Wyndham Halswelle

Wyndham Halswelle

Athlete and soldier - (1882 - 1915)

This is a tale of courage, imperialism, farce and tragedy. It is also the story of Scotland's first Olympic Gold medal athlete, Wyndham Halswelle.

Wyndham Halswelle was born to Scottish parents in London in 1882. He was privately educated at one of the top-people's public school's, Charterhouse, where his athletic abilities were first noticed. Like many men from moneyed families, on leaving school Wyndham Halswelle joined the army. Not as a spud-peeling squaddy, but to do his officer training at Sandhurst.

On passing-out he accepted a commission in the Highland Light Infantry (the only Scottish regiment that favoured trews over the kilt) and was shipped off to South Africa to fight the Boer. Any athletic career was on hold until his return in 1904.

Once he got started, there was little stopping Wyndham Halswelle. At the Scottish Athletics Championships in 1905, he won the 100, 220, 440 and 880 yard races - all on the same afternoon. An injury prevented him from competing in 1906 so he marked his return to competition in 1907 with a new world record in that well-recognised distance, the 300 yard dash.

The 1908 Olympic Games were supposed to have taken place in Rome. Unfortunately, a particularly violent eruption of Vesuvius in 1906 caused severe financial problems for the Italian government and the games were moved to London.

This would be the first games where the now familiar opening ceremony sight of competing nations marching behind their nations flag in sporting costume would be witnessed. And that's where the trouble began.

During the opening ceremony, those damn bloody cheeky American chappies refused to dip their flag when passing in front of King Edward VII who was sitting on his royal arse in the Royal Box. The British officials were outraged and the Americans would pay for their effrontery.

The scene was set for some traditional stiff-upper-lip revenge and the 440 yards final would provide the stage.

The ensemble for the 440 final would be familiar today. It was dominated by American athletes. The rest of the world was represented by Wyndham Halswelle. Three Yanks and one plucky Scotsman. Give him his due though, on racing form, Halswelle was the favourite.

British officials were so concerned that the damn bloody Yanks would gang up on our man, that they positioned officials at 20 yard intervals around the track to ensure fair play. And as everyone knows, Americans are completely incapable of fighting fair. During the race, the American athlete Carpenter blocked Halswelle as the latter sought to overtake him. The officials called “foul”, Carpenter was disqualified and the race ordered to be re-run.

The result was an unseemly spectacle as American athletes and officials remonstrated publicly and heatedly with the British officials. The partisan crowd spilled onto the field and for a moment the prospect of a Marathon-sized riot was imminent. London's finest, in the form of Bobbies with truncheons drawn, restored order.

The two remaining American athletes refused to take part in the re-arranged final. So the very odd spectacle of a one man Olympic final was run and Halswelle, unsurprisingly, came first.

Halswelle made a farewell appearance at a Glasgow Rangers sports day in 1908 and never ran competitively again.

In March 1915, while commanding his troops at the Battle of Neuve Chappele in France, Captain Wyndham Halswelle was wounded by a sniper's bullet. He insisted on returning to the front line once his wound had been bandaged. Later in the day, he was shot in the head by the same sniper and killed instantly.

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