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Athletics at the 1908 London Summer Games:

Men's 400 metres

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Host City: London, Great Britain
Venue(s): White City Stadium, London
Date Started: July 21, 1908
Date Finished: July 25, 1908

Gold: GBR Wyndham Halswelle


At the beginning of 1908 Edgar Bredin's 48.0, set in 1885, was still the world's fastest 1/4-mile on a curved track. The Olympic record was [Harry Hillman]'s 49.2, set in winning the gold medal at St. Louis in 1904. Hillman was in London in 1908 but only ran the 400 hurdles. The top British one-lapper was [Wyndham Halswelle], who had been AAA champion in 1905-06 and 1908, and earlier in July, had run 48.4 in Glasgow to break Bredin's world best time for 440 yards.

After setting an Olympic record of 48.4 in the second round, Halswelle was easily the fastest of the qualifiers. In the final he faced three Americans, [John Carpenter], [John Taylor], and [William Robbins] and the race resulted in possibly the most controversial finish in Olympic track & field history.

Carpenter was drawn on the inside with Halswelle, Robbins, and Taylor outside him in that order, and after Robbins had been involved in some over-rigorous jockeying for position, Carpenter entered the home straight with Halswelle at his shoulder. At this point, Carpenter, in order to prevent Halswelle from passing him, moved progressively farther towards the outside of the track, forcing Halswelle to within 18 inches of the outside curb. By this time the British officials had seen enough and Dr. Arthur Roscoe Badger, the judge on the final bend, ran up the track signalling the judges to break the tape. Carpenter crossed the line in an unofficial 48.4, while Halswelle slowed to a jog.

After a lengthy inquiry on the evening the race, Carpenter was disqualified and the race was ordered to be re-run two days later, in lanes (then termed strings, as strings separated each lane), but without Carpenter. The precise statement was, "The judges have decided that the race is void, and order same to be re-run in strings on Saturday next [25 July], at 12 o'clock. J. C. Carpenter is disqualified." American officials ordered Robbins and Taylor not to take part in the re-run and Halswelle ran alone to take the Olympic title.

Even before the U.S. team left for home they announced that, as Carpenter had crossed the line first, they would consider him to be the Olympic champion. There is no recorded response to a reader's letter in a British newspaper inquiring if, by the same reasoning, the Americans would consider Pietri to be the Olympic marathon champion? Unfortunately, the ill-feeling lingered and at the 1909 AAU Convention a motion was passed refusing to recognize Carpenter's disqualification.

Photographs exist of the race and one, published on 24 July 1908 in The Daily Mirror, is quite telling, showing the footprints of the runners as they entered the home straight. From this photograph and the footprints, there is little doubt that Carpenter ran extremely wide coming off the turn. Another photograph of the finish confirms that he forced Halswelle to the very outside of the track. Amos Alonzo Stagg, a member of the American Olympic Committee, and later a famous football coach, attempted to assuage both sides when he noted that Carpenter "certainly took the route complained of but that he didn't commit a deliberate foul as it would have been considered an acceptable tactic at a track meet in America."

But the rules in force at the 1908 Olympics were British, those of the Amateur Athletic Association. Their rule regarding obstruction during a race was quite explicit.

“Any competitor wilfully jostling, or running across, or obstructing another competitor, so as to impede his progress, shall forfeit his right to be in the competition, and shall not be awarded any position or prize that he would otherwise have been entitled to.”

The 400 metre controversy received huge play in both the American and British press, with feelings running along nationalistic lines. The pamphlet published by the British, A Reply to Certain Criticisms, also devoted an entire chapter to the race. In it they quoted a letter from David Scott Duncan which was published in The Field on 29 August 1908, which also disputes Stagg's statement that Carpenter's tactics would have been allowed in the United States. Duncan had been the referee of the 400 metres.

“That Halswelle was badly bored and obstructed is, of course, beyond question, and the American rules as to such tactics are even more explicit than those obtaining in Britain. Here they are:-

Rule III.-The Referee.-When in a final heat a claim of foul or interference is made, he (the referee) shall have power to disqualify the competitor who was at fault if he considers the foul intentional or due to culpable carelessness, and he shall also have the power to order a new race between such competitors as he thinks entitled to such a privilege.

Rule XVIII.-The Course.-Each competitor shall keep in his respective position from start to finish in all races on straightaway tracks, and in all races on track with one or more turns he shall not cross to the inner edge of the track except when he is at least six feet in advance of his nearest competitor. After turning the last corner into the straight in any race each competitor must keep a straight course to the finish line, and not cross, either to the outside or the inside, in front of any of his opponents.

In the face of the above rules of Union of which Mr. Sullivan is president, he is surely left "without a leg to stand upon." I may add that I was referee of the Four Hundred Metres.


Wyndham Halswelle did address the situation in a letter he sent to The Sporting Life.

“As regards the Four Hundred Metres Race, Carpenter did not strike me any vigorous blows with his elbow, nor were there any marks on my chest, nor did I say that Carpenter struck me or show the marks to any Press representative. I did not attempt to pass the Americans until the last corner, reserving my effort for the finishing straight. Here I attempted to pass Carpenter on the outside, since he was not far enough from the curb to do so on the inside, and I was too close up to have crossed behind him. Carpenter's elbow undoubtedly touched my chest, for as I moved outwards to pass him he did likewise, keeping his right in front of me.

