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Paul Martin: The Good Companion

The Toil, the Tactics, the Triumphs of the Track. Paul Martin, “The Good Companion



Hundredths of seconds decide races, and in the bygone age before such precision timing came into widespread and then universal use tenths of seconds were equally vital. Numerous instances can be quoted of titles won and lost by such a narrow margin, and in an Olympic context early classic examples can even be found in as many as three track finals in middle-distance and long-distance events at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, where the close-run winners were James Meredith, of the USA, at 800 metres; Arnold Jackson, of Great Britain, at 1500 metres; and Johan Kolehmainen, of Finland, at 5000 metres.


Nothing quite so nail-biting occurred when the Games were resumed after World War I in 1920 in Antwerp, but a century ago, at the Paris Olympics of 1924, the 800 metres again materialised as a desperately fought-out affair. Had the positions of the gold-medallist and silver-medallist been reversed, the lustre of one of the most celebrated of British champions would have been at least a shade tarnished. Douglas Lowe won the first of his Olympic 800 metres titles from Paul Martin, of Switzerland, and the standard photograph of the finish shows the pair of them lunging almost simultaneously for the tape. 


The Swiss at the time had no great reputation in athletics – to be absolutely honest, no reputation at all. Their 10 gold medals at the Olympics from 1896 to 1920 had been won in shooting (five), gymnastics (two), rowing, sailing and wrestling (one each), and the best that any athlete from Switzerland had done were 9th places in the 10,000 metres and decathlon in 1920. At those same Antwerp Games Paul Martin, who was just a week past his 19th birthday, made a modest but significant appearance in the 800 metres heats, in 6th place in 1:59.0, but in doing so becoming the first from his country to break two minutes. At the Berlin Olympics of 1936 he would be 6th again in his 800 metres heat but having completed the remarkable feat of taking part in five successive Games – and achieving a great deal else in between.  


Apart from his running, he had qualified as an internationally-renowned surgeon, and on his 70th birthday in 1971 numerous homages were paid to him, including that of the Right Honourable Philip Noel-Baker, Nobel Peace Prize winner and silver-medallist to fellow-Briton Albert Hill for the 1920 Olympic 1500 metres. He wrote, “During the early 1940s we were cheered up in our wartime gloom in England by a famous book called ‘The Good Companions’. It comes to my mind when I think of my youthful friend, Paul Martin. He is a great – but really great – Olympic runner. He is a most distinguished surgeon. He is a prophet and an exemplar of physical fitness for all. He is the author of fascinating books. But most of all, to his long-time friends, he is a good companion”.


Recalling a particular meeting with Paul Martin, Noel-Baker added, “ I look back to the early days of Paul’s career, to a training session when, on a cloudy winter day, Paul and Bevil Rudd, the 400 metres winner at the 1920 Olympics, and I ran together on a field of lovely grass, and we talked about the toil and the tactics and the triumphs of the track. When I look forward to the celebration of his 100th birthday, I know that Paul will still be the same good companion that he was on that winter day so long ago. I saw him win his silver medal in the Games of 1924, and it might easily have been gold”.


Paul Martin did not entirely match Noel-Baker’s wish for such longevity, but he lived to the age of 86, dying on 28 April 1987 in Lausanne. He had been born in Geneva on 11 August 1901 and had first made his mark as an athlete at the age of 16, running a 400 metres in 57.4 seconds. From the age of 19 to 35 he was to set 18 Swiss records at 800 metres, 1000 metres, 1500 metres and the 4 x 400 metres relay. His ultimate 800 metres record of 1:51.8 in 1928 was not beaten by another Swiss until 1955. At the 1928 Olympics he missed the 800 metres final by three-tenths of a second, eliminated by his namesake and World record-holder, Séraphin (“Séra”) Martin. of France. On an indoor tour in the USA in 1930 Paul Martin became the first foreign winner of the AAU national championships 1000 yards, and there would not be another such successful visitor until 1953. 


A further affectionate tribute paid to him on his 70th birthday came from a former team-mate, looking back 40 years. Francis Cardinaux wrote, “I still have clearly in my memory the fine victory which, thanks to you, and following your example, I gained against the German team. The kilometres that we had run together in the forest nearby before our respective events – until then I did not know about warming up – put me in my best form. That win at 5000 metres followed directly on from what you had magnificently achieved at 800 metres. A sports journalist of that time, the talented Bierbaun, of the ‘Neue Zürcher Zeitung’, a poet of sport, concluded in these words of praise, ‘Thanks to Martin, to Cardinaux and to Riesen in the high jump, who were the Kings of the Day, Switzerland carried off some brilliant wins which will remain delightful memories for those who acclaimed them. Never could we have believed that athletics was capable of arousing such emotions’ ”.  


