The History Behind Hamilton 1930
90 years ago this week, 23 year old Canadian triple jumper Gordon “Spike” Smallacombe won the first gold at what were then known as Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario.
When he received his medal, he mounted a victory podium. The ceremony is familiar now but then it was something new. It was devised a man who never won gold, silver or even bronze. His name was Melville Marks Robinson, known to all as “Bobby”. Without him, the games might never have taken flight. For many years he remained an unsung hero and was only inducted into Canada’s sporting hall of fame five years ago.
At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Robinson acted as Canada’s team manager and doubled as a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator newspaper.
He called a meeting of his counterparts from Commonwealth nations. These included Les Duff from Australia, Sir Harry Barclay from Great Britain, James Doig from South Africa and New Zealand’s manager Harry Amos.
There was a degree of dissatisfaction with the Olympic organisation and in particular the way the amateur regulations were applied. This was reflected by Amos who reported back to Wellington that “the Britishers have made a mistake in allowing the Games to be run by the continentals.”
The group met again in London shortly afterwards where a Canadian proposal for “Empire Games was formally accepted.
These were to be “designed on the Olympic model, but they will be very different, free from the excessive stimulus and the babel of the International stadium.They should be merrier and less stern and will substitute the stimulus of a novel adventure for the pressure of international rivalry.”
Hamilton, described as “the athletic centre of Canada”, was soon confirmed as host city.
An organisation such as the Commonwealth Games Federation did not yet exist. Instead, a general committee was set up and a further working committee within the Athletic Union of Canada. Both were led by Edward Wentworth Beatty, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In Hamilton itself, what would now be called the local organising committee was founded with Robinson at the helm.
The International Olympic Committee kept a close eye on developments. President Henri Baillet-Latour told his colleagues “he was pleased to inform them that fears expressed in certain quarters that the proposed organisation by Canada of these Games in 1930 might seriously prejudice the X Olympiad in 1932 were quite groundless.”
Then in 1929, came the financial crash on Wall Street which reverberated around the world. This was stoically described by Hamilton organisers as an “outlook which promised more than the usual obstacles.”
There was now a danger some teams might not be able to afford to attend.
Music hall star Sir Harry Lauder helped pay for the Scottish team’s passage.
Although regulations specified that the organising committee “has nothing to do with the travelling expenses of competitors and officials” Robinson typically arranged travel subsidies for his visitors.
Some CAN$5000 was given to the New Zealand contingent, who travelled on the steamer Aorangi.
24 year old swimmer Gladys Pidgeon was their only female competitor. Her participation was conditional on the presence of her mother as chaperone (at her own expense).
The Australian team travelled on the same ship which made a stopover in Honolulu before continuing on to Vancouver.
There was still a long train journey, but it was here that Beatty’s railway connections made sure the athletes were well looked after.
Trains in London nearly put paid to the chances of England’s flag bearer Lord Burghley. He was saying goodbye to friends at Waterloo station with boxer Frank Brooman, when the train started to pull out.
“They dispensed with farewells and in true athletic fashion dashed after the boat train.Burghley hurdled two luggage barrows in his best Stamford Bridge manner.” said reports.
Both made it onto the train. Neither were unduly affected. Brooman took welterweight bronze and Burghley added to his 1928 400m Hurdles gold with victory in 120 yards hurdles in “his characteristically easy way.”
The General rules of the Games had stipulated that they were open “to any member of the Commonwealth of Nations known as the British Empire.” and that “amateur athletes only are allowed to participate. Should the amateur standing of any contestant be challenged, the matter will be considered by a special appeal committee.”
Competitions were open to men and women although in the end, women only took part in swimming and diving. They were accommodated at the Royal Connaught Hotel, whilst the men’s teams were billeted at the Prince of Wales School.
The Games were opened after a short ceremony by Governor General Lord Willingdon.
The Baton Relay had not yet been introduced but Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett read a message from Games patron King George V.
“I am sure this competition cannot fail to foster a spirit of brotherhood and sportsmanship amongst all taking part in the Games.”
A newspaper report marvelled at the new technology. “Speeches were picked up by microphones and relayed by means of loudspeakers not only to the thousands of Canadians actually in the stadium but all over the Dominion.”
The athletes’ parade began with an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander bearing the Union Flag.
