.2 seconds (say, 30-to-35 metres). So it must have been an intensely exciting race to watch for the largely Swedish crowd, but in the numerous Olympic histories which have been written over the last century-and-a-quarter such team events have been given only passing attention. They disappeared from the Olympic schedule after 1924 – a pity, perhaps.   

There still remain uncertainties about the results at those 1912 Games and others over the years despite the immense amount of work undertaken by the leading Olympic expert, Bill Mallon, who is the author or co-author of a series of  books which have listed the results for each Games from 1896 to 1920. The volume for 1912, which was published in 2002, is 490 pages alone and attempts to unravel all the inconsistencies and inaccuracies in reporting that have occurred in numerous other publications, including official sources, but even Bill Mallon and his co-author, Tore Widlund, readily admit that problems persist concerning, for instance, the 12-kilometre cross-country event in Stockholm. Whether or not George Bonhag and Tell Berna were among the non-finishers, of which there were as many as 17, has never been clarified – and almost certainly never will be. 

If Bonhag did, indeed, run then it must have been a hectic day for him because the race started at 2.15 p.m. on 15 July, and from 10 a.m. that morning he had taken part in an exhibition baseball match between US athletes and a Swedish club team. He also, incidentally, was the US flag-bearer at the Games opening ceremony on 6 July and played in another exhibition baseball match on 16 July. If there was any temptation to fit the 10 kilometres walk into his crowded itinerary, which would have been feasible (heats 8 July, final 11 July), he sensibly resisted the idea, though he might have had cause for thought afterwards. The walk was won by George Goulding, who was another English-born Canadian, like Bonhag’s main Athens rival, Donald Linden, and was also a very capable runner who had been 22nd in the Olympic marathon four years previously.

The British sports weekly, “Athletic News”, had been rather dismissive of Bonhag’s running form. At a pre-Olympic meeting at London’s Stamford Bridge Stadium in May 1908 after a 2 miles race in which he was beaten by A.S.D. Smith, of Cambridge University, in 9:50⅕, it was said of Bonhag that though he had “by far the most taking style of the lot, he scarcely seemed to be built on the lines of a distance runner”. This seems hardly fair a remark. Bonhag was then a New York policeman by occupation and was 5ft 10in (1.78m) tall and 9st 6lb (60kg) in weight, which suggests a thin frame, but in photographs he looks sturdy enough. His competitive career was not without further controversy because he was one of a number of leading athletes investigated by the AAU for “demanding or accepting exorbitant prize money” or “accepting sums far in excess of what could be considered justifiable expenses”. This state of affairs was not at all unusual in that era, but Bonhag and his fellow-accused, including Olympic champions Melvin Sheppard (800 and 1500 metres and medley relay) and Harry Porter (High jump), escaped punishment, though maybe the ruling could be interpreted as “not proven” rather than “not guilty”.  

It’s also relevant  in describing Bonhag’s life and achievements to make some comment about the status of those 1906 Athens Olympics. They were held as a 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Modern Games and were certainly of a higher quality than any of the predecessors of 1896, 1900 or 1904. Yet they are not even recognised by the International Olympic Committee and have not been taken seriously by many writers of Olympic history, if given any attention at all. The 1906 Games have frequently been referred to in a somewhat belittling manner as “Intercalated” (has that description ever been used in any other literary context ?), and as a further example of the disregard in which they were held (and still are) the athletics authorities in Great Britain at the time paid the event no heed whatsoever. Such British competitors as made the prolonged journey by rail and sea-crossing to Athens did so at their own expense, whereas in the USA $13,364 was raised by public subscription (including $3500 from New York AC alone), and other countries such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and Sweden also sent official teams. 

Not surprisingly, this variance in attitude was reflected in the results – USA  11 winners, GB three, and even then two of the latter would have preferred to be recognised as representing their native Ireland, which was then still part of Great Britain. These were also the first Games at which race walking had been included, and the 1500 metres event in which Bonhag had his surprising success was never held again – there were track walks at 3500 metres and 10 miles in 1908 and then at 10,000 metres in 1912, 1920 (plus 3000 metres), 1924, 1948 and 1952 before giving way entirely to road races. Controversy over the fairness of walking techniques at such short distances and the judging decisions involved would become inherent at the Games. 

