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Sir Arthur and the Olympic Games

By February 12, 2014September 16th, 2023No Comments

by Tim Johnson, Curator of Special Collections & Rare Books
E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections

The Sherlock Holmes Collections publishes a quarterly newsletter for Friends of the Holmes Collections. On a regular basis we publish articles focusing on items held in the collection (or found elsewhere in the University Libraries) that bear on Mr. Holmes or his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that were published fifty or one hundred years ago. Once or twice a year I create a new list of books or periodical articles to consider for our “50 Years Ago” and “100 Years Ago” columns and share this list with our volunteer editor, Julie McKuras, and Friends president, Dr. Richard Sveum. Julie and Dick meet with me nearly every week to plan the next issue of the newsletter or discuss other matters related to the collections. This last Monday, during our weekly meeting, we came across a short piece written by Sir Arthur and published a century ago that was timely and too good to pass up.

Doyle skiing.jpgIn 1914–ten years before the first Winter Olympic Games–Heath, Cranton & Ousely, Ltd. of Fleet Lane, London published a book by Frederick Annesley Michael (F. A. M.) Webster entitled The Evolution of the Olympic Games, 1829 B.C.–1914 A.D. Webster–a javelin champion, Olympic coach, and author–was the honorary secretary of the Amateur Field Events Association. He recruited the President of this same organization, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to write a preface to the book. The introduction was written by His Grace the Duke of Somerset, Chairman of the British Olympic Council. (If this sounds a bit like Chariots of Fire, there is a connection: Webster knew and worked with Evelyn Aubrey Montague who ran steeplechase in the 1924 Paris Olympics–and who was depicted in the movie by actor Nicholas Farrell.)

Webster had a number of motives for writing this book. One senses some frustration and an awareness of the sun possibly setting on the British Empire. It also carries a ring of familiarity to our ears, with concerns about national stature and well-being. In the Author’s Preface Webster stated:

It is only since our dismal failure at Stockholm in 1912 that the Modern Olympic Games have aroused any vital interest in the mind of the “man in the street,” and even then it has been a mere passing feeling of shame that we should fall so low as to be beaten by even the lesser European nations, who for generations past have been our pupils in all sporting pastimes…. My desire, in offering this book to the public, is that a better understanding of the Olympic movement may be acquired and a greater interest in athletics generated in the minds of the rising generation….While our youths prefer to watch rather than to practise the rough old games which first gave us the brave and devil-may-care spirit which has won us possessions the wide world over, it will be a courageous or a very foolish man who will maintain that the bull-dog breed is sound as of yore, in the days of the prize-ring and wrestling-booth.

Sir Arthur, also an athlete of some repute–he played cricket, tended goal for the Portsmouth football (soccer) club, and introduced skiing to the British public–followed Webster’s lead with his own observations on national pride and sport. British athletics historian Peter Lovesey wrote about “Conan Doyle’s Olympic Crusade” and paints this picture of Sir Arthur’s involvement:

In 1910 he [Doyle] accepted the presidency of the English Amateur Field Events Association. Britain’s preoccupation with the more glamorous track events had left the nation far behind the USA and the Nordic countries in jumping and throwing. Britain’s showing in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912, a mere two individual gold medals and five in team sports, came as a shock to a nation that had dominated in the previous century. To quote F.A.M.Webster, “a perfect wave of popular indignation swept over the country, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle . . . had his attention drawn to the position.” Conan Doyle’s own account tells us that in the early summer of 1912 Lord Northcliffe sent him a telegram “which let me in for about as much trouble as any communication which I have ever received.” Northcliffe (who in 1908 had raised nearly £12,000 to bail out the London Olympic Games) said Conan Doyle was the one man in Great Britain who could rally round the discordant parties and achieve a united effort to restore the nation’s Olympic status.

Conan Doyle was a strong patriot. It is often assumed he received his knighthood because of his literary success, but Sherlock Holmes had nothing to do with it. The honour was given mainly in recognition of the writer’s much-translated booklet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, a British response to international criticisms of the nation’s role in the Boer War.

Writing from his home at Crowborough in Sussex, Doyle congratulated Webster on this determination to raise Olympic awareness.

I sincerely hope that your efforts will bear fruit, and that we shall make a better showing in the future as compared with the best of other countries. We know that we have the material. There is no falling off there. I think the human machine is at its best in these Islands. But we have got into the way of doing things rather less thoroughly than they might be done, and that is the point that wants strengthening.

Conan Doyle also discussed another side to the Olympic movement, one often criticized or ignored: the role of money. He also had his eye on a rising power to the West.

It is a very deplorable thing that we were not able to raise the money which would have made athletics more democratic, and put the means of practising them within the reach of the bulk of the people. We tried hard and failed. The result is that we build on a much narrower base than the United States, which has twenty athletic clubs to our one, and widespread municipal facilities by which every man has a chance of finding out his own capacities. This country is full of great sprinters and shot-putters who never dream of their own powers, and have no possible chance of developing them.

In Doylean fashion, the creator of Holmes laid down some lines of action.

We sorely need also some methodical inspection of our public-school [i.e. private school] athletes, to put them on the right lines and save wasted or misapplied effort. I know how much you, Flaxman, and others have done in this direction; but no man who has his own work to do can spare the time which is needed for such a task. What you have done is, however, remarkable, and in 1916, when we shall have some national heart-searchings, your conscience at least will be at ease.

Other, more painful heart-searchings would come with World War One; the 1916 Olympics never occurred. The Flaxman Doyle referred to was Alfred Edward Flaxman, British track and field star who competed in the 1908 Olympic games. Flaxman died during the war, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His remains were never recovered. Sir Arthur shared an Olympic moment with Flaxman at the 1908 games: the now legendary contest known as “Dorando’s marathon.” But that is a tale for another time (or you can read Peter Lovesey’s account of the event and Doyle’s connection with it).

As you watch the Winter Olympics, remember Sir Arthur, his interest in skiing, and the support he lent to the Olympic movement.


Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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