The British Empire Games of 1930

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The British Empire Games of 1930

Long before the Pan Am Games, Hamilton hosted the first edition of what became the Commonwealth Games.

Cover of the official program for the 1930 British Empire Games. Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Melville Marks “Bobby” Robinson was pissed off. As manager of the Canadian track team during the 1928 Summer Olympics at Amsterdam, Robinson noticed the lack of respect given to Canada despite winning 15 medals, especially by the Americans. Disputed results, favouritism shown toward the Yankees in using training facilities, and a direct insult to a Canadian official by future International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage signalled a lack of comradery and sportsmanship Robinson felt was creeping into the Olympic movement. He was so angry that he contemplated pulling the Canadian contingent out of the 1932 games in Los Angeles.

That anger played its part in bringing the first major international multi-sport competition to the Golden Horseshoe, 85 years before this year’s Pan Am Games.

While in Amsterdam, Robinson chatted up a recurring idea in his mind—a cordial, relaxed athletic competition for the best athletes in the British Empire. It wasn’t a new concept; talk of such games arose during the 1890s, when J. Astley Cooper wrote several pieces proposing athletics be included in an annual festival designed to boost goodwill across the empire. Four teams, including Canada, had participated in a meet in 1911 to mark the coronation of King George V. During the 1920s, the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada (AAUC) passed a proposal to support an empire competition to be held in between Olympic Games.

M  M  "Bobby" Robinson wearing the official blazer uniform at the first British Empire Games in Hamilton, 1930  Image courtesy of the Burlington Historical Society

M. M. “Bobby” Robinson wearing the official blazer uniform at the first British Empire Games in Hamilton, 1930. Image courtesy of the Burlington Historical Society.

Robinson’s lobbying for a British Empire Games raised interest in Hamilton, where he served as a sports editor with the Spectator. His timing was good, as Canada looked to strengthen its ties with the empire, especially as the onset of the Great Depression resulted in a trade war with the United States. The AAUC supported Hamilton as the site for a competition to be held in 1930. Robinson’s lobbying helped convince the city to support the construction of a new $110,000 municipal swimming pool on King Street and improvements to the recently built Civic Stadium at Balsam and Beechwood avenues.

Support for the games was warm among the empire’s dominions, but less so in the motherland, where athletic officials feared that the new competition would be seen as a rival to the Olympics. A promise from the City of Hamilton in early 1930 to cover travel costs of distant teams didn’t soothe the fears. Robinson refused to give up, and weeks of negotiations produced a stellar cast of officials which won over the Brits, topped by King George V as the games’ patron.

The new competition needed a mission statement:

It will be designed on the Olympic model, both in general construction and its stern definition of the amateur. But the Games 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 novel adventure for the pressure of international rivalry.

Civic Stadium ready for the British Empire Games, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 952.

Events were limited to boxing, lawn bowling, rowing, swimming, track, and wrestling. Women only competed in swimming events, though a separate Canadian female track championship meet was scheduled for the same time.

The Spectator urged Hamiltonians to do their civic duty by providing unquestioning support for the competition. One can hear echoes of similar pronouncements made for the current Pan Am Games:

Many years will roll by before Canada is again host to such a galaxy of athletic stars as have assembled for the British Empire Games. Conceivably, the opportunity that is at hand may not come this way again. Patronage of the games should be considered in the light of a duty. To be pitied indeed is the man who is lackadaisical in his attitude towards this splendid venture. The fire of patriotism is not in him.

The public heeded the call, as tickets ranging from 35 cents for boxing matches to $5 for a pass to all track events sold out. Scalpers (of whom, the Spectator noted, “nobody has any sympathy”) were present on opening day. Coupled with donations, ticket sales helped reduced the city’s financial loss to a small amount.

Front page, the Globe, August 18, 1930

Front page, the Globe, August 18, 1930.

Around 17,000 people attended the opening ceremony at Civic Stadium on August 16, 1930. Eleven teams paraded in, stretching from British Guiana (now Guyana) to New Zealand, with the Canadians decked out in dark red blazers, green ties, and white pants. Prime Minister R.B. Bennett relayed greetings from the King and other British dignitaries who couldn’t attend. Hamilton mayor John Peebles was peeved that no city officials were allowed to speak.

At 2:30 p.m., Governor-General Viscount Willingdon officially declared the games open, observing that “the greatness of the Empire is owing to the fact that every citizen has inborn in him the love of games and sports.” A Torontonian won the first medal of the games a few hours later. George “Spike” Smallacombe, who was based out of the West End YMCA, won gold for a 48.5 foot leap in triple jump.

Cartoon by Robert A  Davis, Hamilton Spectator, August 19, 1930

Cartoon by Robert A. Davis, Hamilton Spectator, August 19, 1930.