An obvious question remains unanswered concerning Bonhag’s unlikely venture into the unknown at those 1906 Games. What could possibly have made him think that he could achieve anything against opponents who he must surely have assumed were experienced race walkers ? As it happens, of the eight others who toed the start-line, four were Greeks of unknown calibre who were perhaps relying mostly on patriotic zeal rather than technical expertise to spur them on. There was a Briton who could point to a 2nd place (though a very distant 2nd) in the previous year’s AAA 2 miles walk and the Canadian, Donald Linden, who was originally from Slough, in Buckinghamshire, and had apparently established some race-walking credentials since emigrating. The remaining two were an Austrian, who probably knew full well what he was doing because he had won a selection trial race at the distance, and a Hungarian, who had been competing for at least seven years but at vastly longer distances. Had Bonhag known all this (which he almost certainly did not), he could certainly have been forgiven for fancying his chances of maybe even a top three placing. 

The race was actually won by the Briton, Robert Wilkinson, from Eugen Spiegler, of Austria, with Bonhag 3rd. However, Wilkinson and Spiegler were disqualified for “lifting”, and rightly so, after crossing the finishing-line, and two of the four members of the jury of appeal also wanted Bonhag taken out of the results for the same reason but were over-ruled by their colleagues, who were the AAU representative, James E. Sullivan, and Prince George of Greece, who had no technical qualifications whatsoever to make such a ruling, but his word, as you will understand, carried rather a lot of weight. Sullivan – aside from likely patriotic fervour – was  an ardent admirer of the Prince, at least in print, and was unlikely to have taken issue with him in his role as president of the jury.

Yet, however understandable it was that he might defer to royalty, Sullivan had no hesitation in vehemently expressing his opinion on his return home when he came to write a 230-page official report of the Games for the US Olympic Committee. Of the 1500 metres walk, he stated, “This ended as many walking competitions will end – in dispute – and it is doubtful if a walk will ever appear on the Olympic programme again, and it should not. The walking match clearly demonstrated that it is well nigh impossible for a jury of men to become a unit when a man’s style of walking is questioned. There were many starters in this race, some of them good walkers – according to their own ideas – but they were disqualified by the jury”. Sullivan added, “Bonhag did not expect to win this race. He just entered into the spirit of it and thought he would like to see how he compared with other first-class walkers. Bonhag certainly walked as fairly as any of the placed men”. Damning with faint praise, perhaps ?

Sullivan doesn’t specify who the other two jurors were who took exception to Bonhag and maybe more of the competitors, but a photograph appears in the AAU Olympic Games report of Prince George, together with Sullivan, J.E. Fowler-Dixon and M.M. Negroportes, of the organising committee, and it seems most likely that these four were the ultimate adjudicators for all the athletics events, with their decisions apparently over-ruling those of any track or field judges. John Fowler-Dixon was the doyen of race-walking in those days, having in 1877 famously become the first man to walk 100 miles in 24 hours – actually in 20 hours 36 minutes 8 seconds at the Lillie Bridge track, in London. Born on 3 September 1850 and living to the age of 93, he set other records for both walking and running at 40 and 50 miles, had won races at every distance from 100 yards upwards, was a founder and life vice-president of the Amateur Athletic Association and was their official representative in Athens and still an active competitor. He had also become a leading journalist who had set up his own Athletic News Agency. So renowned was Fowler-Dixon that he was called upon in Athens to give an exhibition of 1500 metres running and walking for the Greek Royal Family, and accomplished the distance in 5min 41sec and 8min 46sec respectively – commendably agile for a 55-year-old!

He wrote a long description of the Games for “The Referee”, which was a UK Sunday newspaper from 1877 to 1939, with a circulation that reached 400,000, but he had very little to say about the walks or his officiating duties in Athens. However, there was also a detailed report of the Games in another British publication, the “Sporting Life”, and this has the authoritative feel of a Fowler-Dixon composition about it. If it is, indeed, his work then there is no doubting his opinion because the 1500 metres walk is described as “nothing better than a farce”, with only the promoted Canadian silver-medallist, Donald Linden, commended for having “the very best form … the majority of the competitors went in very poor style”. Comprehensive coverage of the Games in the monthly magazine, “The Field”, founded in 1853 and still being published more than 170 years later, included the comment, “Wilkinson was disqualified in the second lap when he was leading. Nearly everybody ran and Bonhag finished 20 yards ahead of Linden”. The  author seems likely to have been the prolific Fowler-Dixon yet again.  