After his first international competitive experience at the 1920 Olympics, Martin had continued with his medical studies in Lausanne and achieved his first major successes as an athlete, winning both the 800 metres and the 1500 metres in a one-day France-v-Switzerland match in Lyons, 24 July 1921. His times of 1:56.8 and 4:06.4 were both good enough to rank in the top 20 in the world at the year’s end. He helped to build a cinder track in the lakeside town of Vidy, which was neighbouring to Lausanne,  opened in 1922. He went to London that year to compete in the AAA Championships 880 yards but was well beaten by Edgar Mountain (1:55.6) and Cecil Griffiths – the margin was reported as 14 yards. In 1923 Martin had metric times of 1:55.3, ranking 10th in the world, and 4:04.5, 15th, and had his first title of consequence, winning the 800 metres at the International Students Championships, in Paris, in which 10 nations took part and and which would eventually become the World Universities Games. In 2nd place in that race was Adriaan Paulen, of Holland, a 1920 Olympic finalist who would in later life become a leading administrator, including president of the European Athletics Association.  


There seemed no doubt before the 1924 Olympics that the 800 metres gold medal would go to either a  an American or a Briton. Bill Richardson had won at the US Olympic Trials in 1:53.6, with Schuyler Enck and Ray Dodge also under 1:54, and a fourth man who had fallen in that race, John Watters, had run 1:53.6 in the heats and was added to the team (four per country allowed in those days). The AAA 880 yards final had been won a week later, 21 June, in a comparable time of 1:54.6 by Hyla (“Henry”) Stallard, with Douglas Lowe 2nd in 1:54.8. The Olympic 800 metres champion since 1896 had always been either an American (four times) or a Briton (three), taking into consideration the London-born Australian, Edwin Flack, at the first Modern Olympics. 


There were 43 competitors from 21 countries who lined up for the Olympic heats in Paris, 6 July. Altogether, 14 European countries were represented (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland). The others were Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and the USA. That was not the full story, though, because there were no fewer than 70 entrants for the event originally, but for whatever reasons those from Argentina, Austria (three in total), Bulgaria, Estonia, Haiti, Hungary, Spain and Turkey, among others, did not put in an appearance.  Why not ? Could injury or illness have accounted for all 27 absentees ? Or did they simply change their minds ? Or was there a last-minute shortage of funds and team numbers therefore reduced ?


The first three in each of eight heats qualified for the next day’s semi-finals, and the fastest winners were Stallard and a Swede, Rudolf Johansson, at 1:57.6. All three Australians were among those eliminated, as were the Brazilian, the Japanese and the Mexican. Every semi-finalist was from North America or Europe, apart from a single South African. The three semi-finals, with the first three in each qualifying, confirmed even more emphatically the Anglo-American dominance – all four Americans and three of the Britons going through to the final, joined by Paul Martin and the remarkable Charles Hoff, of Norway, who was World record-holder in the pole vault but restricted by injury to track running. The semi-final winners were Lowe, 1:56.8, and Dodge, 1:57.0. Martin had run very close to his fastest, with 1:55.6, and had needed to, ousting the Swede, Johansson, for a 3rdplace by that ubiquitous tenth of a second. The Olympic record, which stood to James (“Ted”) Meredith, of the USA, at 1:51.9 from 1912, seemed beyond reach as yet to whoever would win the gold a day later.


The press accounts of the final tend to suggest that as part of a unified British strategy Henry Stallard, who was a graduate of Cambridge University, selflessly made the pace for Douglas Lowe, who was then a 21-year-old at Cambridge, but it might not have been quite as simple as that. The series of photographs published in the Official Report of the Games certainly show Stallard leading early on, closely followed by Harry Houghton, the fourth British selection for the event, and then Stallard being passed by Lowe and Martin coming into the final straight. But why should Stallard have sacrificed himself ? He had beaten Lowe in the AAA Championships and had no reason to act as a servile second-string. Regardless of intention, Stallard’s pace (1:06 at 500 metres, and so probably 53sec at 400 metres) laid the foundations for much the fastest times that Lowe (1:52.4) and Martin (1:52.5) had ever run. To be strictly accurate, Lowe’s clocking was registered on one-fifth watches as 1:52 and Martin’s is an estimate. The Official Report listed only the winning time !


