Can An Athlete Have Brains?

Beverley Baxter March 5 1955


Can An Athlete Have Brains?

Beverley Baxter March 5 1955


Can An Athlete Have Brains?

Beverley Baxter

THERE is one subject on which there is no difference between the socialists and the Conservatives. In fact the subject has only to be mentioned in debate and there is an immediate coalition in which even the Liberal remnant joins.

I refer to sport—that civilized alternative to war. Ancient Greece excelled in athletics just as she led the world in the cultivation of the arts. Great Britain gave cricket to the modern world, and also the game of soccer, which is the only game where the outside of the head is used. It is in the realm of sport that the British taught mankind how to lose although at times they rather overdo it.

You will understand therefore that when I received an invitation to a dinner at the House of Commons in honor of the athletes who went to the British Empire Games in Vancouver I accepted at once. Such an invitation is almost a royal command.

The chairman was that aristocratic Labour MP, Philip Noel-Baker, who ran so fast at Cambridge that he has been a semi-immortal ever since. On his right was a thin, rather wan-looking young man—not unlike Hamlet in demeanor—who turned out to be Dr. Roger Bannister.,' On the chairman’s left was a lively young fellow who looked something between a midshipman and a naval sublieutenant. He had a quick, somewhat irreverent smile as if he were more amused than awed by finding himself in such a historic setting. His name was Chataway.

Just to show these visitors that they did not invent sport we had our own Tory, Sir Wavell Wakefield, MP, who, in his varsity days, captained England at rugger—which is what they call rugby over here. Even to the socialists he is a historic figure.

However, since we were Her Majesty’s House of Commons, or at any rate a portion of it, we put up Harold Macmillan, Minister of Defense fand undoubtedly Eden’s ultimate successor at the Foreign Office) to make the opening speech when the business of dining had come to an end.

Macmillan was in excellent form. He spoke of the eminent sporting figures present as if they were visiting ambassadors. He obviously did not know much about them individually but he knew that they had been to Canada and had done something or other to justify our giving them a dinner.

"Fame,” he observed, "is a transitory thing. When I was Resident Minister in North Africa during the war I received many letters from prominent persons and I used to send their signatures to my daughter at school because she was collecting them. With some pride I sent her in one post the signatures of Field Marshal Alexander and General

Eisenhower. They were a great success with my daughter, so great in fact that I received a letter promptly from her, which read: ‘Dear Daddy, I loved your last two autographs. If you can get me three more Alexanders and two more Eisenhowers I think I could exchange them for one Rita Hayworth.’ ”

You will agree that Macmillan was in form. Here was a formidable political figure having a little jest at the reputations of great men, yet in the process maintaininglthe lofty superiority of a senior minister of the Crown. The English are ¿Wfully good at that kind of thing. They stoop, but not very low, to ÿflnquer.

I felt sorry for the athleSss who had to reply. When the brains are in the legs or the biceps it is pretty tough to match them against a chap like Macmillan, whose brains are most certainly in his head.

certainly I must say, however, that the speeches of the athletes were surprisingly good, taking all things in considération.

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London Letter


We heard from the gallant Peters, whom we saw on television steggering and falling on the Vancouver track when victory seemed an absolute certainty. We heard sensible speeches from boxers, gymnasts, jumpers, weight throwers—not only sensible but amusing and lively speeches.

You in Canada, and especially in

British Columbia, would have been deeply touched if you had hèard their description of the beauty of Vancouver and the kindness of its people. There were humorous episodes as well, but nothing could hide their enthusiasm for that gracious city that looks westward to the Orient.

So as the evening moved to its climax there were only the two big stars left —and the chairman called on Chataway. We really let ourselves go, for it was not very long ago that he beat the Russian champion at the White City in London in one of the most

thrilling struggles in the history of sport.

But now instead of facing just one Russian he had to speak in the very temple of oratory with champions of the art all around him.

Let me end your suspense by repeating what a Tory minister said to me as Chataway finished: “I’m going to

take up running,” he said, “I might have a chance against that fellow on the track.”

I am not exaggerating in declaring that Chataway spoke like a young Disraeli. His voice production was not only pleasant but almost perfect. In fact the previous night he had played Algie in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in an excellent semiamateur production. As far as style was concerned, he could have gone right upstairs to the debating chamber and spoken like a foreign secretary.

And there was substance as well as philosophy in his words. “Don’t imagine,” he said, “that when the Russian and I ran at the White City he was thinking of the Soviet and I was thinking of Great Britain. We weren’t even thinking of the crowd. There were just two of us, two men, like the beginning of time. One of us had to win and no one else mattered. And when the race is over we are still two men apart, two lonely men in a world of noise, and at that moment a precious and enduring friendship is born.”

