Faces of Black Excellence History September 20, 2022 at 05:37 am

Louis Bruce: Spelling Error Conceals First Black British Olympian’s Feat for Over 100 Years

Stephen Nartey September 20, 2022 at 05:37 am

September 20, 2022 at 05:37 am | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Louis Bruce, first Black British Olympian/ Photo credit: The Scotsman

His name was buried in the annals of British Olympic history for more than 100 years because his name was wrongly spelt by athletic authorities and journalists when he first competed as the black heavyweight wrestler in 1908.

Louis Bruce, who was born in Edinburgh in December 1875, made it to the second round of the 1908 Olympics in London.

Olympic wrestling documents had captured had his name as Lawrence and Louise. The iron-clad rule in sports journalism during the 1900s, furthered deepened the mystery about his real identity as they identified him as L Bruce. The sports rule was to use the first initial and surname for athletes.  

But, a trove of documents and digging by Canadian researchers Connor Mah and Rob Gilmore in their attempt for synthesize official athlete records from London from 1908 brought the findings to light.

This makes Louis Bruce the sixth earliest popular black athlete to have competed in the Olympics in the 1900s. The first was Constantin Henriquez, who played rugby for France in 1900. The US hurdler George Poage and two South African marathon runners, Len Tauyane and Jan Mashiani, competed in 1904, while the American 400m runner John Baxter Taylor Jr first raced on 21 July 1908, two days before Bruce wrestled in the 73kg catch-as-catch-can wrestling division, according to the Guardian.

Sprinter Harry Edward was initially thought to have been the first black athletic to compete in the Olympics after he won two bronze medals at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

But, 12 years before Harry set this record, an unsung hero, Louis Bruce, had participated in the 1908 Olympics in London. He is also celebrated as one of the first black tram drivers in Britain by historians and transport observers.

Director of Communications of British Olympic Association, Scott Field, indicated that the findings only goes to confirm the respect for diversity that existed in British Olympics.

The first hurdle they faced is that many competitors’ full names were not included in the official records. In Bruce’s case there was a further complication as he was erroneously identified in some history books as “Lawrence Bruce”.

The Canadian researcher Connor said they were able to piece bits and pieces they gathered on Bruce through newspaper reports and census archives.

He explained that though Bruce name had been misspelt, census archives on his residence matched with his present location.

He observed that newspaper advertisement had described him also “Darkey” Bruce in his bout with Ernest Nixxon.

Connor said historical records from the snake pit wrestling club in Wigan solved the puzzle for the research team as it provided insights on entry forms and lists of the participants of the 1908 Olympic wrestling. He explained that the details included the full names and address of all the Olympians who represented the British team and clarified the true identity of Louis,

He indicated that the information the team carried along was that he was Lawrence Bruce and a member of the Hammersmith Amateur Wrestling Club who happened to have competed in the heavy weight division of the 1908 Olympics and defeated Alfred Banbrook in the first round.

The Canadian researcher said they were able to acquire the full names of every single competitor with their original handwriting and the home addresses.

He said all doubts were cleared when sports historian Andy Mitchel provided the team with the birth certificate of Bruce as well as his photograph from his days as a tram driver in 1906.

Connor further added that Bruce’s sporting feat did not die after the 1908 Olympics but he moved on to win the London United Tramways heavyweight title in 1913 and also was the winner in a one-mile walking handicap race at Griffin Park.

Bruce passed away in 1958 at the age of 82. But, researchers say like how history treated him unfairly by burying his glory, another mystery to unravel is the true identity of his father. His birth certificate indicates that his mother Jane Elizabeth Doney was white but details about his father remains obscure.

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