Harold Porter was the most versatile runner in Yorkshire in the early 1920s, winning county titles at 880 yards, one mile and three miles, and he was selected for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris – the famed “Chariots of Fire” Games. His event there was one which was immediately afterwards dropped from the future schedule but was nevertheless of considerable significance at the time, and not least for the fact that it provided the greatest athlete of that era, Paavo Nurmi, “The Flying Finn”, with his fourth gold medal in four days.
This was the 3000 metres team race for which nine countries had each entered up to six runners, with three to score, and to nobody’s surprise Finland easily won the final, with Nurmi the first individual home in a World-record time. Great Britain took 2nd place, thanks to Bertram Macdonald, Herbert Johnston and George Webber, who were 3rd, 4th and 7th respectively. Harold Porter was 10th of the 23 competitors and may even have received a silver medal himself, but if so he has never been officially credited with the accomplishment and certainly deserves to be.
Research by an eminent French athletics historian, Jacques Carmelli, has shown that at the International Olympic Committee congress in Lausanne in 1921 it was decided that for the 1924 Games “dans les épreuves par équipes tous les participants ayant effectivement pris part à l’épreuve auront droit à la médaille et au diplôme correspondant aux prix gagné par l’équipe”, which translates as “in the team events all the participants taking part in the event have the right to the medal and the diploma corresponding to the prize won by the team”. The exact wording in the French-language is repeated in the Official Report of the 1924 Olympics after the Games, but no one had appreciated the significance of the statement for almost a century until Monsieur Carmelli made his discovery. Thus Harold Porter, who was a member of York Harriers, and his two other non-scoring team-mates, Arthur Clark and William Seagrove, should have long since been recognised as bona fide silver-medalists.
The same applies to as many as 15 runners from other countries who took part but were not scorers in the 3000 metres team race or the cross-country event, which included team medals. Of these, 10 did not finish the course – only 14 of 38 starters did so in a heat-wave affected cross-country – but the IOC’s 1921 decision was not well thought out and made no provision for this eventuality. In theory, a competitor in either of these races could have taken one step, dropped out, and still been entitled to a medal – even gold!. i
Walter Harold Porter had been born on 30 August 1903 in York. He left school at the age of 14 to work eventually as a clerk in the electrical department of York Corporation and stayed there for the next 50 years until his retirement in 1967 from what had become the North Eastern Electricity Board. It is very doubtful that he ever made a fuss about not receiving his medal, and maybe he was never aware throughout his life that he was entitled to one. Certainly he never complained to his colleagues at work because at his retirement presentation they were apparently astonished to hear that he had even once been an Olympic runner.
This tale illustrating Porter’s unassuming nature is told in a book about York’s Olympic competitors over the years, written by a prolific local author, Van Wilson, and published by the York Archaeological Trust in 2012. The information for the chapter about Harold Porter was provided by a nephew of Porter’s, Mike Race, who had been researching the subject since the 1990s and had written an article for the ‘York Family History Magazine” in 2009 describing the frustrating trail which he followed as he tried to establish if his uncle truly was an Olympic silver-medalist. .
Mr Race, now aged 80, recalls: “Harold Porter was married to my Aunt Agnes and I knew him quite well. I was very close to his son, Noel, and visited him regularly at the family home at Upper Price Street, in York, in the late 1940s and through the 1950s. Harold was a very pleasant chap but highly strung and not out-going. I was quite staggered when one day my Dad told me that ‘Uncle Harold had won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games’. That was it for a number of years until the 1990s when I had occasion to visit Noel, who had moved away from York. He showed me the meda l, but it was, in fact, a competitor’s medal. I told Noel that I’d do what I could to find out more”.
After researching at York Reference Library and establishing the basic facts of Great Britain’s silver medal team, Mr Race says, “Now it was time to check the ‘Yorkshire Evening Press’ as without doubt it would have reports of the ‘local hero’. Not really! The YEP of 12 July 1924 had 10 lines of text concerning the Olympic Games but didn’t mention Harold Porter’s semi-final run. However, the following Tuesday, 15 July, there it was although tucked away and not given anything like the prominence of the headline stories of the week – an article describing his achievements, the team’s success in coming 2nd, and how he was received by the Prince of Wales in Paris. So now we knew. Harold Porter received a silver medal, and confirmation of his entitlement to the medal was made on an inquiry by me to the British Olympic Association”.
Yet the story does not end there. After his article had been published, Mr Race checked further on the internet and found a source that stated that only the scoring athletes received medals. So doubts still remained. Ms Wilson (“Van” is an abbreviation of “Evangeline”) comments about Porter’s experience in Paris that “what made it doubly hard for him was that George Webber, the third British man in the race, did not even finish the semi-final heat … yet was allowed to run in the final”. This is a fair point based on the facts known to the writer but doesn’t take account that this was a team event with very specific tactical considerations.
