Track Stats - Malcolm Nokes

Subtle concentration of great power in his own hands, or an instrument of national pride?

International matches were a highly important feature of the British athletics season from the beginning of the 1920s through to the 1960s. The first dual meeting with France took place in 1921 and the series against Germany started in 1929, though the selection was made on behalf of England, rather than Great Britain, until 1931. During the remainder of the 1930s fixtures were also undertaken with Italy, Finland and Norway. One of the few British field-events athletes to score maximum points was Malcolm Nokes, the Olympic hammer bronze-medallist of 1924, who won on three occasions against France, and when the AAA celebrated its 50th anniversary Nokes was asked to write about his experiences for the book, “Fifty Years of Progress 1880-1930: The Jubilee Souvenir of the Amateur Athletic Association”. His highly entertaining article, which still strikes many familiar chords almost 80 years after it was written, was reproduced in “Track Stats” May 2009.

Political assassination is dying out. Committees of experts and societies for the prevention of others from doing what they want to do are running and ruling democracies the World over. The individual is in abeyance; he is a unit, a mere member of a group, and only in some subtle manner and by some subterfuge can he concentrate great power in his own hands. It is true that men still have their heroes – they still single out some individual with one or more of the qualities of greatness and pay their homage to an idol who is usually only too conscious of their plaudits, and occasionally unworthy of them. Individual combat has gone by the board, a “one-man show” is now a term of reproach, and hermits are as rare as cinder tracks in England. Instead, there are cliques, clubs, cartels, syndicates, unions and teams. The star is no longer in the ascendant. The constellation has eclipsed the star and has replaced it as a working unit.

Individual Championships are still held and serve many useful purposes. They permit the athlete to reveal his capabilities, and they provide the onlooker with a spectacle which is often of the highest class; but, above all, they are useful for the selecting of representative teams for competition between the larger social units, and especially between nations It is the working of such international teams that is being considered here, in all its bearings.

The controversy between individualism and collectivism is of long standing and has produced no generally acceptable theoretical solution. But in practice it is found that man delights in concerted organised effort and the athletic team is a manifestation of his desires. An international team, then, is a collection of fine athletic specimens – each the best available of its kind – and it is brought into existence as an instrument of national pride, as an advertisement of national prowess. The function of each member is to achieve a performance better than that of any member of the opposing team in his event, to co-operate with and to assist the members of his own team where this is possible, as it is in relay racing and middle distance running, and by the irradiation of his personality to stimulate the other members of his team to produce their best and most efficient form. Such characteristics are not seen at a Championship Meeting.

The Roman Emperors maintained their popularity in the capital by giving the people free bread and circuses. Modern Governments provide free bread, but only for those who will not or cannot find work. Replacing the circus of Roman times, there are pageants of many kinds today. Some are provided by Governments; such civic spectacles as the Lord Mayor's Show being a case in point, as are also the various displays organised by the fighting Services. A private rowing match between two bodies of students using eight-oared racing boats has also assumed the status of a free national pageant. Many other circus-substitutes exist, but most of them are not free. They are in many cases commercial ventures, like professional football, and in others certain expenses are involved which have to be collected from the public by the promoting body. Athletic matches belong to the last class.

It is interesting to notice that there is a tendency for the athletic match to take on the characteristics of pure pageantry. This is particularly true on the Continent, where such matches are usually preceded by a march of the athletes round the arena – an act of pure display which serves no specifically athletic purpose. Also, in the Olympic Games (which have taken upon them something of the character of a team event, although they are essentially individual Championships), the first day is entirely devoted to a parade of the competitors, with brass bands, symbolic ritual, oath-taking, and the letting off of maroons, flocks of pigeons, and high spirits.

