Philip Noel-Baker's unique double: A Nobel Prize and an Olympic medal

Philip Noel-Baker who was Britain’s flag-carrier at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp won the silver in the 1500 metres. In 1959 he won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long-standing contribution to the cause of disarmament and peace.”

Great honour: Philip Noel-Baker receiving the Nobel Peace Prize from Gunnar Jahn, President of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee in a ceremony at Oslo University.   -  The Hindu photo library

When I was in junior school, I had one ambition: to win the Nobel Prize as well as an Olympic medal. Believe it or not, I didn’t manage that. Only one man in history has that unique double. We will come to him in a moment.

Denmark’s Bohr brothers, Neils and Harald, one a great physicist and the other a top-rated mathematician both played football for the same club. Harald was in the team that won a silver at the 1908 Olympics. Neils won the Nobel in 1922. More recently, Kurth Wurthrich, the Swiss winner of the Chemistry Nobel (2002), played in a FIFA exhibition match.

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Like Bohr, Albert Camus (Nobel 1957 for literature) was a goalkeeper. There have been other Nobel winners with a sporting background too. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett played first class cricket. Harold Pinter was a cricket fanatic, and played club cricket for long. Edwin Hubble (who didn’t win a Nobel but was the century’s top astronomer) starred when the Chicago Maroons won a hat-trick of national basketball titles early last century.

And so to our Nobel-Olympics superman. This is Philip Noel-Baker who was Britain’s flag-carrier at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and won the silver in the 1500 metres. In 1959 he won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long-standing contribution to the cause of disarmament and peace.”

In Antwerp, the medallist organised social meetings between the teams, paving the way for the idea of the Olympic Village.

Noel-Baker (he was Baker then, later when he married, added his wife Irene Noel’s surname to his own) ran earlier at the 1912 Stockholm Games too, but sacrificed his chances to act as pacemaker for teammate Arnold Jackson who won the gold.

“I didn’t think I had much of a chance,” he said later, “so I thought I had better help him. I said to him ‘Jacko, you stick close to me and I’ll see we both get to the right place at the right time.’”

At the bell, both men were in position. Noel-Baker finished sixth.

“How pleased he was, and how pleased I was too,” Noel-Baker was quoted as saying later.

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Eight years and a World War later, Noel-Baker earned his first medal finishing behind his friend Albert Hill in the 1500m.

Through the 1920s and 30s, he helped the British Olympic Association grow, and in 1948 when the Games came to London he played a prominent role. He supported a boycott of the 1936 Games in Berlin because, he said, “Hitler violated the Olympic Charter by excluding Jews and Catholics and workers from the German team.” He was now a Member of Parliament.

Years later when the western powers boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, he felt boycotts were wrong and he had made a mistake in 1936.

“War,” he wrote, “is a damnable, filthy thing and has destroyed civilisation after civilisation — that is the essence of my belief.” He campaigned for nearly half a century for multilateral disarmament, and continued playing tennis into his 80s.