Feature02 May 2020

Seven wartime stars who were denied Olympic opportunities


Swedish middle-distance runners Gunder Hagg (left) and Arne Andersson (right)

The postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games may have caused athletes to undergo a significant re-jig of their plans in order to now peak for the summer of 2021.

But spare a thought for this group of athletes who, because of wartime, were denied the chance to ever compete on the Olympic stage.


Edward Beeson

Raised in Healdsburg, California, Edward Beeson discovered his high jumping ability during his school years and in 1910 was recruited by the University of California.

In 1912 George Horine had scooped Olympic bronze at the Stockholm Games and posted a world record mark of 2.00m (6ft 6 and 3/4inches). Serving as an inspiration, Beeson drew a crossbar on the wall of his room at 6ft 8ins in the hope he could one day surpass Horine’s mark.

On 2 May 1914, Beeson, competing for the Olympic Club in San Francisco, beat Horine at the Pacific Coast Conference Meet in Berkeley and cleared a world record height of 2.01m (6ft 7 and 1/8th inches) – just shy of the 6ft 8in he envisaged.

The 1916 Olympic Games in Berlin was cancelled due to the First World War and Beeson would never appear on the Olympic stage. However, his world record mark was to remain unsurpassed for 10 years until Harold Osborn cleared 2.03m in Urbana, Illinois.


Gunder Hagg

One of the two super Swedes who dominated global middle-distance running the 1940s, Gunder Hagg would have been an even greater legend of the sport had he been given the chance to showcase his talents on the Olympic stage.

Born on New Year’s Eve 1918 on a small farm in Northern Sweden, Hagg ran, walked or skied the 3km to and from his home to school every day, honing his endurance strength.

Swedish middle-distance runner Gunder Hagg (left, 60)


Discovering an ability to run during his school years, he made a breakthrough when finishing fourth over 3000m on his debut international race in Stockholm at the age of 18.

Enduring a serious bout of pneumonia and later undergoing a period of military service, Hagg emerged a world-class star in 1941, smashing the world 1500m record of 1936 Olympic champion Jack Lovelock in a time of 3:47.6.

Hagg enjoyed his greatest year in 1942 when, at the age of 23, he claimed an astonishing 10 world records in a 12-week period over seven different distances from 1500m to 5000m.

Facing an increasingly intense rivalry from his fellow Swede Arne Andersson from 1943, Hagg nonetheless went on to set another 1500m world record the following year and in 1945 he lowered the world mile record to 4:01.4.

But Hagg was suspended for life in 1946 following the violation of an amateur rule and was denied the chance to compete at the 1948 London Olympics.


Arne Andersson

Arne Andersson exchanged middle-distance world records for fun with his great Swedish rival Gunder Haag during the 1940s but he too never got to taste the Olympic experience.

Raised in Vanersborg more than 80 miles north of Gothenburg, Andersson focused on running from the age of 16 and made his international debut in 1939, competing in the annual Sweden v Finland match.

From 1941 he began to establish his fierce rivalry with Hagg and the following year set the first of his three world records in the mile with a time of 4:06.2 in Stockholm.

Swedish middle-distance runner Arne Andersson


In 1943 he gained an ascendency on Hagg, setting world records for the 1500m (3:45.0) and mile (4:02.6). He set his fourth and final world record of his career in the mile (4:01.6) in Malmo in 1944.

The powerfully-built Andersson was permanently banned from the sport for breaching the amateur rules of the time in 1946 and would play no part in the 1948 London Olympic Games.


Ilsebill Pfenning

Born in Switzerland in 1916, high jumper Ilsebill Pfenning was a co-world record-holder but due to unfortunate timing was never to appear in Olympic competition.

Pfenning first made a mark internationally when placing sixth in the high jump at the 1938 European Championships in Paris with a clearance of 1.55m.

Three years later, however, she enjoyed the finest competition of her life in Lugano to take a share of the world record – alongside Great Britain’s Dorothy Tyler-Odam and South Africa’s Esther van Heerden – with a 1.66m clearance.

The cancellation of successive Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944 meant Pfenning would never reveal her talent on the biggest stage.


Taisto Maki

Following in the rich tradition of the ‘Flying Finns’, led by the incomparable Paavo Nurmi, Taisto Maki was a superstar performer in the late 1930s.

Maki, a shepherd, first burst on to the international stage in 1938 when winning the European 5000m title in Paris. Later that year he followed this up by lowering the world 10,000m record by three seconds, recording 30:02.0.

Finnish distance runner Taisto Maki


The best season of his career came in 1939 when he blitzed to three world records over two miles (8:53.2), 5000m (14:08.8) and 10,000m in 29:52.6, becoming the first man in history to run a sub-30-minute 10,000m.

Primed to be a star performer at the 1940 Helsinki Olympics, the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent cancellation of the Games was to deny him the opportunity.


Harold (Hal) Davis

The man known as the ‘California Comet’ was the greatest sprinter of his generation, but bad timing and injury prevented the US sprint star from representing his country on the Olympic stage.

From 1940 to 1943, Davis was unbeaten over 220yd and suffered just one defeat over 100yd, snaring a combined seven US titles over 100m and 200m during a golden period.

A sluggish starter but possessing blistering acceleration, Davis tied the 100m world record of 10.3 at the Compton Relays in 1941. He also twice ran a wind-aided 20.2 clocking for the 200m/220yd distance, under the official world record of the time of 20.3.

However, the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games and a career-ending hamstring injury in 1946 denied him the chance to grace the Olympic stage.


Cornelius Warmerdam

Possibly one of the greatest athletes to never appear at the Olympic Games, Cornelius ‘Dutch’ Warmerdam was a pole vaulting pioneer during the War years.

Born in California to Dutch immigrants, he was discovered by the local track coach vaulting into a homemade pit on his family’s spinach and fruit farm.

US pole vaulter Cornelius Warmerdam


Later vaulting for Fresno State University, Warmerdam set the first of his nine world records with a 4.42m indoor clearance in 1939.

Despite competing on a bamboo pole and before the introduction of landing mats, he became the first man to vault 15ft. During an outstanding career, he set three outdoor world records, advancing the mark from 4.54m through to 4.77m between 1940 and 1942. He also set six world indoor records – the last of which came in 1943 in Chicago and was an absolute best of 4.79m. His outdoor world record lasted 15 years and his indoor mark 16 years.

Warmerdam was denied the chance to compete at the cancelled 1940 and 1944 Olympics and was ineligible for the 1948 London Olympics because he was coaching professionally.

Steve Landells for World Athletics