The international matches are of great value in educating athletically the public of the countries in which they are held. The mere title of the meeting is a draw without specifying the performers taking part in it, with the result that a large number of promising but immature athletes are given the opportunity of seeing their own event competently performed. It is precept that is of importance, more especially in field events. The athlete of the younger generation must see the thing well done – the visual image will remain with him and he will be able to improve his own form in consequence. This is, unfortunately, hardly true with the track events. A keen but somewhat sluggish half-miler is unlikely to improve his performance by seeing the distance run in 1 min 54 sec.

The actual meeting, whether between England and France, England and Germany, or the annual triangular match between England, Scotland and Ireland, can be considered from three points of view.

The spectators, or “crowd”, most of whom have paid for admission, are important because their entry fees pay for the travelling expenses and entertainment of the teams. They are almost always enthusiastic, being stirred by patriotic feelings, if by nothing else. National differences are easily recognised. The English crowd has marked preferences for certain events and loves a close finish. It is almost entirely uneducated in the appreciation of field events, which are admittedly tedious in that the climax, if there is one, is obvious only to those who are in the immediate vicinity of the competitors. The Scottish crowd is not usually as large for these matches as in other countries, but the reason is often to be found in the loyalty of the supporters of football to the game of their choice. The Irish crowed is the best educated athletically, and shows a keen interest and appreciation in the course of every event, even in the Cinderella of the programme, the Shot-Put. (There are indications that in Germany this ballistic Cinderella has found her Fairy Prince in the person of Hirschfeld, who is something of a national hero). The French, who are comparatively new as a nation of spectators at this kind of meeting, are enthusiastic, partisan and perhaps a little less impersonal than is usual in England. But they are logical to this extent: whereas we applaud victory and are silent in the presence of defeat, they sometimes indicate their disappointment at the lack of success of their nationals by unequivocal signs.

If such a meeting is to be a success from the point of view of the spectators it is essential that there shall be no long periods of time during which no event is in progress and that full information shall be given as to the progress and results of every event. This is best done by means of the electric loud speaker.

The competitors, who are mostly experienced athletes, seldom suffer from nervousness of the kind which is liable to spoil their performance, although in most cases they will be conscious of the nervous tension which usually accompanies athletic competition. In some cases times and distances may be affected by strange or even adverse conditions, but the stimulus of an international setting is usually sufficient to maintain a very fair average standard. Team work is seen at its best in these matches, and the practice of giving every competitor a memento of the event, which should intrinsically be nearly valueless, is most strongly urged by those who have the cause of amateur athletics most at heart.

The officials of the meeting, who are drawn from the Athletic Associations of the competing countries, are, of course, animated by the same patriotic spirit as the competitors and the crowd, but they are experienced men, usually with a distinguished athletic career behind them, either in organisation or competition, and their judgments in the administration of athletic law are above reproach. Their differences of point of view, which are settled in Committee, make for the improvement of athletics generally and their friendly relations with the athletes are of value in welding the team into an efficient unit.

The status of the competitor in these matches can be considered from the point of view of the outside public and from that of the athletes themselves. The international athlete certainly does not enjoy the prestige of the international footballer or of the Test Match player at cricket, but this is probably due to the fact that athletics has not yet assumed the importance of either football or cricket as a national sport. Consideration must also be given to the fact that such teams generally consist of 30 or more members, and that many of these are “second strings”. The athlete himself is conscious of these two facts and realises that his athletic status is really decided among his contemporaries by performance – for performance is measurable.

What, then, is the significance of the international athletic match in Western civilisation? Can it be said to contribute to national amity, to athletic efficiency or the fulfilment of aesthetic need ? It is the considered opinion of many of those who have promoted such matches and of many who have taken part in them that such competitions serve to remove some of the barriers between nations, to promote understanding on common ground between the peoples of such nations, to bring home the higher truth that some things are worth doing for themselves rather than for material gain, and to exhibit that grace of movement which gives a lasting pleasure to its author and is a source of joy to those who are looking on.

The athletic match, as whole, should be and can be considered as a work of art – as the adequate expression of a human need in the medium of a co-operative physical activity.

