In the Fall of 1981 in a darkened theatre in Guelph, Ontario, I sat with my running club team mates anticipating the start of the film Chariots of Fire. While this film has been recognized as one of the top British films of all time, we were just excited to see anything that had to do with running. I, however, was excited for another reason. My uncle, David Moffat Johnson, had also competed in the race depicted in the movie and I was curious to see whether any mention was made of him.
The race was the 400 meter sprint, part of the 1924 Olympic Games. These games were famous for many things: the great Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi won five gold medals in five different distances including the 1500 and 5000 metre races held only 55 minutes apart. Johnny Weissmuller, the future Tarzan, astounded the spectators with his swimming prowess (and his beauty!). But probably the most poignant story coming out of these games was the rivalry between Eric Liddell of Scotland and Howard Abrahams of England immortalized in Chariots of Fire. A little-known footnote to the games was the Canadian entrant in the 400 meter race, David Moffat Johnson.
The 1924 Olympics was significant as the first Olympics after the end of the First World War that included most of the former European enemies (except for Germany). Although an Olympics game was held in 1920 in Antwerp, countries just emerging from the devastation of war lacked the enthusiasm and the funds to support the games and regarded the Olympics as trivial and inconsequential. The 1924 games, in contrast, were intended to be an extravaganza and a recognition that the world was moving on from the destruction of six years earlier. Purpose-built stadiums were erected. The Stade Nautique des Tourelles had heated water for the first time and room for 10,000 spectators, and the Olympic Stadium at Colombes where track and field events were held could seat 45,000 (VIII Olympiad, vol. 8, The Olympic Century: The Official History of the Modern Olympic Movement, Los Angeles, 1995). The Olympic games would become a spectator event. For Canada, the 1924 Olympics was their moment to be counted among the best in the world. The First World War had awakened in Canada a sense of itself as a distinct nation separate from Great Britain, and Canada was ready to grab glory in its own name.
The make-up of the track and field team exemplified this new attitude. Team members were chosen from across Canada based on their standing in Olympic trial races. Amateur standing was important with competitors chosen from all walks of life, whether gentleman or farm hand. About 60 hopefuls showed up at the training camp in Montreal in June 1924. Eventually 23 athletes were chosen for the track and field events and sailed on the C.P.O.S. Montclare to France on June 20th.
David Johnson, who was a Rhodes Scholar and studying in England at the time had not attended the camp but was selected as the 24 th member of the team. His selection was supported by Al Shrubb, an English middle distance champion, who had seen Johnson compete in the quarter mile event at a Cambridge-Oxford track meet in the Spring and was impressed by “his style and speed” and declared him “a coming champion.” The decision to include him was backed by A. S. Lamb, the director of athletics at McGill when Johnson was a McGill student, and also the manager of the Olympic team.
In his letter of recommendation for Johnson to the Rhodes Scholarship committee he wrote: “I feel that one has an exceptional opportunity of judging character in athletic competition, and it is especially in this connection that I have been privileged to know him. [Johnson] is one of the few men in the University to whom I can point with confidence, indicating an individual possessed of those rare qualities which make up sportsmanship and character.”
The opening ceremonies occurred about a week after the Canadians arrived, on Saturday, July 5th. According to coach Cornelius, “the Parade of Nations was a sight to behold; men of all nationalities, tall and short, black and white, the cream of the athletic world. It was indeed an inspiration to anyone. One could not help wondering why the same nations could not spend their money for this sort of development of their manhood instead of spending it on War.” It was indeed a test of manhood as women’s participation was tolerated only in the “appropriate” sports of tennis, swimming and fencing.”
Track and field events began on Sunday, July 6th, with the first of the heats for the 100m race. Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner, would have entered this race but because of his religious beliefs that forbade him from running on Sundays he entered the 200 and 400 meter races that were to be held later in the week. Howard Abrahams, his English counterpart and supposed rival, ran the 100 meter final on the Monday in an impressive time of 10.7 seconds beating the favoured Americans who had four men in the race. Four Canadians ran in the heats for this race but none made the final. Both Abrahams and Liddell were entered in the 200 meter race on Wednesday, the 9th, but neither did well with Liddell coming in third and a tired Abrahams trailing the pack. Again, no Canadians made the final. Two rounds of heats were held for the 400 meter race on Thursday, July 10th. The British Olympic Committee declared that “this race provided the greatest thrill of the meeting, for the world’s record was broken three times in two days and the heats and final were as exciting and as full of incident as anyone could have wished for.” The first round of heats consisting of 17 preliminary heats began on Thursday with four Canadians entered: Aylwin, Fuller, Johnson and Christie. Aylwin, Johnson and Christie made it through to the second round.
The second round consisted of 5 heats with Johnson the only Canadian making it through to the semi-finals, “coming in an easy second” to a South African runner. The semi-finals were held the next day with the first three of each round advancing to the final. Johnson came third in his semi-final behind the American Fitch who won in a record time of 47 4/5th seconds. According to a report in the Toronto Globe, Johnson “ran a magnificent race. He was leading right up to the finish, and was then nosed out by Fitch, the United States runner, and Butler, the English crack.”
The other semi-final saw Liddell, Imbach of Switzerland and Taylor of the USA advancing to the final. The final, then, included two Brits, two Americans, a Swiss and a Canadian.
Three hours after his “magnificent race,” Johnson lined up at 6:30 for the final in the Colombes Stadium. The stadium was electric with excitement at the prospect of this race. Would the ungainly Scot restore his reputation after refusing to run in the 100 meter and coming third in the 200? Would the Brits beat the Yanks? Perhaps an incentive for Liddell, was the presence of the Cameron Highlanders who struck up a stirring rendition of “The Campbells are coming” just before the start. The 1924 Toronto Globe described the race this way: [Liddell’s] victory was as decisive as it was startling, for, leading from the crack of the gun, he fought off his challenger, Fitch, in the stretch, and won going away by 8 meters. Fitch had to be content with second, and Butler of Great Britain was third. On the stretch behind lay the prostrate forms of Joseph Imbach, the little Swiss locksmith, who virtually broke down after having been the world’s record holder for 24 hours, and J. Coard Taylor of the United States, who, despite an injured ankle, had third place clinched with a closing rush, when he tripped over a lane marker, and swirled heavily to the ground.
Johnson ended up fourth, just short of the world record of 47 3/5th seconds set by Liddell. Little was made at the time, nor has been made since, of Johnson’s effort despite the fact that no other Canadian track and fielder made the finals of the 1924 Olympics, except for the 1600 meter relay team, which also included Johnson. The Globe acknowledged that through the “prowess” of Johnson, the Canadian standings at the Olympics rose from bottom at the beginning of the day to eighth following the race. The official Canadian Olympic Committee report only had this to say of the 400 meters: “we repeated five times with one man reaching the finals who secured fourth place.”
Maybe coming fourth is not something to brag about, but it should be acknowledged that Johnson competed with the best sprinters of his time and was the top athlete on the Canadian track and field team. Today McGill Athletics has recognized Johnson with a plaque on their Sports Wall of Fame. And, if you listen closely you can just hear the name “Johnson” over the loud speakers in the final seconds of the race in Chariots of Fire.
**Fun Fact** David is the great-uncle of Charlotte Brookes, Event Director at Canada Running Series