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The Marathon Makers
A Century Ago Three Heroes Changed the Course of the Olympics This is Their Dramatic True Story
By John Bryant
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2008 John Bryant
All rights reserved.
Once a Winner
Wyndham Halswelle peeled off his shirt and twisted it between powerful hands until the sweat splashed dark patches like blood on the parched, dusty track. He smiled at the man screwing his eyes up at a watch.
'I can win this, even here,' he said. 'About the only thing that can stop me is a bullet in the back – I can beat them all.'
'You can,' said the trooper, 'but it's not the Dutchmen you've got to worry about, it's the men who line up alongside you.'
Wyndham Halswelle, young, strong and a soldier, knew all about winning; it had filled his life for as long as he could remember. He searched for the smell of it, the secret of it everywhere. He saw the prospect of winning on the flags of armies, in the stride of an athlete, in the courage of a statesman and in the physical perfection of a warrior.
Halswelle was born on 30 May 1882, at No. 4 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly, in the heart of the great British Empire. He was born into a city that seemed to rule the world, a city full of energy that could inspire great literature and a tumult of ideas. Here was the Westminster that laid down the laws that echoed around the world. But here too, just a few miles to the east, was Whitechapel, home of Jack the Ripper, where a man might tear your life and your dreams apart under the cover of darkness.
Halswelle's father was an artist and a prosperous one. His mother, Helen, came from a traditional army background. She was fiercely proud of her grandfather, Nathaniel Gordon, a major general in the Indian Army, who carried his scars and his medals with pride.
There was much talk of military tradition, of Scotland and of his father, Keeley Halswelle, who earned his living as a watercolourist and had exhibited in London and Edinburgh. Keeley travelled frequently to Paris and Italy, looking for the light and for inspiration. He was an associate of the Royal Academy and when he died in Paris in April 1891, his estate was valued at around £2 million in today's terms.
As a child, Wyndham looked up to his mother, that fierce upholder of the family military tradition. Mama always said he would be a soldier. Born in London, he wrapped himself in his Scottish heritage. Occasionally he would play with his older brother, Gordon – christened with the family name that his mother admired so much – but from the age of five, Wyndham lived in a world of his own. He was forever playing soldiers.
On the days when it rained, he would manoeuvre his armies of tin soldiers in the drawing room of the family home in Richmond. Then, whenever the sun shone, he would be out in the garden or the park, marching and drilling his brother and his imaginary troops on the well-kept lawn there. Sometimes he would sport the uniform that his mother had bought for him. He dreamed his dreams and nothing in or out of school so preoccupied him as tales of chivalry and knights fighting in single combat.
As a teenager, Wyndham was strikingly fluid. He moved with an animal grace and the languid, loose-limbed lilt of a cricketer. At school, the younger boys were mesmerised, hanging around him and hero-worshipping him a little, drawn by his magnetism and his athleticism. They would do anything for him and would quarrel over who would scrape the mud from his studded boots, who would massage the grease into the soft leather of his running spikes.
The mothers of other boys who visited the school would smile at his easy good looks and his cascading blond hair. By fifteen, he was winning all the foot races at school, but as his schooldays drew to a close, he was excited by the rumblings of the war to come in South Africa, a war that would test and harden the soldiers of the Queen in battle.
Young Wyndham longed to get out of Charterhouse School and into Sandhurst, Britain's Royal military academy, where he could train to be a real soldier. His greatest fear was that the war would be over by Christmas; he ached for the chance to fall in with the others tramping off to the troop ships to the haunting marching tune of 'Goodbye Dolly Gray'. When he signed up for Sandhurst at his mother's insistence, his father struggled with his own disappointment that his talented boy would cut himself off from his artistic side. But Keeley Halswelle understood that most young men were only interested in war, young girls and sport. For Wyndham, the world was just awakening and he was interested in all these things.
Photographs were rare enough at this time, but one captured the young Wyndham caught between school and the military academy, showing his youthful spirits, vaulting with a grin over his sister-in-law Ethel. Another caught him long jumping over a wheelbarrow on those well-trimmed lawns in Richmond.
Halswelle was determined to demonstrate to his father that he could achieve things in the world on his own account, that he too could be a winner. And to do so he did not have to prove himself, either in the artistic studio of his father or in the regiment of his mother. Sport was his canvas: he would win his races and he would remember with a smile the admiring knots of schoolboys cheering his victories and saluting his triumphs.