Footnote: The “Hirschfeld” to whom Nokes referred, was Emil Hirschfeld, who was the Olympic shot bronze-medallist in 1928 and set a World record of 16.04m – the first man to surpass 16 metres – a month later.

The man who was British hammer-throwing in the 1920s … and helped to make it in the 1950s

“Nokes was British hammer-throwing of the 1920s”. The categorical statement was that of the perceptive McWhirter twins, Norris and Ross, who were the leading writers on British athletics in the 1950s, and the facts to back their judgment are irrefutable. The two record-breaking throws of 1923 by Malcolm Nokes remained unsurpassed by any other Briton for 24 years and by any other Englishman for 28 years. His bronze medal at the 1924 Olympics has never been remotely approached by any other British competitor in the event. Had there been a European Championships in the 1920s he might well have won that title, and he was twice Empire champion in the 1930s. Yet his debut at the AAA Championships of 1920 at the age of 23 was hardly earth-shattering as he placed last of the five competitors almost 40 feet (or 12 metres) behind the American winner.

Malcolm Cuthbert Nokes had been born on 20 May 1897 at Edmonton, in North London, and had attended Bishop’s Stortford College, in Hertfordshire, and then served with distinction as a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in the trenches during the First World War, being awarded the Military Cross, and as an observer with the Royal Flying Corps. He then went to Oxford University, where he made his first sporting mark as a water-polo player and was to play against Cambridge every year from 1919 to 1922. He was also capable enough to have trials for the university team at both association football and rugby football. Already in the early 1920s he was a member of eight different clubs, including the newly-formed Achilles, London AC, Harlequins RUFC and Centaurs AFC.

He was the only competitor in the hammer event at an Olympic trials meeting held at Stamford Bridge before the 1920 Games and his distance of 106ft 10in (32.56m) was understandably not enough to impress he selectors, but he very rapidly improved his skills out of all recognition, placing a respectably close 2nd to Sweden’s Olympic silver-medallist, Carl-Johan Lind, at the 1921 AAA Championships, with a throw of 155ft 11in (47.52m). Later in the same month of July Nokes won for the touring Oxford & Cambridge Universities’ team against Princeton & Cornell at Travers Island, New York, with 160-7 (48.94), and only four other men in the World beat that during the year (three Americans, including the Irish-born World record-holder and Olympic champion, Paddy Ryan, and Lind). Lind had also won the AAA title in 1913 and 1914 and he beat Nokes again in 1922 with a Championship record of 172-3½ (52.51) – the best in the World for the year – but Nokes’s throw of 161-7 (47.52) ranked him No.5 again to Lind and three Americans. Ironically, and symptomatic of British disregard for field events, the hammer event had been dropped from the programme for the Inter-Varsity match after Nokes had won it the previous year and was not to be restored until 1975!

Hammer-throwing in Britain had been dominated in the 19th Century by the Irish “whales”, but this source of talent was cut off with the partition of Ireland in 1921, and it had actually been a Scotsman, Tom Nicolson, who preceded Nokes as the British record-holder, with 14 improvements between 1902 and 1908 to 166-9½ (50.84). Nokes beat this on two occasions during 1923 with throws of 172-0¼ (52.43) at the Midlands championships at Gloucester on 16 June and then 52.76 (173-1) for England against France in Paris on 29 July. Curiously, although Nokes was a dedicated student of the techniques of hammer-throwing and his career was to continue intermittently until 1936, these remained his best throws. He won his first AAA title in that same year of 1923 by an enormous margin of more than 11 metres (37ft) in the absence of any foreign challenge.