Bonhag was apparently challenged by Linden to an immediate re-match, presumably on the grounds that Linden believed that he had walked fairly but Bonhag hadn’t. Yet we have little information as to how accomplished Linden was as a race-walker. Even when a distinguished Canadian academic, Glynn A. Leyshon, wrote an article to mark the centenary of the 1906 Olympics for the journal of the International Society of Sports History all he could tell us about Linden’s background was that he was a “staunch” member of the Toronto YMCA club and that after the Games “he simply faded from public sight, there being no further record of his competing”. This seems odd because the future Olympic 10,000 metres walk champion, George Goulding, had arrived in Toronto in 1904 after emigrating from England and had already started taking an interest in race walking at the YMCA. Surely he and fellow exile Linden must have crossed paths ? Linden was born on 3 March 1878 and died in Toronto on 13 March 1965.

Why Bonhag and Linden did not enter the 3000 metres walk which was held the next day in Athens in order to prove themselves is yet another aspect of the Games never to have been resolved. Astonishingly, Messrs Wilkinson and Spiegler again got themselves both disqualified in this race after finishing 1st and 2nd, with Wilkinson a foot ahead in 15min 13sec, and the revised winner here was the Hungarian who had come last the day before ! The life story of this Olympic competitor of such varied fortunes, György Sztantics, brief as it was, is an interesting one, but before turning to that there should be more said about the composure – or lack of it – of the Briton who had achieved the unenviable feat of winning two Olympic races without a single medal to show for it and was described enigmatically in the Manchester-based weekly, “Athletic News”, as “a peculiar pedestrian”. 

Robert Edward Wilkinson came from a city which had been involved in organised athletics since the 1860s, Liverpool, and was a member of one of its foremost clubs, Sefton Harriers. Yet neither his birthdate nor his date of death are known; the local newspapers, the “Liverpool Daily Post” and the “Liverpool Echo”, made barely half-a-dozen mentions of him in 10 years; and even an admirably detailed history of his club refers to him only in passing. The one achievement of his which attracted much attention was in the third annual walking race in 1903 organised for employees in the meat trades in Birkenhead, which is across the River Mersey from Liverpool. This event covered a course of 17½ miles (32 kilometres) from Birkenhead Park via West Kirby, Hoylake, Moreton and Bidston, which those (including this writer) who are familiar with the Wirral Peninsular area will know is not entirely flat though also bordered by the Irish Sea and the estuary of the River Dee. There were 10 judges appointed and Wilkinson finished in 2:45:24, described as “a worthy winner”. There were 57 starters in the race aged from 13 to 58, and Wilkinson’s prize was a silver coffee-and-tea set, but there is no record of him attempting such a long distance again.  

His 2nd place to George Larner in the 1905 AAA Championships 2 miles walk was by a margin of as much as 150 yards, and it was reported of Larner that “he was always too good for his seven opponents and won as he liked”. Larner set a Championship record of 13:50.0 which would stand for 27 years, and so there was still some honour in defeat for Wilkinson.  Even so, in the same event three months after the 1906 Olympics he was disqualified when taking the lead from the eventual winner, Alfred Yeoumans, of Swansea, two laps from the finish. The correspondent for a highly popular London-based weekly magazine, “The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News”, remarked drily in regard to the winner, “Some of his opponents went in such dubious style that they were spared further useless effort by receiving the judges’ notice to quit the track”. No more is heard of Wilkinson, while Yeoumans, in turn, was disqualified in defence of his title the next year and was eliminated in the heats of the 1908 Olympic 10 miles walk.

Wilkinson’s equally over-eager rival, Eugen Spiegler, had been timed in 6:43.2 for the 1500 metres walk in the pre-Olympic Austrian trial race, which was a lot faster than Bonhag’s perhaps questionable 7:12⅗ and Linden’s 7:19⅘ at the Games. There is no question, though, as to who would have been the favourite to win in Athens had Britain sent a properly representative team. George Larner was the finest race-walker of the first decade of the 20th Century and had set a remarkable record for the 1 mile walk (1609 metres) in Manchester on 13 July 1904 of 6:26.0 – and could certainly have gone faster as this timing was en route to 2 miles.

Incidentally, the jurists’ ruling in both of those 1906 Olympic walking races meant that two of the valiant Greeks were rewarded for their sense of patriotic duty by receiving bronze medals – Konstantinos Spetsiosis at 1500 metres, Geórgios Saridákis at 3000 metres. Though very little is known about either of them, there is a reference in a 2018 Greek academic publication that Spetsiosis resigned from one club in Athens in 1905 because they would not help him get leave from military service and joined another in the city which was more supportive. He was described as an “athlete”, but there is no indication that he specialised in race walking.