That summer, as the war in South Africa warmed up, he gave his father a glimpse of the different kind of artist that he himself could be – an artist on the track. At Sandhurst, the admiring schoolboys were now replaced by senior officers who recognised, however fleetingly, that they were being seduced by the magic of a man in motion. For Wyndham Halswelle really could run. Even among fine sprinters, men who fancied themselves as quick movers and who were so fancied by others, this was an exceptional man.
A boy like that, the officers would say, needs a trainer, someone to show him how to be a great champion. Such men existed, but mainly across the Atlantic, where the New World's first athletic coaches were already issuing orders to their well-drilled squads and where they reckoned that men like Halswelle lacked the killer instinct. In England, they would say, they churn out good losers but there's no such thing as a good loser – it's kill or be killed. In sport it is always the winning that matters. But for Halswelle running was about far more than just winning, it was an expression of the human body, of rhythm and grace, strength and belief. He loved to win, of course, but for him the satisfaction was to do it on a level playing field in an even contest.
Sometimes he would share his philosophy of winning with his friends at Sandhurst. They would smile over a drink and a cigar, and the soldiers would joke that all this talk of fair play would someday be the death of young Halswelle.CHAPTER 2
A Taste of Defeat
In spring 1902, Wyndham Halswelle's affair with the running track came to an abrupt end. He and his regiment were packed off to South Africa, where Lord Kitchener was mopping up the war. Here, he was to get his first taste of action.
Once again, Wyndham was a six-year-old drilling his tin soldiers on the lawn, taking on the enemy face to face in single combat as he had done in his playground fantasies. Life at the front, though, turned out to be very different. There were huge periods of inactivity while he would kick his heels waiting for the chance to be a hero, but there were other opportunities to play the hero on the playing field or on the running track.
When Halswelle landed in South Africa in 1902, he just caught the end of that strange business, the Boer War. The Boers, who were the off-cuts of Dutch colonialists, were keen to fight for their independence from Britain but they were not so keen to bring the benefits of democracy to those who had descended on this part of the world in search of gold and diamonds – the get-rich-quick merchants. Certainly, they were completely against any idea of extending the franchise to the black population, the indigenous people they found in the land in which they made their home.
As soon as Halswelle moved with his regiment, the Highland Light Infantry, towards the front, he found that the fighting had descended into a messy guerrilla conflict. He was keen to fulfil his dream of getting a taste of the action but his vision of himself was as a soldier, someone who would take on an opponent in a fair fight man to man, face to face. This war was baffling to the young soldier; it was a dirty war.
Wyndham Halswelle had been brought up with a code of chivalry that was remarkable for its lack of realism. Fellow troopers would talk of snipers and the guns that could deliver death without the giveaway trail of smoke emitting from their own British rifles. Given half a chance, they would say, these Dutchmen will shoot you in the back.
Life outside the city of Bloemfontein was a mixture of infrequent fighting and unbearable boredom. The troops would arrange spontaneous cricket and football matches, picnics, fêtes and parties. They weren't always peaceful either, for there was plenty of drink around. Fights would break out, and gambling, which could land you on a charge, was rife. There was no shortage of women or civilians around the block houses and tented camps. Plenty of men had wives and children back in Britain, but that never stopped them from picking up the women around the camp.
Halswelle shone at cricket and football, though rugby, his chosen game, was not popular among the men. Almost every morning, he would be found running around the camp to keep in shape and a lot of his off-duty hours were spent complaining about the nature of the war and the conduct of the Boers.
His daydreams at Sandhurst invariably had him facing hordes of fanatical natives or the disciplined ranks of crack European troops. There was glory in that daydream. But Halswelle and his fellow officers shared their doubts and sometimes contempt for the Boers, who, though God-fearing, did not shape up as an acceptable enemy. They were scruffy and had no professional army as such; often they wore no uniform either.
Plenty of men in the regiment knew of Halswelle's reputation as a runner.
'Why don't you take a race here?' they would ask, but Wyndham seemed wary of racing far from the organised meetings he had known back in Britain. He would watch and shake his head at the sight of a few men toeing a line scratched in the dirt, then barging their way to the finish.
This was never quite the way it was at Sandhurst, where the track was marked out with painted white lines on firm grass, measurements were accurate and the starter controlled everything. You ran to orders there, but here the course was a roughly pacedout distance over hard, dusty, uneven ground. Close to the battlefront there was no finishing tape, no fancy running, and nowhere to dig decent holes for your spiked shoes on the starting line. But when the requests to run turned to taunts, Wyndham thought again. Perhaps he might race there, after all.