“In this manner he bored me across quite two-thirds of the track, and entirely stopped my running. As I was well up to his shoulder, and endeavouring to pass him, it is absurd to say that I could have come up on the inside. I was too close after half way round the bend to have done this; indeed, to have done so would have necessitated chopping my stride, and thereby losing anything from two to four yards.

“When about thirty to forty yards from the tape I saw the officials holding up their hands, so slowed up, not attempting to finish all out.”

John Carpenter also gave his version of events, which was published in The Daily Mail on 24 July 1908:

“I started with the inside berth. Halswelle was next to me; Robbins next [to him] and Taylor on the outside. Up the final straight away Robbins led, and I was running second. Halswelle was close behind me, I imagine.

“At the first curve the positions were unchanged. Then, at the second bend right at the top of the course I, because of my long stride, was unable to stick to the inside berth. It was at this point that I attempted to pass Robbins, and [moved] wide into the straight, Halswelle was still behind me.

“From this point my path was absolutely straight to the finish line. For about [10] or 15 yards - at eighty yards from the finish - Halswelle was running absolutely abreast of me, with plenty of room on the outside of him, and he could have passed on the inside of me if necessary.

“I do not know of any contact between us at any point during the race. I always know exactly what I do during a race, and I am perfectly certain we did not touch. I do not see how a race could have been more fairly run.”

Wyndham Halswelle had a short, but meteoric track career. It began in 1904 when he won the Army 880 yards championship. After winning medals at the 1906 Olympics in Athens in both the 400 metres (silver) and 800 metres (bronze), he won the 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, and 880 yards at the 1906 Scottish AAA Championships - all in the same afternoon. The actions and attitudes of the Americans at the 1908 Olympics so soured Halswelle's outlook that he ran just one more race before retiring from the sport in late 1908. A career Army officer, he tragically died from a sniper's bullet in France while fighting World War I.

John Carpenter's track career was also short and there is no record that he ever competed again after the 1908 Olympics. He attended Cornell and won one IC4A title in 1906, that at 880 yards. Over 440 yards he was 4th as a freshman in 1905 and 3rd in 1908 at the IC4A's. As the 1908 IC4A was considered one of the American Olympic Trial Meets, he was named to the 1908 Olympic team. Carpenter never competed at the AAU Championship.

View a Phase of this EventFinal StandingsRe-run FinalOriginal FinalSemi-FinalsRound One

Final Standings

Rank Athlete Age Team NOC Medal
1 Wyndham Halswelle 25 Great Britain GBR Gold
AC r3/3 John Carpenter 23 United States USA DQ
AC r3/3 William Robbins 22 United States USA DQ
AC r3/3 John B. Taylor 25 United States USA DQ
2 h1 r2/3 Charles Davies Great Britain GBR
2 h2 r2/3 Edwin Montague 23 Great Britain GBR
2 h3 r2/3 Horace Ramey 23 United States USA
2 h4 r2/3 Lou Sebert 21 Canada CAN
3 h1 r2/3 Ned Merriam 23 United States USA
3 h2 r2/3 George Nicol 21 Great Britain GBR
3 h3 r2/3 Edward Ryle 22 Great Britain GBR
3 h4 r2/3 John Atlee 25 United States USA
4 h1 r2/3 George Young Great Britain GBR
4 h2 r2/3 William Prout 22 United States USA
4 h3 r2/3 Géo Malfait 29 France FRA
2 h1 r1/3 Paul Pilgrim 24 United States USA
2 h4 r1/3 Roberto Penna 22 Italy ITA
2 h5 r1/3 Oscar Guttormsen 24 Norway NOR
2 h6 r1/3 Don Buddo 21 Canada CAN
2 h7 r1/3 József Nagy 26 Hungary HUN
2 h8 r1/3 Christopher Chavasse 23 Great Britain GBR
2 h9 r1/3 Arthur Astley 27 Great Britain GBR
2 h10r1/3 Massimo Cartasegna 22 Italy ITA
2 h11r1/3 Alan Patterson 22 Great Britain GBR
2 h12r1/3 Cornelis den Held 24 Netherlands NED
2 h13r1/3 Robert Robb 26 Great Britain GBR
2 h14r1/3 Otto Trieloff 22 Germany GER
2 h15r1/3 Fred de Selding 20 United States USA
2 h16r1/3 Jacobus Hoogveld 23 Netherlands NED
3 h4 r1/3 Sven LÃ¥ftman 20 Sweden SWE
3 h7 r1/3 Noel Chavasse 23 Great Britain GBR
3 h11r1/3 Giuseppe Tarella 24 Italy ITA
3 h14r1/3 Arvid Ringstrand 20 Sweden SWE
3 h15r1/3 Bram Evers 21 Netherlands NED
4 h7 r1/3 Victor Henny 20 Netherlands NED
4 h14r1/3 Henk van der Wal 21 Netherlands NED
AC h10r1/3 Victor Jacquemin 16 Belgium BEL