While rowing events drew up to 100,000 spectators, a highly anticipated match-up didn’t occur. Fans were eager to see Toronto’s Jack Guest, who had shared a silver medal at the 1928 Summer Olympics, go up against Australian gold medalist Bobby Pearce. But Guest was in the midst of a slump and, after two weeks of intensive training to prepare him for both the Empire Games and the Canadian Henley, decided he wasn’t in optimum shape for either competition. “My legs are gone and I prefer to wait until I am fit and ready to meet Pearce,” he told Star sports editor W.A. Hewitt on August 13. Pearce won a gold medal, and enjoyed Hamilton so much he permanently settled there after the games. In 1938, Pearce won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s best athlete.

Athletes’ village, 1930-style. Prince of Wales School, Hamilton, photo taken from the official 1930 British Empire Games program.

Pearce wasn’t alone in his admiration of the city, even if the visiting athletes enjoyed modest accommodations. While female competitors resided at the Royal Connaught Hotel, males were housed next to the stadium in Prince of Wales School. Classrooms housed up to 24 cots each. A temporary dining hall seating 200 was built out back. British runner Tommy Hampson later recalled how the overall welcome from Hamiltonians outweighed any reservations about living conditions:

What we missed in creature comforts there, Hamilton’s hospitality more than compensated for. We had the freedom of the city, including free public transport, admission to cinemas, admission to all the events of the Games and other privileges. I personally was “adopted” by a Canadian family who hailed from the same district of London as myself.

Percy Williams, 1920s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4611.

The games climaxed on August 23 with the race everyone waited for. Sprinter Percy Williams won two gold medals at the 1928 Summer Olympics, and won all but one of the 22 races he had competed at since then. Less than two weeks earlier at Varsity Stadium, he set a new record in the 100-metre race at the Canadian track championships. Williams read the oath of allegiance on behalf of all competitors at the opening ceremonies, then proceeded to set a long-standing games record of running the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds during a heat. As the final approached, pundits wondered if he could break the world record of 9.5 seconds. Despite rain, a sold-out crowd hoped to see Williams succeed.

Around the 70-yard mark, Williams tore the tendons in his upper left leg. Demonstrating the sportsmanship Robinson wanted the games to display, Williams’s teammate Johnny Fitzpatrick fell back from his second-place position when he saw the champion was in trouble, grabbing Williams after he crossed the finish line with 9.9 second dash. With no team doctor on hand, Williams sat in agony for an hour before limping out to the dais. The injury effectively ended Williams’s career. He grew bitter about his sporting experiences, culminating in being the only living Canadian Olympic medalist who refused the federal government’s invitation to the Montreal Summer Olympics in 1976. Six years later, wracked by arthritis, he killed himself via a shotgun blast to the head.

Source: Hamilton Spectator, August 25, 1930

Source: Hamilton Spectator, August 25, 1930.

As the games ended, a permanent British Empire Games organizing committee was formed. The next competition was awarded to South Africa, though by the time they occurred in August 1934 they were moved to London out of concerns over the treatment of Asian and black athletes. The competition evolved into the Commonwealth Games, which Canada has hosted three additional times.

Robinson was hailed in the international press—the Times of London observed that “he never lost faith in the face of great discouragement and lack of interest elsewhere.” At the closing banquet on August 23 at the Royal Connaught Hotel, Robinson addressed some of his critics. “Certain press opinions suggested that we were overdoing the flag-waving business,” he noted, “but they can realize now that we all enjoy flag-waving.” He also felt that Great Britain still didn’t fully respect Canadians, and that running successful games proved our worthiness.

A month after the games ended, Robinson addressed the West Toronto Kiwanis Club. He criticized Torontonians for not being more supportive during the competition, similar to admonishments the city has heard about our blasé Pan Am Games attitude.

Source: Toronto Star, August 14, 1930

Source: Toronto Star, August 14, 1930.

The facilities employed during the British Empire Games remained in use for decades. Prince of Wales School was demolished in 2007 and replaced with a new building. Civic Stadium later housed the CFL’s Tiger-Cats, and, after a remodelling, was renamed Ivor Wynne Stadium in 1971. Proposals to replace the field arose during Hamilton’s failed bid for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and became reality after the site was designated as the Pan Am soccer venue. Demolished after the 2012 season, it was replaced by Tim Hortons Field.

The last athletic venue standing, the Jimmy Thompson Swimming Pool (named in the 1960s after a veteran aquatics instructor), was threatened with demolition as part of a plan to redevelop the site as a seniors’ centre. In March 2015, Hamilton city council approved a motion to integrate the pool into the new facility.

Additional material from The Commonwealth Games: The First 60 Years 1930-1990 by Cleve Dheensaw (Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 1994); Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories Behind the Medals by Brian Oliver (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014); the August 25, 1930 and September 26, 1930 editions of the Globe; the August 13, 1930, August 14, 1930, August 15, 1930, August 25, 1930, and March 31, 2015 editions of the Hamilton Spectator; the October 18, 1999 edition of Maclean’s; the July 19, 1930, August 8, 1930, August 13, 1930, and August 18, 1930 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 25, 1930 edition of the Times.

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