Philip Barker

The recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 will be announced in Oslo next week.

Sixty-years-ago, it was awarded to Philip Noel-Baker, a man who had, uniquely, also won an Olympic medal.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee described him as "a man of strong and steadfast convictions". 

"His efforts to prevent war breaking out have been tireless and ceaseless," they said.

Born as Philip Baker, he was one of seven children and changed his surname to Noel-Baker when he married. 

The son of a quaker, he showed early ability on the playing field in athletics, but also in football, cricket, gymnastics and swimming.

"Every day I took vigorous exercise twice," he wrote later. He was to do so throughout his life, and was to be seen playing tennis well into his 80s.

He studied at the Quaker College in Haverford, Philadelphia, and read economics and history at Cambridge where he competed in athletics. He was selected for the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, reaching the 1,500 metres final with British team-mate Arnold Strode-Jackson.

"He was running so awfully well that I made up my mind he was a probable winner, whereas with a foot that wasn't wholly sound I didn't think I had much of a chance so I thought I had better help him," Noel-Baker recalled.

"You must understand, Arnold was better than I was that year so we decided to play it safe.

"I said to him 'Jacko, you stick close to me and I'll see we both get to the right place at the right time'."

At the bell, both men were in position. Noel-Baker finished sixth and Strode-Jackson took gold.

"How pleased he was, and how pleased I was too," said Noel-Baker afterwards.

Philip Noel-Baker won an Olympic medal and the Nobel Peace Prize ©Getty Images
Philip Noel-Baker won an Olympic medal and the Nobel Peace Prize ©Getty Images

During the First World War, Noel-Baker served as adjutant with an ambulance unit.

After the war, he joined the British Foreign Office and was involved in the creation of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. He helped draft its covenant and even suggested the League should set-up a special section to "superintend international sport and which would maintain the most careful scrutiny of all its branches".

Noel-Baker continued to be closely involved with the secretariat of the organisation and assisted Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian. 

Nansen was the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Noel-Baker also worked with Lord Robert Cecil and Arthur Henderson, also Nobel Peace laureates. His own work included a book called The League of Nations at Work and words on the Geneva Protocol of 1924. He also wrote other texts on the theme of disarmament, and became a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

The Olympic Games had, by this time, resumed. Although facilities were limited, Noel-Baker returned to serious training and was chosen for the 800m and 1,500m at the 1920 Games in Antwerp.

He won his 800m heat, beating future International Association of Athletics Federations President Adriaan Paulen, but did not take part in the semi-final.

In the 1,500m he qualified for the final and, at the bell, was still in contention. In the final few strides, Noel-Baker held off the challenge of American Larry Shields to claim silver. The gold was won by another British athlete, Albert Hill.

"He was in wonderful condition," said Noel-Baker. He told Hill: "The best man won, I am glad it was you."

During his time in Antwerp, the new Olympic medallist organised social meetings between the teams. Many feel these paved the way for the idea of the Olympic Village.

South African runner Bevill Rudd spoke of the "initiative and enthusiasm" of Noel-Baker and Strode-Jackson in founding the Achilles Club for former Oxford and Cambridge athletes. The club helped build bridges with the Germans, who had been excluded from the Olympics in the aftermath of the First World War.

Noel-Baker did not race at the 1924 Olympics in Paris but described them as "a great chapter in the history of international sport". 

"They have utterly confounded those critics who allege that international sport in general and the Olympic Games in particular lead to international bad feeling," he said.

He remained prominent in the work of the British Olympic Association throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, but as the 1936 Olympics in Berlin approached, he supported a boycott. He explained that "Hitler had violated the Olympic Charter by excluding Jews and Catholics and workers from the German team".

By now, Noel-Baker had become a member of Parliament.

When the Nobel Peace Prize was revived in 1945, he nominated the American Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who became the first post-war laureate.