Lowe and Stallard  were back on the track the next day for the 1500 metres heats, and despite injuring his foot – described as a stress fracture – Stallard went on to be the  bronze-medallist in his fifth race on successive days. The winner, almost inevitably, was the peerless Paavo Nurmi (plus the 5000 metres the same day !), and in 2nd place was Wilhelm (“Willy”) Schärer, of Switzerland, thus ending Paul Martin’s monopoly of his country’s Olympic athletics medals after only two days. The same afternoon another Swiss, Joseph Imbach, had run much the fastest time in the 400 metres quarter-finals of 48.0, but he would fail to finish in the historic final, won by the Scottish theology student, Eric Liddell, in a World record 47.6.


Dr Francis-Marius Messerli, who was secretary of the Swiss Olympic Committee from 1912 to 1937, had followed Paul Martin’s career as an athlete and prospective surgeon closely from its earliest days. As part of those 70th birthday celebrations, Dr Messerli was to recall that on the strength of his brilliant performance in Paris Martin was offered the job of coaching the French athletes, whose placings in the track finals had been commendable but out of the medals and thus no doubt disappointing on home ground: 10th at 1500 metres and 7th and 9th at both 5000 and 10,000 metres, plus 5th in the cross-country and 4th in the 3000 metres team event. Martin refused, “having no intention of giving up his medical studies, about which he was passionate”, as Dr Messerli suggested. Instead, Martin demonstrated his talent to the full on the French door-step, so to speak, running a 48.6 for 400 metres and 1:53.2 for 800 metres on the same Stade Colombes Olympic track in 1925 and then 1:53.0 back at Colombes in 1926, in which year he also added the cross-country national title to his growing collection.


The World rankings for 800 metres in 1926 made unusual and repetitive reading. Otto Peltzer, of Germany, had broken the 880 yards World record with 1:51.6 in an epic AAA Championships race with Lowe, given an estimated 1:52.0. Next in the rankings was Alva Martin, the US AAU winner in 1:53.6, also for 880 yards (804.67 metres). Paul Martin was 4th with his metric 1:53.0. Séra Martin was 6th, with 1:53.4, in 2nd place in that race. Providing further proof that the French could have done with Paul Martin’s coaching expertise, Lowe had won the 800 metres in the annual France-v-GB match, also at Colombes, with his team-mates 2nd and 3rd ahead of Séra Martin. The next year Paul Martin ran no faster than 1:56.0 but the probable reason was that he was completing his qualifications as a surgeon and was committed to working with widely renowned colleagues in Berne and Lausanne. He was also appointed to a senior medical post in the Swiss Army.


Fitting in his track training when he could, which apparently entailed regular 800 and 1500 metres time-trials, he went to his third Olympics, in Amsterdam in 1928, where he missed the 800 metres final narrowly, as previously mentioned, and emulating Stallard in his fifth race in five days ran his fastest ever 1500 metres of 3:58.4 for 6th place. A month later he was in superior form at a two-day meeting on his favoured Colombes track and finished the closest possible 2ndto Hermann Engelhard, of Germany, who had won the Olympic bronze medal behind Lowe and the Swede, Erik Bylehn, The time for both Engelhard and Martin was 1:51.8 – exactly the same as Lowe’s newly-set Olympic record – and they had been almost as inseparable at 400 metres on the first day at Colombes, with Engelhard winning again, 47.6 to 47.8.


This range of performances by Martin makes interesting comparison with others equally versatile in the 1920s. Based on the Hungarian Scoring Tables, first devised in 1982, which compare performances across the entire range of athletics events, the following data appears (* 440 yards time less 0.3sec, 880 yards time less 0.7sec):


                                400 metres            800 metres          1500 metres           Points score

Otto Peltzer             48.8, 1925             1:50.9*, 1926      3:51.0, 1926          2,914

Paul Martin             47.8, 1928             1:51.8, 1928        3:58.4, 1928          2,858   

Séraphin Martin      49.2, 1927             1:50.6, 1928        3:54.6, 1926          2,854

Douglas Lowe         48.5*, 1927           1:51.2, 1928        3:57.0, 1924          2,849

Henry Stallard         49.7*, 1928           1:53.0, 1924        3:55.6, 1924          2,761    


In the spring of 1929 Paul Martin went off to the USA to further his surgical studies at Columbia University, in New York, and in September made a tentative return to the track, having joined the exclusive New York AC. He ran a handicap 600 yards and 1000 yards in an NYAC meeting and was 2nd in both, conceding up to 40 yards. He presumably gave no thought to more serious competition, which was maybe a shame because Phil Edwards, of Canada (though born in British Guiana, now Guyana), had the World’s fastest half-mile of the year, with 1:52.2 in Philadelphia on 1 June, and Leo Lermond, of the Boston Athletic Association, the fastest mile of  4:13.0 in New York on 18 June. Edwards had also been the first non-American to win the AAU 880 yards since 1888 and would remain the only one at that distance or 800 metres until 1955.


