RETRO: Olympian Ernest’s Berlin silver lining

Ernest Harper (second) in the 1936 Berlin Olympics marathon.
Ernest Harper (second) in the 1936 Berlin Olympics marathon.

IT was a mishap which made global news - the Sheffield Half Marathon cancelled because of a lack of water.

But the shambolic scenes played out in the city earlier this month may well have brought a disbelieving smile from one of our greatest ever runners.

Ernest Harper

Ernest Harper

Three-time Olympian Ernest Harper - who competed in the 1924, 1928 and 1936 games - was famed across the world for never taking a drink during long distance races due to his belief it would cause stomach cramps. Instead, his refreshment of choice was a cigarette, smoked immediately after finishing.

And few could argue that his unorthodox approach to body replenishment worked.

For Harper, from Stannington, not only took silver in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - despite running eight miles with a badly blistered foot - he also won the AAA 10 Miles title four times, the Northern Counties champion six times and the English title twice.

Additionally, he took fourth place in the infamous 1924 Paris Olympic 10,000 metre cross-country in which more than half the field failed to finish due to the searing heat, and seven were hospitalised suffering delirium.

Ernest Harper

Ernest Harper

Received wisdom also says he may even have won gold in Germany but for an act of almost unthinkable sportsmanship. More of which shortly.

“He was an astonishing figure in Sheffield’s sporting history, the real life Tough Of The Track,” says Heeley-based amateur historian Matthew Bell, who has researched Harper’s life for a new upcoming book about Sheffield Olympians. “There’s little doubt he was one of Great Britain’s greatest ever long-distance runners - despite never actually winning a marathon.

“What health and safety would say about him today I’m not sure. But perhaps they might realise that sluicing of the body and drink stations every three miles is not as important as many believe.”

Harper was born in 1902 in Clay Cross, Chesterfield, but was raised and lived most of his life in Stannington. After leaving school, he became a ganister miner by trade.

His first ever race was the 1921 Stannington Steeplechase - three and half miles to Loxley and back - which he won with little bother. After that he joined the Hallamshire Harriers running club and his natural talent meant that three years later he was competing in his first Olympics.

He finished just outside the medals in Paris 1924 but simply finishing was something of an achievement. That year’s 10,000 metre cross country was run in such intense heat - 45°C along roads with no shade - that only 15 of the original field of 39 completed the course. Fellow Sheffield lad Joe Williams dropped out before the half way point. Another competitor, the Swede Edvin Wide, collapsed with a couple of kilometres to go and was rushed to hospital where, it was reported wrongly, he had died. The event received such bad publicity, it was dropped from all future Olympics.

Four years later in Amsterdam, Harper finished a disappointing 22nd in the marathon.

But it was in 1936 when he really made his name.

It was not simply that he finished second in the gruelling 26 mile run, nor that he did it without drinking anything en route - despite this being the first games where drink posts were set up along the way.

“What really set Harper apart was that he gave advice and encouragement to the runner who would eventually beat him to the gold medal,” says Matthew, who has written Steel and Grace: The Lives and Times of Sheffield’s Olympic Medallists with Handsworth author Gary Armstrong.

Japanese runner Kitel Son was shoulder to shoulder with Harper for much of the race. Juan Zabala, holder of the title, was the only man ahead of them, and Son was considering trying to catch the Argentine up.

“Harper told me not to do it,” Son later said. “He warned me that Zabala was setting too hot a pace and would soon crack.”

It was exactly what happened. The front runner fell away, leaving Son and Harper to battle it out for gold. When Son emerged triumphant, he said: “The gold is mine but I owe it to the Englishman.”

The result may well have also been different had blisters not developed on our man’s feet.

“I kept pounding my feet hard in the hope of breaking the blisters,” he later told The Star. “The last eight miles were agonising. The pain was wicked but I felt my chance was so good that I kept going. But once Son left me I knew I couldn’t win unless he dropped out.”

As a postscript, both athletes met Adolf Hitler following the race.

It was to be Harper’s last major international event. Shortly after being welcomed back to Sheffield with a civic reception, he retired. Just how adored he was in his home city was illustrated when, the following January, after a public subscription, he was given a house in Stannington. He remained there until he moved to Australia with wife Mabel in 1958 where he passed away aged 77 in 1979.