Olympian for whom peace was important thing

By Philip Barker

Last week’s leaked dossier of those who have turned down honours from the Palace included the name of a sportsman who made a remarkable contribution to Olympic competition and in politics.

Philip Noel-Baker: unique achievements in sport and world affairs

Philip Noel-Baker, who turned down recognition as a Companion of Honour in 1965, remains the only man to win an Olympic medal and the Nobel Peace Prize.

A century ago, he was an outstanding athlete. Known then simply as Philip Baker (he added his wife’s name to his own surname in 1943), he was chosen for the British Olympic team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. He qualified for the final of the 1,500 metres but came in sixth behind his team mate Arnold Strode-Jackson.

While in 1914, Strode-Jackson went off to war to become the youngest brigadier in the British army, Baker was a devout Quaker and so did not fight but joined the Ambulance Corps and served with great bravery, receiving medals from France and Italy as well as Britain.

After the war, Cambridge-educated Baker (he had married Irene Noel in 1915) helped draft the covenant of the League of Nations and helped formulate the Geneva Convention, though he still found time to train for the Antwerp Olympics. He qualified for the 1,500 metres final once again and this time he kept pace with the eventual winner. Albert Hill came home to complete a middle distance double but Baker took the silver medal.

He continued to have a close involvement with the Olympic movement. In 1924, as non-competing team captain, he carried the Great Britain name placard at the Paris Olympics. In 1952, he would be the commandant of the British team at the Helsinki Games.

As the world rolled inexorably towards another war in the 1930s, Noel-Baker was a staunch campaigner for disarmament. “War is a damnable thing that has destroyed civilization after civilization,” he said.

In the run-up to the 1936 Games in Berlin, Noel-Baker was one of those who advocated a boycott of what became known as “Hitler’s Games”, a point of view he later admitted was misguided. When there was doubt about Britain’s participation in the 1980 Moscow Games, he took the side of the British Olympic Association, feeling that the choice should be left to the participants.

Olympic star: Philip Noel-Baker, fourth from the left, at the start of the 1912 Olympic 1,500m final

Noel-Baker was concerned that politicians “be free to use sport for short-term political gain, for nothing nobler than catching votes in an upcoming election”.

Baker was first elected to the House of Commons as a Labour MP in 1929, and he served as an MP for Derby from 1936 until 1970, including holding a junior ministerial office in Winston Churchill’s wartime government. After the war, Noel- Baker, by now Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in Clement Attlee’s government, was in the British delegation that helped draft the charter of the United Nations, and was also involved with the LOCOG of the day, in the organising of the 1948 London Olympics.

“In the troubled times in which we live, the Games were a bold adventure. They have succeeded beyond all hopes and stand out as something virile, clean and noble,” Noel-Baker wrote.

His work as a peace activitist saw him write several books, his 1958 volume, The Arms Race, winning particular acclaim, and in 1959 he received the Nobel Prize. Noel-Baker’s citation read:

“Frequently when the storm clouds gather – perhaps for that very reason – the world is made aware of the forces of good, rallying to meet the threatened danger. The dark years of this century in Europe started in 1914 and are still with us. Throughout this span of time, for forty-five years, Philip John Noel-Baker has dedicated his efforts to the service of suffering humanity, whether in time of war or in the intervals between wars. But above all else, his efforts to prevent war breaking out have been tireless and ceaseless.”

SJA member and fellow athlete Don Anthony, a man with similar attitude to sport and peace, would ultimately write the biography of Noel-Baker.

No reason is given in the dossier as to why Philip Noel- Baker turned down that Companion of Honour in 1965, but a clue might perhaps be found in a speech he made in Parliament that year. The bombing of Vietnam had already begun. “Further fighting could not advance the warring parties towards a satisfactory peace. To create the right atmosphere for profitable negotiations, the bombing should cease,” Noel-Baker said, in vain.

Noel-Baker did ultimately accept a peerage in 1977 but he was not the only sporting figure to demur at the prospect of an honour. Derek Allhusen, the senior member of the gold medal-winning British three-day event team in Mexico City in 1968, also turned down a gong.