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The Almost Milers

Wednesday August 8, 2012

The 1,500 meter competition was one of the most exciting of the first London Olympics.   It took place in the opening week in the stadium on the 13th and 14th of July 1908.   The weather wasn’t good, but the field – for the time – was.    


The Brits expected to win easily.     They had a strong team led by George Butterfield, the holder of the AAA title from 1905-1907 and the man who ran the world’s fastest mile in 1906.   Butterfield, born in Stockton on Tees in the North East of England, was a 29 year old barman from Darlington who ran with Darlington Harriers.    The local press liked to tell how he once ran a race with a greyhound.  The dog came in second. 


George Butterfield, however, fell foul of an issue that caused great controversy among the visiting athletes at the first London Olympics – namely, the British Athletics organisers’ insistence that only the winner of each heat should qualify for the final.    The American team protested from the very beginning this local quirk, for it meant that it came down to the luck of the draw as to whether a country's best medal hopes were pitted against one another in a first round heat.  (The draws were made in secret too – which didn’t help confidence.)


In the 1,500 contest, for instance, GB’s Joe Deakin, winner of Heat 6, got into the final with a time of 4:13.6 when George Butterfield was knocked out with a time of 4:11.8 because he had the misfortune to be drawn in Heat 2 alongside the US star of the Irish American AC, Mel Sheppard.  Unfortunately for George, in Heat 2 Mel Sheppard, a 24 year old from New Jersey, set a new Olympic record with a time of 4:05.0.


(This was all the more unfortunate, since Joe Deakin was running in the team race later that day and had been asked to save his energies for that - so he was never likely to do that well in the 1,500 m.)


Sheppard’s record didn’t stand very long that time.   In the very next heat, Britain’s Norman Hallows, a 21 year old from Doncaster studying at Oxford University, broke it with a time 4:03.4, only just defeating Italy’s Emilio Lunghi, whose time of 4:03.8 would have won any of the other seven heats.

The British, however, were still confident they would carry off gold.   Their bet was on little HA Wilson, a 5ft 4 tall, 22-year-old born in Horncastle, Lincoln who had won the British Olympic trials with a world record setting time of 3:59.9 that May.   



Besides, numerically speaking, the odds were in favour of Team GB.   Among the eight runners who lined up for the final, at 17.20 on Tuesday, 14 of July, five were British.   They  faced one Canadian, John Tait and two American champions from the famous Irish American Athletic Club of New York: Mel Sheppard  and Jim Sullivan – knicknamed “4:22 Jim” by his team-mates for running the mile in 4:22.5 in 1905.   (For those, like me, confused by the difference – the mile translates as 1,609.35 meters and so takes a bit longer to run than the 1,500 meter race.)

The weather that Tuesday wasn’t conducive to great performances.   ‘The temperature was low,’ one sports journalist recorded, ‘and a strong wind, laden with moisture, blew across the field, where the athletes sat shivering in blankets.’   At the best count, only 18,000 spectators sat huddled on the benches of the 80,000 seater White City stadium braving the mizzle. 

The race, however, was thrilling.   Irishman Ivo Fairbairn-Crawford, a student at Dublin University, led off, holding his lead until the last third of the race, pressed by Wilson and JP Sullivan.   Then, on the back straight Wilson pulled ahead with Norman Hallows at his heels.

 [Wilson] ‘led at the last bend, making the pace a cracker,’ wrote the Sporting Life reporter, ‘while Sullivan closed up with Hallows, but in the straight Sheppard came at a great pace, and, catching Wilson about 15 yards from the tape, won a grand race by about a couple of yards; Hallows, about 10 yards away, third.  Sullivan, who was lying fourth close to home, did not pass the judges.’


Mel Sheppard had matched Norman Hallow’s freshly made Olympic record with a time of  4:03.4.       Sheppard's gold medal was one of 8 Olympic gold medals won by members of the Irish American Athletic Club of New York that year.    8 medals out of  the 13  Olympic gold medals the track and field stars of the US team brought back from the first London Olympics (out of a possible 23 firsts open for contest in track and field that Olympics).  It was a glorious achievement.

Mel Sheppard with the US team manager, Matt Halpin, at the WhiteCity Stadium, July 14 1908

 A correspondent – Terry Sullivan, the grandson of JP Sullivan has written about his grandfather’s experiences that day. [Read Terry's article here

I particularly like the bit about how Jim Sullivan was coaxed into his athletic career by a local policeman.  It reflects the strong community and culture that lay behind the success of that golden generation of New York Irish American athletes.    & Jim's conviction that he had been poisoned by British food reminds me of a US cartoon of the time...



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