Click here to print page

Arthur Wint — the man who won Jamaica's first Olympic gold medal 70 years ago

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL
Sunday Observer writer
editorial@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 05, 2018

At six feet five inches tall, Arthur Wint was hard to miss in a crowd. He stood out even more when he competed as an athlete.

That he did 70 years ago to the day by winning Jamaica's (then competing under British rule) first gold medal at the Olympic Games. The gangly Wint, 28 years old at the time, won the 400 metres (formerly 440 yards) in London ahead of compatriot and race favourite Herb McKenley, with American Mal Whitfield taking the bronze.

Wint wore down a tiring McKenley to win in 46.2 seconds, an Olympic record. McKenley clocked 46.4 seconds.

It was sweet revenge for Wint who finished second to Whitfield (father of CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield) in the 800 metres.

The former Calabar High School and Excelsior College student started a Jamaican athletics dynasty that flourishes today with superstars like Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. But 70 years ago, before the advent of mass media, there was no great fanfare around Wint's historic win.

“There was nothing like that; it certainly didn't have any national impact,” recalled Mike Fennell, who listened to the race by radio. “There was no special ceremony; recognition came much later. It was not like today.”

Wint and McKenley won their three races going into the final. Though McKenley was favoured for the title, Wint had the best time (46.3 secs) in the semi-finals; McKenley won his semi in 47.3 secs.

Fennell, who later served for many years as president of the Jamaica Olympic Association, recalls a conversation he had with G C Foster, physiotherapist for Jamaica's team, about the 400 metres final.

“He said Herb was by far the most outstanding athlete. So, he told Arthur, 'don't try to sprint with Herb. Just use your long legs'.”

Wint apparently heeded Foster's advice, as he came off the pace to score an unlikely victory.

The London Games was the first Olympics in 12 years. German leader Adolf Hitler's invasion of European countries in 1939 outraged the United Kingdom and its allies including the United States, which eventually got into the conflict after Germany's ally Japan bombed its naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The Olympics, scheduled for Japan in 1940 and London in 1944, were cancelled.

Born in Plowden, Manchester, Wint showed promise as an athlete at Calabar and first represented Jamaica at the Pan American Games in Panama in 1938, winning the 800 metres.

That promise was nearly shattered by a tragic incident in January 1941 when Wint accidentally shot his co-worker at the Titles Office in Kingston. At his trial, he was represented by Norman Manley who successfully argued Wint's case, and he was given two years' probation.

He joined the British war effort as a member of the Royal Air Force based in Canada. He was later stationed in the UK but saw no action.

While there, he competed in domestic meets, dominating the 800 and 400 metres. At the time, McKenley, another Calabar past student, was a force on the US collegiate circuit for the University of Illinois.

Unlike today where the Internet and its spin-offs provide instant news, Fennell said there was no post-race excitement.

“We were told of this wonderful event and that we should listen to our radio (ZQI). Everybody expected Herb to win, and the talk about town was that we could also get second,” he told the Jamaica Observer.

Jamaica had a formidable team in the 4X400 metres relays. Wint, McKenley, George Rhoden (a semi-finalist in the 400 metres) and Les Laing were certain medallists but a leg-weary Wint pulled-up on the third leg.

Four years later, in Helsinki, Finland, there was no such mishap as that quartet coasted to victory in the event.

Wint's last major race was an appearance at Sabina Park in 1953.

A physician by profession, he had a distinguished medical career in the UK and Jamaica. He also served as Jamaica's high commissioner to London from 1974 to 1978.

He died at age 72 in October 1992. He was awarded the Order of Jamaica by the Jamaica Government in 1989.

The Athlete, the iconic statue at the National Stadium in Kingston, is inspired by his form.