As previously mentioned, the 1500 metres walk disappeared from the Olympic schedule after 1906, and it only seemed to survive on a regular basis for a while in indoor competition in the USA, where times were recorded of 6:08.8 by Louis Welch in 1934 through to 5:48.6 by Todd Scully in 1977. Reviving the memory of Eugen Spiegler, an Austrian, Martin Toporek, set a World best of 5:22.7 in 1983. Such has been the radical change in rules and mode of progression that further comparison is invidious, though it’s worth noting that the fastest ever times for 1500 metres and 1 mile are now 5:12.0 and 5:36.9 by Aldis Grigaliûnas, of Lithuania, in the same race in Vilnius, 12 May 1990. What, it has to be wondered, would Prince George have made of that ?

The memory of the 3000 metres walk winner at the 1906 Games, György Sztantics, remains very much vibrant in his city of origin. He was born on 19 August 1870 in Szabadka, which is now known as Subotica and is in Serbia, and his pre-Olympic race walking experience was at vastly greater distances, from 30 kilometres (3:08:48 in 1899) to 75 kilometres (8:16:24 in 1901). He retired from competition after 1906, though he, Bonhag and Spiegler were all listed as entries for the 10 miles walk at the 1908 London Olympics – no more than wishful thinking, perhaps. George Larner won that race by almost two minutes, having also won the 3500 metres walk three days previously. None of the other 1906 walkers competed in the 1908 Games.

Sztantics was an office worker in the Szabadka town hall and lived only a short life, dying  of a heart attack on 10 July 1918, at 39 years of age. In celebration of the centenary of his death, descendants in Szabadka planned to have a statue made and erected in his memory, but bureaucratic delays meant that the statue was not unveiled until 2019. Now it stands in a parkland corner of the city, and he’s in good company universally. Other Olympic champions recalled in statuary include Jesse Owens, Percy Williams, Arthur Wint, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Peter Snell and Steve Ovett.

Naturally taking an interest in a late compatriot, a Hungarian politician, sports administrator and journalist, Sándor Barcs, was the author of a 200-page history, “The Modern Olympics Story”, published in Budapest in 1964 in an English language edition, and what he has to say about the walks in Athens in 1906 makes much more dramatic reading than anything that either James E. Sullivan or John Fowler-Dixon were prepared to commit to print at the time. Barcs lived to the age of 97, but he was born in 1912 and so his account was not first-hand. His book is full of interesting anecdotes about the Games, some of which are marked maybe more by their entertainment value than factual accuracy, and in his observations about the 1500 metres walk the onus for disqualifications is shared between the jury and others who he describes as “umpires from all nations placed along the entire length of the route”:

“The scandal began when the Austrian umpire disqualified his countryman’s rival, a Briton, because in his opinion he was running. The Briton protested against the decision, claiming that he had been walking according to the rules, but since the decision of the umpire could not be over-ruled nothing could be done. But something nevertheless was done about it – in revenge the British umpire disqualified the Austrian walker. It is not surprising that a scandal broke out in a short time. The crowd forced its way on to the field and insulted the umpires verbally and physically. The result was that the race was won by Bonhag, who would not have stood an outside chance of winning if the British and Austrian contestants had not been disqualified”. 

The British “umpire” referred to would certainly have been the accomplished classics scholar and Greek linguist, George Stuart Robertson (later Sir George Stuart Robertson KC), who had attended the 1896 Games as a competitor and was, like Fowler-Dixon, an official AAA nominee in 1906. Prince George would have held Robertson’s opinion in high regard because Robertson had gone to the 1896 Athens Olympics and earned the lasting admiration of the Royal Family there for reciting an ode to athletic prowess which he had composed in Ancient Greek, and for which the King had awarded him an Olympic champion’s laurel wreath. Robertson had won the hammer throw for Oxford University in the Inter-Varsity matches of 1893-94-95 against Cambridge University, but the event was not held at the Athens Games and so he had enterprisingly competed in the discus and the tennis tournament instead. 

