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British Olympic lives

By Mark Curthoys


The London Games have unsurprisingly stimulated renewed interest in Britain’s Olympic heritage. The National Archives has made available online records of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Games. Chariots of Fire (1981), the film which tells the story of the sprint gold medals won in Paris in 1924 by Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, has been re-released. English Heritage commemorative blue plaques have recently been unveiled in London at the homes of Abrahams and his coach Sam Mussabini. Historians meanwhile have been uncovering the roots of Olympianism in Britain, and tracing its relationship to national sporting traditions.

The challenge for the latest update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford DNB) has been both to tap into this scholarship and to extend it. Of course, the best-known figures already have entries: Robert Dover, the Gloucestershire lawyer who organized the Cotswold Olimpick Games in the early seventeenth century, is currently in a special feature on the history of the Olympics; and the life story of William Penny Brookes, a Shropshire medical practitioner who founded the Wenlock Olympian Games in the mid-nineteenth century, is available as an episode on the Oxford DNB’s free podcast. A new addition to the dictionary, however, is Robert Laffan, a schoolmaster and clergyman, whose advocacy of a moral dimension to sporting competition impressed the founder of the modern Olympic movement Pierre de Coubertin.

Another embodiment of Olympianism is the RAF officer Don Finlay, whose significance is established by Tony Mason, author of a recent study of Sport and the Military. Never a gold medallist, and therefore not accounted among the all-time greats, Finlay began his long and eventful Olympic career with a hurdling bronze at Los Angeles in 1932, having originally been placed fourth. Experimental use of high-speed cameras revealed that he had in fact crossed the line third, and after the medal ceremony the American who had been awarded bronze sportingly handed over their medal to him. As captain of the British athletics team in Berlin in 1936 he took part in the ‘eyes right’ gesture adopted by the British during the parade at the opening ceremony as an alternative to the Nazi salute, and he went on to take silver in the men’s hurdles. Then, after combat as a Spitfire ace in World War II, he took the Olympic Oath on behalf of the competitors at the London Games in 1948 only to stumble and fall in sight of the finishing tape in the qualifying heat of his own event.

‘Firsts’ are represented by Leicestershire textile worker and swimmer Jennie Fletcher, whose bronze in the 100 metres freestyle at Stockholm in 1912 (the first Olympiad where women’s swimming was part of the programme) was the first individual women’s swimming medal by a British competitor. She was also a gold medallist in the British 4×100 metre freestyle relay team, two of whose legs were swum by women from Scotland and Wales — a precursor, as sports historian Jean Williams points out, to the modern concept of Team GB. Jack London, born in British Guiana but resident for most of his life in the UK, foreshadowed another trend. Like Don Finlay, London never achieved gold, but his silver in the 100 metres in Amsterdam in 1928 — described by Martin Polley, author of the English Heritage book The British Olympics — made him the first black British medallist.

As research progressed, another significant and paradoxical story emerged: those sportspeople who didn’t or couldn’t take part in the Olympic Games. In a recent blog post, incoming general editor of the American National Biography, Susan Ware has observed that sporting biographies can reveal national complexity and diversity. This is well illustrated by those excluded from the Olympic movement on account of their gender. Pioneers of women’s sport have emerged as perhaps the most striking group of subjects to have been brought to light by research for the Oxford DNB’s latest update.

British competitors at the Women’s World Games of 1922, prior to the inclusion of women’s athletics in the Olympic programme. Source: Mirrorpix .

With a governing body dating from 1896, women’s hockey was a major success story in English sport, yet it was not included in the Olympic programme until 1980. Men’s hockey had found a place in 1908. Instead, an ambitious programme of international competition was promoted by the administrators of women’s hockey, notably Edith Thompson, whose life reveals an imperial dimension to her sporting activity.

Calls for the inclusion of women’s athletics into the Olympic programme were rebuffed and alternative games were held between 1921 and 1934, variously named the Women’s Olympiad, Women’s Olympic Games, and Women’s World Games. In a collective entry on the first generation of women in Britain to participate in official organized athletic events, Mel Watman, the historian of the Women’s Athletic Association, recovers their track and field records, and their lives — many of which ended in obscurity, their fame in the 1920s largely forgotten by the time of their deaths in the late twentieth century. They include the team of five women sprinters who set out from London in 1932 to represent Great Britain at the Los Angeles Games, where they took bronze in the relay.

Even more of an outsider, and an exemplar of what Philip Carter has described as the type of ‘unknown’ life, was the woman marathon runner, Violet Piercy. Her long-distance runs, undertaken decades before the women’s marathon was admitted to the Olympic programme (1984), have regularly been cited in histories of distance running, while she herself remains highly visible on newsreel archive sites. But who was she, and how authentic were her runs? The most fully documented account of her life and career has been compiled for the update by crime writer and athletics historian Peter Lovesey. It reveals both the substantial nature of her achievement and yet the continuing mystery of much of her life, largely spent in the urban anonymity of South London. She was not herself an Olympian, but she blazed a trail a solitary trail for those who were.

Mark Curthoys is research editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. To mark the London Olympics, the Oxford DNB has a special feature highlighting 22 historical British Olympians from the Athens Games of 1896 to Mexico City in 1968.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century. The Dictionary offers concise, up-to-date biographies written by named, specialist authors. It is overseen by academic editors at Oxford University, UK, and published by Oxford University Press.

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