“Behind him came the teams, led by eight youths from Newfoundland all in white.” wrote Sir Percival Phillips, special correspondent of the Daily Mail newspaper who described the procession as a “blaze of colour.”
Amongst the standard bearers was swimmer Valerie Davies, the only Welsh competitor and the only female flag bearer, two years before a woman did so at the Winter Olympics.
The sport began only half an hour after the ceremony.
All this was watched by Bobby Robinson’s daughter Edna, then only 14 years of age. She kept many of the sporting artefacts accumulated by her father.
“Edna was so proud of her dad and how successful of the Games were.” said Greg Maychak, a Hamiltonian who became fascinated by the history of his city’s finest sporting hour and came to know Edna in her later years.
“All I ever heard was how great the games were. She saw the sacrifice that was made by the volunteers here and she saw from a spectator’s perspective how much fun the Games were, and how the city came together to support the athletes.”
Something of that spirit came in the 100 yards heats. New Zealand’s Allan Elliott was disqualified after two false starts but “the crowd made so much noise that it was impossible to continue the racing until Elliott was allowed back.”
Percy Williams, pride of Canada after his 1928 Olympic gold, won in Hamilton as well, but victory came at a price. He pulled a muscle and finished the race in agony.
Imperial rather than metric measurements. New Zealander Billy Savidan won gold over six miles, but not before some drama. He crossed the line thinking he had finished, but an official told him a mistake had been made and that there was still a lap to go.
“From my easiest race it turned into one of my hardest. I had stopped dead at the finishing line and had to get moving again. The field was closing.” he said later.
The first day ended with swimming. This was where women had their first taste of competition. Amongst the competitors was Valerie Davies the Welsh flag bearer. She won two silver medals and a bronze but could do nothing to beat England’s Joyce Cooper who returned home with four gold medals.
There was even a world record from England's Celia Wolstenholme in the 200 yards breaststroke.
Selling popcorn in the stands was a young Canadian swimmer called George Larson who was inspired by what he saw to win relay gold in 1934.
There was no competition on Sundays in those days, but the Games programme resumed on Monday morning with bowls. England made a clean sweep of the golds.
Some rather unusual scheduling meant that there was no further athletics until later in the week, but in the marathon, Scotland’s Dunky McLeod Wright established a large lead.
“Wright was given a glorious reception when he entered the stadium to run round the empty track. “ The second place runner was England’s Sam Ferris, who “ after stopping to congratulate the winner, went on to finish amid cheers.”
South Africa’s Oonagh Whitsett won the springboard diving gold and also entered the high diving in Hamilton Bay but later scratched. Welsh swimmer Davies then withdrew, leaving the way clear for Pearl Stoneham and Helen McCormack of Canada to dive for the medals.
Another Canadian, Alf Phillips won both men’s events.
Rowing was also held in the bay. Australia’s Olympic champion Bobby Pearce won the single sculls to confirm his reputation as the finest in the world.
Not everything had a gold medal at stake. Competitions for schools, canoeing championships and sailing were also staged during the week.
As the Games ended, the Hamilton Spectator published a farewell poem
“We trust you’ve found us thoughtful of your comfort
Fair in plaudits to those who won or lost whilst proud of honours won,
By those we call our own..
We grasp your hands and say au revoir, safe home and come again!”
Although the Games were widely hailed as a success, Robinson had found himself having to deal with discrimination from one of his own Games organising committee members against a local boy. Captain John “Cap” Cornelius had made strenuous efforts to deny a promising 19 year old Hamilton born runner Ray Lewis the chance to compete in collegiate events before the Games because of the colour of his skin. Robinson remonstrated and even withdrew the sponsorship promised by his newspaper as a result of the discrimination.
“Every time I lined up at the blocks I thought of the two people who wanted me to fail.” Lewis said later.
Lewis did not get his chance in Hamilton, but suitably inspired, he was chosen for the Canadian Olympic bronze medal winning 4x400m relay squad in 1932. He followed this with another at the 1934 Empire Games in London. These Games had originally been scheduled for Johannesburg but were withdrawn over concerns over what eventually became known as “Apartheid” in South Africa.
This article was written for the CGF by Philip Barker, a leading reporter, commentator and Commonwealth Games and Olympic historian.