All this brouhaha may explain why Sullivan and Fowler-Dixon were reticent in their comments, and Sándor Barcs adds further to Olympic folk-lore by claiming that the 3000 metres walk was only then arranged at short notice for the next day to give the competitors a chance of redemption, whether or not they had been disqualified, and that Wilkinson and Spiegler were this time ruled out together after the finish because both lost their nerve when shoulder-to-shoulder in the last 50 metres and broke into a run. Even so, there was a cheery ending to the whole affair because Barcs says that the Mayor of the Hungarian winner’s home town sent instructions the following day that two barrels of wine should be bought at civic expense and set up for the competitors. “It was not very long before shrill singing filled the hall and the different nationalities were happily mixing”, Barcs concluded. 

George Bonhag’s 1912 Olympic success as a runner was achieved at the age of 30, and at the beginning of the following year the US sports press were ready to write him off, as has been the custom of such writers since time immemorial. The idea seemed to originate from a New York publication, the “Yonkers News”, and was then taken up by various other newspapers, but whether this was a widely syndicated agency report is difficult to clarify as newspapers in the USA and other countries made a habit in that era of filling space by copying articles which had appeared elsewhere. Whatever the source, the writer was adamant: “Who will succeed George Bonhag as the King of American distance-running ? The great Irish-American AC athlete, who for the past eight years has been hailed as King of any distance from three to five miles, has been losing his supremacy during the past year. In 1913 there promises to be the liveliest kind of interest as to who will occupy the throne the old champion must of necessity abdicate”. Various names were suggested as successors – Billy Kramer, Louis Scott, Harry Smith – but any Olympic ambitions they or many others might have had evaporated when the World War put paid to  the 1916 Games.

As it happens, the prediction of Bonhag’s demise by the Yonkers scribe was proved right, but it was an illustrious immigrant, rather than any locally-born runner, who donned that imaginary royal crown. The hero of the 1912 Olympics, Hannes Kolehmainen, had settled in New York and during the course of 1913 was credited with 14 US distance-running records, of which the most notable were a five miles indoors of 24:29⅕ and 10 miles indoors in 51:06⅗ and outdoors in 51:03⅖. Bonhag by now had become a teacher and coach, and when the US entered the war in 1917 he learned to fly and served as an aviation instructor, but the competitive urge remained and he satisfied it by reverting to the athletic discipline which had unexpectedly brought him his first Olympic success.

When he took up race-walking again in June 1917 he caused an immediate sensation by winning a 1 mile event at Travers Island, in New York, in 6:28⅗, which was less than a second slower than the accepted World record set by the rather more celebrated Olympic champion, George Goulding, in 1910. However, there was no less controversy about the validity of walking style than there had been in Athens 11 years previously, and Bonhag’s time was rejected when it came to committee scrutiny, though as none of the officials round the table had actually been at the race they ruled Bonhag’s time inadmissible because his entry was said to be not properly authorised. By way of confirmation for the doubters, Bonhag was disqualified after only two laps in another 1 mile walk organised by New York AC that year, and the “Toronto Globe” newspaper correspondent – no doubt remembering Bonhag’s contentious defeat of the Canadian, Donald Linden, at those Athens Olympics – remarked gleefully that Bonhag’s “stride was short, and he walked flat-footed with slack knees and a rolling hip motion”. Even less charitably, one of the race-walk judges that day, Bill Purdy, stated that Bonhag’s “mode of progression could not by any means go for straight heel-and-toe walking”. 

What did such criticism matter in the fullness of time ?  George Bonhag remains a cult figure in Olympic Games history – the winner of titles both as a walker and as a runner. Among the numerous apt tributes which continued to be paid to him over the years, Charles E. Parker was to write in his “Pittsburgh Press” column in 1936, “It was to Bonhag that folks referred when Paavo Nurmi came over here a few years ago and began his record-breaking orgy in the distance numbers. For Bonhag was the Paavo Nurmi of his era”.  Maybe that compliment is a shade overblown. Bonhag was no Nurmi, but then nobody else was in that age of a century and more ago.

Note: the timing of events in the early 20th Century was either to one-tenth of a second or one-fifth of a second. The Official Report of the 1906 Olympic Games was published in two languages, Greek and French, and is not included in the digital library of Official Olympic Reports available on the internet at “The Modern Olympics Story”, by Sándor Barcs, was published by Corvina Press, Budapest. “The 1912 Olympic Games: Results for All Competitors in All Events with Commentary”, by Bill Mallon and Tore Widlund, was published by McFarland & Company.



Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.