Then to lighten the tension he made a jest and sat down.

It was one of the best speeches ever heard in the ancient precincts of Westminster. We were only sorry that Churchill was not there to acclaim it.

It is to the credit of Roger Bannister (who spoke last) that his quiet smiling sincerity won our esteem, but he was like a somewhat wistful Hamlet following an outrageous and glittering Mercutio. And do not tell me that Mercutio and Hamlet are not in the same play. There they were before our eyes on the stage of Westminster.

Two hours later, for the House was having a long debate, three or four of us who had attended the Vancouver dinner were talking about it in the smoke room. I expressed my astonishment that athletes should have shown such extraordinary intellectual qualities.

“You should not be so surprised,” said one of our group. “Over the years the fellows who were brilliant in sport at Oxford and Cambridge have won glittering prizes in real life. Now that every nation realizes the propaganda value of sport, the competition becomes fiercer and fiercer. In the end it is the best brain—other things being equal —that makes the champion.”

We were joined by others who had also been at the dinner, and the argument grew lively. As a hopeless dud at all kinds of games I struggled to maintain my theory that mind and muscle have little in common. From that point we fell to discussing why Britain should suddenly be producing world-champion athletes.

“That is quite simple to explain,” said one MP. “We are now in a second Elizabethan age. Under the first Elizabeth, England led the world in the arts, in war, in exploration, in finance and in government. Under our second Elizabeth today we are seeing the development of another such age.”

THREE WEEKS LATER my wife and I went to the gala first night of Sir William Walton’s new opera, Troilus and Cressida, at Covent Garden.

It was a sentimental evening for us, not only because we had known Willie Walton when as a youth he was trying to get a hearing for his music, but also because the conductor was Sir Malcolm

Sargent whom we first met years back when he had graduated from playing a church organ to become the conductor of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Walton is lazy and took his time at earning recognition. Malcolm Sargent was patronized by the critics as being able but superficial. Does he not stoop to conduct the hornpipe at the Proms while idiotic, juvenile fans throw flowers at him?

However, Sargent and Walton were both knighted in the course of time, but not without some eyebrow raising in austere circles. Benjamin Britten was outshining Walton, and Sargent was not considered a serious enough musician to conduct at Covent Garden.

But London is a psychic place and there was a sudden feeling that the first night of Troilus and Cressida would be a tremendous affair. I was lucky enough to get two seats.

Covent Garden was itself again. We saw only one miserable fellow in the stalls who was not in full evening dress, and the women were in their glory. Here again was a great capital city where the men and women paid the tribute of full formal dress to the composer, the conductor and the singers. And it is only in a great capital city where a new full-scale opera can be horn.

Birth of a Masterpiece

We shall not soon forget that night. Walton had come into his own with music that challenged but did not imitate the best work of Richard Strauss. His orchestration was superb, his daring was limitless, his invention never flagged—and not for a moment did he descend to the obvious.

But how much he owed to Malcolm Sargent! Sargent’s control of the orchestra was so complete that he could do anything with it. Yet there was never a moment that he was not guiding and inspiring the singers when they needed it most.

When Sir Malcolm reached the last tremendous climax that ends the opera his shoulders drooped and for a moment his head was lowered. The ordeal was over. He had presided at the birth of a masterpiece.

Unseen by the audience he bowed to the orchestra, and gave them the benediction of his hands. Then he went on the stage to share in the tumultuous ovation.

Upstairs in the foyer there were champagne parties to celebrate and we joined some of our friends in the general jubilation. Gone were the ghastly memories of Gloriana, which had been presented to the unhappy young Queen during the Coronation festivities. Walton had substituted glory for Gloriana.

And then we heard almost the same phrase which had been used in the smoke room. A friend of mine pointed to Sargent and Walton, who were surrounded by eager admirers. “They are the new Elizabethans,” he said.

Bannister, Chataway, Sargent, Walton, the Duke of Edinburgh, Churchill, Christopher Fry, Anthony Eden, Rah Butler—there is greatness again in the womb of Mother England.

From the long weary siege of war and the heartbreak years of peace that followed, there is emerging a vitality and an almost reckless self-confidence that is expanding our economy in all directions. Bold plans for development in the backward overseas territories are being launched, and at home our industries are throbbing with a new virility.

Great days, great years lie ahead. On land, on sea and in the air, in art and industry, in sport and science and politics, the new Elizabethans are with us. it