However, Paul Martin then competed with rather more seriousness in the indoor season of 1930. He was not the first European to get involved in such a brief and hectic calendar of winter meetings, and the most noted of the few who had done so had been Paavo Nurmi, whose exhaustive campaign of 1925 had included most notably World records at 1500 metres, 3000 metres and 5000 metres and the AAU national title at two miles. Nurmi made a return visit in 1929, winning at two miles indoors and then outdoors but losing a mile race to Ray Conger in New York in February.


Conger had been a disappointment at the 1928 Olympics, trailing in 10th in the 1500 metres final, but was certainly the best of the US milers, having set a national record for 1500 metres of 3:55.0 at that year’s Olympic Trials. In 1929 he had run a mile in 4:13.2, which was only 1.2sec slower than the indoor record, held jointly by Paavo Nurmi and Joie Ray, of the USA,  since 1925. Everywhere that Paul Martin went in those first months of 1930 to compete on the boards against Conger or Edwards, he was hailed excitedly in US newspaper headlines. One of the leading track writers of that time, Davis J. Walsh, of the International News Service, was more worked up than most about the rivalries involved, writing as follows: “The Conger-Martin vendetta has carried through the winter season, and after the Doctor had scored two wins in as many starts it reached a climax the other night in a special mile which the Doctor lost by inches. This was one of those unusual races, and it ended up leaving the Doctor very wroth. He thought he had another half-lap to go”.  Conger had won in New York, 4:15.2 to 4:15.6, and afterwards Paul Martin – seemingly not all “wroth” – was the first to admit that it was his own fault in mis-judging the finishing-point of the race. The reporter, Walsh, was renowned for his debonair and deft wit, but maybe this time he had over-reached himself in building up a story. Martin’s time for the mile (1609.35 metres) was almost exactly the equivalent of what he had run in the 1928 Olympic 1500 metres final.


Martin traded wins at 880 yards and 1000 yards in various cities with Conger, who had won the AAU titles for the latter event in 1928 and 1929, and with Edwards, the 600 yards champion in those years (and would be again in 1930 and 1931). The key race in that 1930 campaign was the AAU 1000 yards at Madison Square Garden on 18 March, six days after that mile described above, and Martin beat Conger by three yards in a meeting record 2:12.6. This made interesting comparison with the IAAF-recognised outdoor World record of 2:11.2, which had been set by Great Britain’s Cyril Ellis the previous year. Ellis had finished 5th in that 1928 Olympic 1500 metres, one place ahead of Martin. It’s worth repeating that between 1906 and 1955 Martin was the only non-US winner of the AAU 1000 yards or 1000 metres. Curiously, and inexplicably, there was no mile event in those Championships until 1932.


Martin and Conger met again outdoors in what was inevitably described by the press as a “revenge match”, and Conger won at 1000 yards in Newark, New Jersey, by two yards in an undistinguished time of 2:18.0. There was talk in the press that at the end of April Martin would run in some sort of specially organised race at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, founded in 1895, and still of major world-wide importance now 130 or so years later. It didn’t happen, and the races in which it was said Martin would take part were won in unexceptional times for the mile by Conger (4:25.0)  and at ¾-of-a-mile by George Bullwinkle (3:05.2), who for the next three years would be 2nd in the AAU indoor 1000 yards. 


That’s the last we hear from Martin until September 1931, when he won an 800 metres at Colombes (where else ?) in 1:55.6, which ranked him equal 38th in the World. He still had no challengers in his home land, and after a reasonably promising 1:54.1 for 800 metres in his home city of Lausanne in June he went to Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympics but was 5th in both his heats at 800 and 1500 metres, kept out of the final for the latter distance by a margin of 0.3sec behind the 1928 champion, Finland’s Harri Larva, 3:58.8 to 3:59.1. The first European Championships were held in Turin in 1934, and Martin qualified easily enough in the 1500 metres, in 2nd place in his heat, but was right out of it in the final, as Italy’s Luigi Beccali won in 3:54.6 and Martin was 9th of 11, almost 12sec behind. 


