Headline writer who nearly made Olympic headlines

By Philip Barker
This Sunday marks exactly 100 years since the sports editor of The Times carved out his own piece of Olympic history, winning the first sporting contest of the first London Olympics. Perhaps oddly, the achievement of Evan Noel in beating Cecil Browning 3-1 in a first-round rackets match just after lunch on April 27, 1908, did not rate a mention in his own newspaper the following day.

In all, those first London Games lasted six months, and included such sports as rugby union, ice skating, motor boating and tug of war, eventually coming to a close on the last day of October.

Before making his Olympic debut, Evan Baillie Noel (Jan 23, 1879 – Dec 22, 1928) had been good enough as a cricketer to play for the same MCC team as WG Grace in 1906. He came to the Games as the amateur rackets champion.

The Olympic rackets competition was held at Queen’s Club over four days. Noel was one of only seven competitors (all of them British).

In the quarter final Noel beat the accomplished Vane Pennell (destined to win the Olympic doubles) and then he overcame Henry Brougham to reach the final. In the other half of the draw, Noel’s own doubles partner, Henry Leaf, had been given byes through to the semi-final, but though he beat JJ Astor, he injured his hand in the process and had to withdraw. This meant Noel received the first of the newly minted Olympic gold medals without raising a racket in anger in the final – the first Olympic champion of 1908 by default.

He also took bronze in the doubles and competed in the Jeu de Paume (or real tennis – also staged at Queen’s Club) for good measure, but was knocked out in the first round.

Noel’s Olympic exploits were given no special treatment by his newspaper. These were still days when the sport reports were confined to the inside pages and hardly ever illustrated by photographs.

He had been with the paper since 1903 but the year after the Olympics he gave up the sports editor’s chair through ill health and was forced to travel abroad to convalesce. He remained with The Times until 1914, when he took over as Secretary of Queen’s Club and became a prolific writer on rackets sports right up to his death in 1928.

Olympic rugby returns in centenary celebration

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form