His appearance on the track was enough to stir groups of soldiers to watch him in action. They knew this tall, muscled, slightly tanned man, whose white vest contrasted with the reddening of his skin, had been a champion; his very appearance could cause a ripple of excitement. It was not that often you got the chance to see a runner of his calibre in action. You could only guess what was likely to happen when a man like this toed the line.
If there is one thing that excites spectators, it is the chance to witness a champion performing, asserting his dominance with power and authority. But they can be excited, perhaps even more so, by the prospect of seeing a champion, a certainty, toppled and humbled by a dark horse. The bookmakers love to see that too, and some of the officers remembered the time back at Sandhurst when even the mighty Halswelle tripped and fell hard on the track.
Gambling always seemed to be in evidence whenever such impromptu race meetings were organised by the regiment in South Africa. 'Evens on the field,' the bookies would murmur, and the murmur would breeze around the camp. Of course, they shouldn't have been there, for betting was strictly prohibited. But when it came to gambling or taking prisoners, you could always find an officer who seemed blind or deaf. It was difficult to stop a trooper from putting a handful of shillings on a runner they fancied, or a race where they seemed certain of the outcome.
Win or lose, this was the chance to see a gifted runner in action. Where, they wondered, did he get that extra ingredient that makes one athlete dominant? Sometimes technical differences make a champion – some wear spiked shoes, others dig starting holes, while cork grips may be strapped to the hands with elastic bands, for there was a theory that sprinters ran faster if they had something to grip onto.
But none of these techniques accounted for Halswelle's superiority. Whenever he lined up for races, he looked preoccupied, aloof almost; slowly and silently he moved to the start. But even here, so far from Sandhurst, one sensed the starter's orders would spark an explosion.
'Strip out, gentlemen, please!' came the booming command. The crowd would hush, waiting to catch a glimpse of the eight or nine figures crouching to strain for the first smoke of the gun that would pitch them forwards like shots from a sniper. For a moment, they would be frozen and the stomachs of the spectators would flutter as they held their breath, waiting to witness the young, fit men fighting to get the better of each other in this trial of strength, speed and will.
Then they'd be off, with some heavy-footed and making fierce noises as they moved, others staying too long in contact with the South African soil between strides. Their facial expressions were quite extraordinary too. Teeth were clenched in ferocious or agonised grimaces. Some looked as though they were snarling. Heads would be thrown back or jerked to one side; arms thrashed wildly instead of pumping in time with the legs. Energy would be spent recklessly as torsos rocked and twisted. It was like watching men trying to grab a lifeline just out of reach.
But when Halswelle came out of the holes he had scraped at the start, he was a revelation. You could see that he had a gift, that he ran with fire in his belly. Once he took off, he seemed to gain a yard or two just by starting.
It was hard to believe that a man could fly into action so quickly. There was no slow build-up, no hesitancy, no changing of gear. Ruthlessly, smoothly, the legs produced a stride that could cut through the opposition like a sword on the battlefield. The body was steady, the face showed no strain. Arms and legs moved forward with no sideways sway; the head looked as though it were floating, with no rise and no fall – it was all poise, pace and purpose.
Like an arrow snapped from a bowstring, he reached towards a finish that wasn't just a simple piece of rope between two posts but a declaration of his rightful place as a champion. For other runners a race was fun, a gamble, a game – maybe a way to a prize – but to Wyndham Halswelle it was a declaration of his identity.
'By God,' one of the troopers muttered, his eyes shining as he watched him run, 'he's got class!' But even as he ran, the gambling men, those who had taken the illicit bets, knew what was to come.
As Halswelle eased ahead, one man clawing his way down the track stretched forwards a hand and clipped his trailing leg. Suddenly, the beauty of the arrow that seemed to be heading straight for the target was thrown off-course. Halswelle tripped, one leg smacked against the other, then he lurched. It was his own speed, his own purity of motion, that brought him crashing down.
He fell heavily, his hands scraped red raw by the sand. His knees, from which the blood dripped, left stains where the blood met the dust of the veldt. Halswelle shook his head in anger: he had been way in front and the other runners knew it, but he had been robbed. It was enough to make him want to throw the whole thing in.
Looking down at him was a trooper shaking his own head in disbelief. The man who hauled Halswelle to his feet that day was a squat, tough-looking member of the regiment with an accent that reeked of the borders between England and Scotland. His name was Jimmy Curran.
'You need to learn a thing or two, sir,' he said, looking down at the fallen man. It was a meeting that was to change both their lives.
Excerpted from The Marathon Makers by John Bryant. Copyright © 2008 John Bryant. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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