Noel-Baker was present at the early gatherings of the newly organised United Nations. He was also appointed to the UNRRA, the UN's relief and rehabilitation administration, and later had an important role with UNESCO.

In 1947, as Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations, he was the British Government's key liaison with the London 1948 Olympic Organising Committee.

Philip Noel-Baker, left, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in 1946 ©Getty Images
Philip Noel-Baker, left, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in 1946 ©Getty Images

"Welcome to our battered city," he told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as they met in London. 

"We have done our best to make the conditions as good as they can be, but if there are shortcomings, I beg you to remember that we are battling our way through the aftermath of war."

As the Cold War escalated, Noel-Baker set about writing his most famous work. It was called The Arms Race, a Programme for World Disarmament.

As news of his Nobel Prize came through in 1959, the Swiss press described him as "always active in favour of international sport as a way of expressing goodwill between peoples".

The presentation of the prize was at the University of Oslo in the presence of King Olav V, Crown Prince Harald and Princess Astrid.

Gunnar Jahn, President of the Nobel Committee, recalled Noel-Baker's work in the service of the League of Nations, and how he had always opposed Nazism and fascism.

"He has striven to build a world in which violence and arms are no longer necessary in the struggle for existence, either among men or among nations," he said.

Noel-Baker expressed his own delight. "I have always counted this as the greatest of honours which men bestow," he said. 

"In an age when the atom has been split, the moon encircled, diseases conquered, is disarmament so difficult that it must remain a distant dream? To answer yes is to despair of the future of mankind."

He donated his prize money to peace charities. In the year he won the Nobel Prize, he drafted a policy on recreation and leisure, realising that automation of industry would "give the average person much more leisure time".

He believed adequate facilities for sport and recreation "were a vital part of true education" and insisted that the lack of provision was "a contributory factor in hooliganism, gangsterism and hardened life-long crime".

When the 1980 Olympics in Moscow were threatened with boycott, he wrote of his "sense of outrage". To those who pointed to his own boycott of Berlin in 1936, he admitted he had been mistaken not to go.

In 1981, by now aged almost 92, he was an honoured guest at the IOC Congress in Baden Baden.

"I believe UNESCO and the IOC should now begin a vast campaign of education to persuade the peoples that their Governments must make a reality of the policy of sport for all," he said.

"I shall hope within a year or two from now to be able to propose to the Parliament of Norway that they shall award the Nobel Prize for peace to our glorious IOC."

When IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch closed the Congress, he made special mention. 

A plaque dedicated to Philip Noel-Baker in Olympic capital Lausanne ©ITG
A plaque dedicated to Philip Noel-Baker in Olympic capital Lausanne ©ITG

"I should like to pay particular homage to the former Olympic athlete who is known and admired by us all," he said. 

"Lord Philip Noel-Baker, thank you for honouring the Olympic Movement by proposing the IOC as a possible recipient of the highest and most wonderful reward which can be hoped for."

When Noel-Baker died a year later, IOC director Monique Berlioux wrote: "He was the epitome of intelligence and a man of great heart. 

"He never admitted defeat, he was always fighting, not against something but always for something or some cause."

Shortly afterwards, a "peace park" was opened in North London. It honoured Noel-Baker's memory and commemorated the victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The gates are decorated with a flight of doves of peace. Cherry trees were deliberately planted "to bring to mind a Japanese metaphor for life which is brilliant and blooming but brief like cherry blossom".

Peace has always been a central part of the philosophy of the Olympic Movement.

A medal recognising "outstanding services to international understanding through sport" was awarded to Sarajevo after the city hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.

In 2016, a group of Greek soldiers set aside their weapons in a ceremony in Elis before walking to Ancient Olympia ahead of the lighting ceremony of the Olympic Torch. 

An Olympic Truce Foundation in Athens supports many peace initiatives and, in recent years, IOC Presidents have asked the United Nations to honour an Olympic truce. 

Such actions would certainly have had the seal of approval from Noel-Baker.