Philip Barker

Botswana’s Isaac Makwala’s lone 200 metres run on Wednesday (August 9) has made for the most unusual headlines of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in London - but it is not the first time an athlete has run solo at a major championships.

The very same thing happened 109 years ago at the 1908 Olympic Games, lso held in London. Lieutenant Wyndham Halswelle, a 400m runner from Great Britain had been jostled and a re-run of an Olympic final was ordered.

Under a headline "Deplorable scene at the stadium", newspaper accounts wrote of "the most sensational incident of the great gathering, if not indeed in the whole history of athletics".

That it should take place in the 400m offers a curious symmetry as Makwala had hoped to run the same distance earlier this week before the controversy over his health took centre stage.

The 400m final at the 1908 Olympics has been "eagerly discussed and looked forward to in every part of the globe".

It featured Halswelle, a London-born Scot representing Great Britain. Up against him were three Americans - William Robbins, John Taylor and John Carpenter.

It may well be that the organisers were expecting trouble.

The official starter, Harry Gable of Manchester Athletics Club, said: "I was instructed to caution the competitors against wilful jostling and did so whilst they were on their marks. I told them officials were posted every few yards to notice any such jostling."

Botswana's Isaac Makwala was made to run his men's 200m heat by himself on Wednesday at the IAAF World Championships in London ©Getty Images
Botswana's Isaac Makwala was made to run his men's 200m heat by himself on Wednesday at the IAAF World Championships in London ©Getty Images

The regulations of the competition, drawn up by the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) had been clear on the matter: "Each competitor shall keep to his position from start to finish in all races. Any competitor wilfully jostling or running across or obstructing another competitor so as to impede his progress shall forfeit his right to be in the competition."

But as they came round the bend, the bumping and barging reached its height. Officials waved frantically and the tape was broken.

The words "No Race" were displayed on the scoreboard and the decision was announced to the spectators by megaphone.

The Stadium was at the heart of the great Anglo-French Exhibition Grounds. This Expo was taking place at the same time as the Olympics. That night, the judges met in another part of the vast complex known as "The Garden Club" to decide what action should be taken

Dr Arthur Roscoe Badger, AAA vice-president, described how "Carpenter went out from the verge, keeping his right shoulder sufficiently in front of Halswelle to prevent his passing".

Another judge, David Basan of the London Athletic Club, testified: "In my opinion Carpenter wilfully obstructed Halswelle."

Later, the Sporting Life newspaper carried Halswelle’s own version of events.

"I did not attempt to pass the Americans until the last corner, thereby reserving my effort for the finishing straight," he said. "Here I attempted to pass Carpenter on the outside. Carpenter’s elbow undoubtedly touched my chest for as I moved outwards to pass him he did likewise, keeping his right arm in front of me. In this manner, he bored me across quite two-thirds of the track and entirely stopped my running."

Carpenter later insisted: "I do not know of any contact between us at any point during the race. I always know exactly what I do in a race and I am perfectly certain that we did not touch."

Lieutenant Wyndham Halswelle crosses the line in the re-run of the Olympic men's 400m final at London 1908 ©Getty Images
Lieutenant Wyndham Halswelle crosses the line in the re-run of the Olympic men's 400m final at London 1908 ©Getty Images

Even so, the decision was announced as disqualification for Carpenter. The race was to be re-run "in strings" used to keep the runners in lanes.

Halswelle lined-up the following Saturday, but his intended opponents Robbins and Taylor had by now withdrawn in protest. Apparently, this was done on team orders. So Halswelle ran his solo lap to claim Olympic gold in a time of 50 seconds, understandably over a second slower than the Olympic record he had set in the heat.

The travails of Makwala prompted even the great Michael Johnson to talk of conspiracy theories. In 1908 there was similar suspicion particularly as the judges were predominantly British and there had been contentious decisions across a range of sports. This contributed to bad feeling, particularly in the US, and insults were traded in the newspapers, though Casper Whitney wrote at the time: "For the tactics Mr Carpenter employed in the 400m race, his disqualification would have taken place at any American track."

Amos Alonzo Stagg, a member of the American Committee, took a different view insisting Carpenter “certainly took the route complained of but that he didn’t commit a deliberate foul as it would have been considered an acceptable tactic at a track meet in America”.

Sir Theodore Cook, a leading member of the London 1908 Organising Committee, felt obliged to publish a pamphlet called “A reply to certain criticisms” defending the British position.

The need for a standard set of rules had become clear and eventually in 1912, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the precursor to the present-day IAAF, was set up for the first time.