The Official Report of the 1924 Games includes numerous excellent photographs of the various athletics events, and those for the 3000 metres team event are particularly instructive. The qualifying heat was obviously a formality because the Report says that “there was no struggle for two qualifying places”. Finns finished 1-2-3 and Britons 4-5-6, with the runners from Norway, Italy and Poland trailing in behind. Porter was 4th, Johnston 5th and Macdonald 6th, with Seagrove backing them up in 9th place, whereas Clark is listed as being 21st and Webber 22nd of the 23 runners.
It seems logical that once it was obvious that Great Britain would qualify this latter pair eased off to save themselves for the final. This sense of strategy is confirmed by a photograph of the first lap of the final, showing Arthur Clark already dashing some 10 metres into the lead in what must have been a bid to lure runners from other teams into a pace that they would not be able to sustain. Furthermore, the Official Report notes that another of the Britons, William Seagrove, led at 1500 metres. Clark eventually finished 14th and Seagrove 16th of the 23 starters. It could be argued that the readiness of two members of the team to sacrifice themselves in the greater interest is further justification – morally, at least – that all six Britons deserved silver medals, and not just the scoring threesome.
Support for that belief comes from Finland where the leading Olympic expert, Veka Tikander, says in reference to the non-scoring Finnish runners that “none of these gentlemen received gold medals at the time, and they all went to their graves in blissful ignorance of ever having been Olympic champions”. Furthermore, Bill Mallon, from the USA, recognised as the World’s leading expert on the complexities of Olympic history, has acknowledged the problem in relation to Harold Porter and the other lost medalists. He has written more than 20 books re-examining Olympic results and believes that the time has come to classify medals as both “actual” and “virtual”. .
The 3000 metres distance then as now was not a standard event, and the British selections had been made on the basis of the one mile final at the AAA Championships at Stamford Bridge on 21 June. Seagrove, who was a Cambridge University graduate and a member of the Achilles Club, won in 4:21 1/5 by three yards from Johnston, of Herne Hill Harriers, with Porter only two yards further back in 3rd place. Webber (Highgate Harriers) was 4th and Macdonald (Birchfield Harriers) was 6th. The 5th-placed man, Cyril Ellis, also of Birchfield, ran in the 1500 metres instead in Paris.
Porter had been an instant success when he took up serious running, placing 2nd in the Leeds & District cross-country race for boys aged 16 to 18 in 1920 and then winning the Yorkshire county youths’ title the following year. This was a three-mile event which – typical of the era – made huge demands on the physical capabilities of the young competitors. The course at Acomb Hall, some two miles from York, was made up of two laps containing hills, hedges, ditches and plough-land, and the following Monday’s “Yorkshire Evening Post” had more to say to describe the drama of the occasion; “Excitement began early when the police took possession of some bookmakers and motored them away”. What, one wonders, were the odds being quoted on Porter ?
A future England cross-country international representative, Walter Beavers, was a York Harriers clubmate of Porter’s, but both of them were to prosper more as track runners. Beavers was three years younger than Porter and eventually was to win the British Empire Games three miles in 1934, by which time Porter was long since retired from the sport. Porter’s fastest times – the mile in 4:21 4/5 for 2nd place at the 1923 English Championships and two miles in 9:56 I/5 at Thrum Hall, Halifax, in 1922 – seem very ordinary by the standards of almost a century later. – but they were highly commendable for the era in which they were set.
The peerless Paavo Nurmi had set a World record for the mile of 4:10 2/5 in 1923, but he was in a class by himself, and the only Britons faster than Porter that year were Charles Blewitt, who beat him for the English title, and Hyla Stallard, who would be the Olympic bronze-medalist at 1500 metres the next year – and they were both a mere one-fifth of a second quicker. Porter was able to occupy himself gainfully most Saturdays of each summer with handicap or scratch races at the half-mile, mile or two miles at various local sports meetings throughout Yorkshire and neighbouring Lincolnshire.
So far as can be established from available data, he only ever competed further afield on five occasions – in 1923 at the English Championships in Manchester; in 1924 at the AAA Championships in London, the Olympic Games and then in the British Empire-v-USA match, also at Stamford Bridge; and in 1926, when he was 7th in the AAA Championships mile, again at Stamford Bridge. The all-English Empire team at 4 x 1 mile (Porter, Ellis, Macdonald, Johnston) held its own against the Americans until the last stage when Johnston was well beaten.
Harold Porter retired from competition after 1926, and he died in York on 3 August 1979, aged 75. .
Note: Van Wilson’s book is entitled “It’s How You Play The Game: Olympic Sports in York”, www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk. Thanks to Mike Race for his tireless research. There are 14 other competitors from Finland, France and the USA in the 3000 metres team event and the cross-cxountry race at the 1924 Olympics who were non-scorers but should also be considered as silver-medalists, according to the IOC ruling.