Winning the AAA event again the next year with 167-8½ (51.12), comfortably ahead of the 44-year-old Tom Nicolson, Nokes went to the 1924 Olympics in Paris with realistic hopes of a medal, though the Americans, Matt McGrath and Fred Tootell, had both exceeded 170ft (51.80) in June. All three were not quite in their best form at Stade Colombes with Tootell winning at 53.29 from McGrath (who had been the gold-medallist in 1912), 2nd at 50.84, and Nokes, 3rd at 48.87. Four of Nokes’s six throws were fouls and one of them was apparently around the 180ft mark. The precocious Bowdoin College student, Tootell, was still two months short of his 22nd birthday. McGrath was 45! Nokes’s old rival, Lind, back in 7th place, was 41. Great Britain had 12 representatives in the field events at these Games, but all the others were outclassed, failing to qualify for their finals, except for the French-born long jumper, Charles Mackintosh, who was 6th. Mackintosh, as Nokes had been, was an Oxford undergraduate.

Tootell beat Nokes again in the post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA match at Stamford Bridge, and with the World’s best throw of the year of 178-11 (54.53), but Nokes finished ahead of McGrath with his longest for the year of 170-2½ (51.88). Disappointingly, the report in “The Times” concerned itself almost entirely with the track events; just one paragraph at the end was end was given over to the field events, all of them won on aggregate by the Americans and dismissively summarised as “instructive exhibitions”. Tootell and Nokes deserved better than that, and the youthful American, who had set a national collegiate record of 181-6½ (55.33) in 1923, might then have been expected in the next year or so to threaten Paddy Ryan’s World record of 189-6½ (57.77), which had stood since 1913, but Tootell turned professional the year after his Olympic triumph with his potential far from realised. It is said that he threw 62 metres in training, but in his absence World standards slipped somewhat. The late Robert Parienté, doyen of French athletics writers, observed, perhaps unkindly, in his voluminous history of the sport published in 1996 that from 1920 to 1928 European hammer-throwing vegetated as “the refuge of the old, the fat and throwers of limited ability”.

Another AAA title and another major placing in the World rankings

In 1925 and 1926 Nokes, who was certainly neither fat, nor old, nor of limited ability, completed his sequence of four successive AAA titles without needing to throw very far to do so. His best efforts in both years were achieved in Dublin with 164-7 (50.16) and then 165-7½ (50.48), which must have been salutary lessons for the once-powerful Irish, who at the time had no one better than 150ft. The World rankings in 1926 were led by a Swede, Ossian Skiöld, who was a comparative youngster at 37. Nokes, a sprightly 29, ranked 2nd. Lind, in 3rd place, was now 43 years old, McGrath (4th) was 47, Nicolson (19th) was 46 … and Pat McDonald, ranked 25th and the Olympic shot champion of 1912, was 48!

Skiöld turned up at the 1927 AAA Championships for what would be one of his first competitions of the season on 2 July and beat Nokes, 165-0 (50.29) to 161-9½ (49.31). By September Skiöld had improved to 53.85 to lead the year’s rankings – Lind 2nd, McGrath 4th, Nokes 8th with an effort of 162-9½ (49.62) in Manchester a fortnight after the AAA event. This was achieved in the England-v-Ireland-v-Scotland international at Fallowfield, and he resoundingly beat two Irishmen, Pat O’Callaghan and Bill Britton. At the end of that same month Nokes had an interesting double for England against France at Stamford Bridge, winning the hammer, as he had in 1924 and 1926, and also the discus with an English native record of 126-1 (38.44). Even by the standards of the 1920s, this discus mark was unexceptional, but then it was hardly Nokes’s fault that he was England’s best in his occasional event.

After graduating from Oxford, he taught chemistry at Malvern College and then became Head of Science at Harrow School, and it may be that his educational duties were beginning to restrict his training opportunities. Certainly, the Olympic year of 1928 was not an auspicious one for him when he might again have been thought of as a medal contender. At the AAA Championships he was beaten by Bill Britton, while Britton’s fellow-Irishman, Pat O’Callaghan, had achieved almost 20ft further just a few days before, and the pre-Games rankings were led by an American, Frank Connor, at 171-10¾ (52.39). In Amsterdam O’Callaghan won by just 10cm from Skiöld, while Nokes did no better than 45.37 in the qualifying round to miss the top six places and finish 11th overall. Some consolation was that he was the flag-bearer for the Great Britain team at the opening ceremony. Back at Stamford Bridge for the British Empire-USA match he was an undistinguished 5th with 146-10 (44.76). Nokes’s AAA throw of 151-4½ (46.14) remained his best for the year, ranking only 29th in the World, compared with his placings of 5th , 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 2nd and 8th in the six previous years.

