Philip Barker: Evan Baillie Noel, the first Olympic champion at London's first Olympics

Friday, 27 April 2012
Philip Barker_Athens_2004His name was Evan Baillie Noel and in 1908, he carved his name indelibly in London's Olympic history. By winning the racquets tournament before the month of April was out, he became the first gold medal champion at the first London Olympics.

They were the longest Games in history. They did not finish until the end of October and included such sports as tug of war, polo and even motor boating.

Racquets itself was held at The Queens' Club, better known these days for tennis and where, last year, Andy Murray prepared for Wimbledon with victory over Jo Wilfried Tsonga.

Back in 1908, the club secretary was Andrew Stoddart, former England rugby international and cricket captain.

London 1908_Team_GB
Noel himself was also something of an all rounder. It helped that he was ambidextrous. As a cricketer, he was good enough to play at Lord's in the same MCC side as the great WG Grace, but it was in the sport of racquets, which he played left handed, that he excelled.

Noel was no stranger to Queen's either, as a student he had won his Cambridge "Blue", there after serving notice of his ability in the Public Schools Championship whilst at Winchester.

Yet many felt he was an unlikely Olympic champion."He looked as little like a fine player of such physically testing ball games as tennis and racquets as could be imagined," wrote a friend in The Times.

Noel's day job was as sporting editor for The Times newspaper but the reports of the tournament did not mention his connections.

His first round match, in a tournament entered only by seven players, all of them British, was against Cecil Browning.

Tug of_War_Lonodn_1908_April_27
The official report notes "he showed great cleverness in placing the ball, though if Browning had been more consistent on his serve, he might have given Noel a very hard game".

London 2012 chairman Lord Coe said this week that "there are no cheap medals at the Olympics" but in 1908, the official report lamented "so many players either scratched or failed to make an appearance that the tournament lost much of its importance".

In the second round, three other players all had walkovers. In the only match, Noel got the better of Vane Pennell who had won The MCC Gold Racquet in 1907, the report related how Pennell "was not at his best".

In the semi final Noel "had only to play a reasonably safe game to be sure of victory" in a match against the out of form Henry Brougham.

Queens Club_1918_April_27
In the other half of the draw, Noel's doubles partner Henry Leaf beat JJ Astor, but in doing so injured his hand. As a result he was forced to scratch from the final and so Noel became the first recipient of the gold medal, newly designed to feature St George and the Dragon.

Noel won the bronze with Leaf in the doubles and also played in the Jeu de Paume tournament. Later that summer, he took up his racquet again at Lord's and won the MCC Silver Racquet, a competition later won by International Olympic Committee member Lord Aberdare.

The life of a working journalist was taking its toll of Noel and on doctor's advice he retired from the sports desk of The Times the following year.

Noel later became secretary of Queen's club and continued to write about the sport he loved until his death in 1928.

Philip Barker, a freelance journalist, has been on the editorial team of the Journal of Olympic History and is credited with having transformed the publication into one of the most respected historical publications on the history of the Olympic Games.
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