Paul Martin’s track career had, to all intents and purposes, come to an end after his American adventure of 1930 at the age of 28. Despite his immense responsibilities in Lausanne as a surgeon, he went on to the 1936 Olympics – his fifth Games appearance – but his best 800 metres that year was only 1:56.4 and it would seem that his selection was more a rite of honour as the national champion yet again at 800 and 1500 metres than one made in any sense of real expectation. He was eliminated in the heats of both events but was in good company. Also 6th in his 800 metres heat was Rudolf Harbig, of Germany, who would revolutionise the event within the next three years, setting a World record of 1:46.6 which would last until 1955 – the same year that Martin’s Swiss record was at last surpassed after a much longer life-span. 


During World War II Martin served with the Swiss Army frontier force and directed fitness training for officers and physical education staff. He was also sent to Germany by the Red Cross to monitor the conditions in which wounded prisoners-of-war were being kept, and he helped set up reception and exercise centres for refugees from Germany or Italy. It might be thought that Swiss athletes, like those of Sweden, would have benefited from wartime neutrality, and there was actually one World record broken – in the women’s high jumlp – but no advance was made at Martin’s favoured 800 metres. The leading performer for eight successive years from 1943 through to 1950 was Karl Volkmer, but the fastest he ever managed was 1:53.2.


Resuming his surgery practice in Lausanne after the war, Dr Martin took part in long-distance running and ski-ing events, and according to Dr Messerli, who had taken such an interest in Martin’s activities ever since his teenage days, “He was an example for everybody, above all for youth. All his life he had advised young people and continued to do so as an active president of the Stade Lausanne club”. There was still time for other pursuits, as Dr Messerli added: “An excellent writer, a subtle and convincing public speaker, Dr Martin published many books, and among his subjects was Olympism, of which no one understood better than he the spirit and the grandeur. He continued to follow the evolution of the Olympic movement as a passionate and knowledgeable spectator at the Games of 1948, 1952, 1960 and 1968. He was a brilliant ambassador for our country – a fine life, active and replete”.


When the “father figure” of modern athletics historical and statistical studies, Roberto Quercetani, came to write a 280-page book about the 800 metres in 1992, he asked the director of sport for Switzerland’s French-language TV channel, Boris Acquadro, to contribute his thoughts about Paul Martin. Acquadro, who was a particular fan of middle-distance events, described Martin in his headline as “a complete man” and concluded by way of explanation, “He was, above all, a man whose existence went much further than the sports framework, a man of real humanity, thanks to his rare sense of friendship and his radiant personality”.  


A postscript by the author: Swiss 800 metres runners of the highest class are a relatively rare species, bu I have vivid memories of two very worthy successors to Paul Martin, As a youthful spectator at the 1960 Rome Olympics I was, of course, highly impressed by the unexpected success of Peter Snell in the 800 metres, in which I took a particular interest, being a gangling club-class half-miler myself at the time, but Christian Wägli, of Switzerland, also riveted my attention – tall, long-striding, he led for 600 metres in the final, which was an enterprising tactic I would always admire, and finished a gallant 5th. He reduced the Swiss record to 1:47.3 that year. In 1973 the highly influential US coach, Fred Wilt, published a book containing the training schedules of dozens of middle-distance athletes of varying ability, and he said of Wägli, “Through training on his own so often, he is used to having no one in front of him when he is running, and this has dictated his strategy”.


Moving the clock on 41 years from those Rome Olympics, I was at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, as a BBC Radio commentator and on a rest day from competition took the opportunity to tour the city’s numerous book-shops. Stopping for coffee in the company of the late Peter Matthews, who was so knowledgeable a broadcaster and writer, a flurry of activity on the pavement outside caught our attention. Recognising that it was André Bucher, the Swiss winner of the previous day’s 800 metres, about to be interviewed on television, Peter and I spontaneously applauded, to the bemusement of the other café customers in that Western Canadian city, whose sporting interests would much more likely to have veered towards ice-hockey rather than athletics. Bucher ran 1:42.55 for 800 metres that year, which would no doubt have caused Paul Martin much delight. Bucher was also capable of 46.32 for 400 metres and 3:38.44 for 1500 metres, which amply demonstrates the sort of range of speed and stamina required for the 800 metres in the 21st Century which would have been unimaginable in the days of  “The Complete Man”.    







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