In 1929 his season’s best was down to 144-11 (44.17) and he missed the AAA Championships, but his career was by no means at an end. Back he came the next year for 3rd place – admittedly, a distant 3rd – to Skiöld and an Italian, Armando Poggioli, in the AAA Championships, and the next month he sailed the Atlantic to take part in the inaugural British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, and rallied his old competitive instincts to win narrowly with 154-7½ (47.13) from Britton, competing for the Irish Free State, at 153-10 (46.89). This throw placed Nokes 26th on the World year list. Alongside Skiöld among the “oldies” still gracing the circle were Paddy Ryan and Carl-Johan Lind, now both aged 47 and ranked 6th and 11th respectively.

That did seem to close Nokes’s account as a hammer-thrower, but the prospect of defending his Empire title at the White City Stadium, in London, in 1934, must have lured him out of retirement, and he won again by almost two metres with 158-3½ (48.25). Nothing much had happened in British hammer circles in the three years he had been away, as the best throw had been 164-5¼ (50.12) by a Glasgow policeman, Alex Smith, in 1932, and with no more than a rare return for the Oxford University-v-AAA match of 1935 Nokes was able to head the British year list at 151-3 (46.10). In 1936 he made a nostalgic reappearance for the British Empire against the USA at the White City and managed 4th place at 148-4 (45.22). The three Americans were all comfortably over 160ft, but the Empire had need of Nokes that day because his team-mates were dire … and it’s best to draw a veil over the distances they managed.

What Nokes had achieved over some 16 years ensures him a prominent place in British athletics history, but there was another important chapter to be written in the literal sense of the term. In 1938 the Achilles Club produced its first coaching manual and it was Nokes who provided the contribution on hammer-throwing. With his competitive experiences still very fresh in his mind, he wrote passionately about his event:

“In this country the various athletic events have different values. Running and hurdle racing are fine spectacles and are deservedly popular. High-jumping and pole-vaulting are good spectacles provided a not too deliberate record-breaker has been billed to appear. Long-jumping is of some historic but not much box-office interest. The throwing events are regarded as rather tedious, sometimes dangerous, and slightly comic. This estimate of the worth of athletic events has been fostered by the Press and readily accepted by the great body of athletic onlookers, to whom every deference should be paid, as it is they who supply the sinews of athletic war. Nowadays it is unluckily impossible to disregard such views when an athletic competition is being staged, but it should be remembered that from the point of view of winning an athletic match the points secured by the insignificant oddity who ‘throws things about’ , possibly after months of arduous and lonely practice, are of the same value as those awarded to the god-like victor of the track, whose training, if youth and talent are on his side, may not have exacted more than abstention from some of the more popular indulgences.

“Of the throwing events the hammer is the least practised in this country. There are few competitors and fewer competitions in throwing the hammer, although in Ireland, the country of its origin, and in Scotland, the country of its adoption, great interest is taken in it and many more competitions are available. The physique of the Englishman does not seem in any material point to be different from that of races more expert in this event. The reason for our lack of success lies in our lack of interest”.

Believing in deeds as much as words, Nokes became chairman of the AAA coaching scheme, having played a leading role in its development, and at the same time continued to lead an intensely occupied business life. After 24 years of teaching he went to work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell and wrote three books of a scientific nature between 1941 and 1949. He lived to the age of 89, dying at Alton, in Hampshire, on 22 November 1986. By then the British record for the hammer had advanced to 77.54 (254-5), which would surely have given him much satisfaction – though it is to be wondered what his reaction would have been to knowing that it remains the same in 2009, a quarter-of-a-century after it was set.