Daley Thompson is, of course, the first and only Briton to have won an Olympic decathlon gold medal, but he is not the first male member of a British club to claim a title at the Games in an all-round event. The long forgotten latter honour was achieved in 1906, and thus 74 years before Thompson’s first success, and the competition in question was a “Greek pentathlon” involving the standing long jump, discus, javelin, 192-metre sprint (as had been held in the Ancient Games) and wrestling.
The winner was Hjalmar Mellander, a Swedish-born masseur by profession who studied, lived and worked in Liverpool from 1902 onwards. In modern times he might have been more accurately described as a physiotherapist as this term had first been used in Sweden in 1887, and a society of physiotherapists had been formed in Britain in 1894. Mellander was representing his native Sweden at the 1906 Olympic Games but had arrived in Liverpool at the age of 21 and spent the rest of his life – tragically, a short one – there or in the nearby city of Chester.
At various times he was listed as being a member of the Sefton Harriers club in Liverpool, as well as Wallasey AC, across the River Mersey on the Wirral peninsular, and Salford Harriers. He also represented Liverpool University and was a student there for a time, though if so he perhaps did not specifically study physiotherapy because the Liverpool School of Physiotherapy was not established until 1922 and not incorporated into the university until 70 years later. The Sefton, Wallasey and Salford clubs have all produced informative written histories, but none of them mention Mellander. The foremost expert on Swedish athletics history, Rooney Magnusson, says that Hjalmar Stefanus Mellander was born in the village of Årstad, Falkenberg, on Sweden’s west coast, on 14 December 1880 as the fourth of seven children of a schoolteacher, Carl Peter Mellander, and his wife.
After emigrating to Liverpool Hjalmar Mellander travelled back and forth to Sweden for holidays, as some of his personal-best performances show: 800 metres 2:04 4/5, Gothenburg, 3 September 1905; 1500 metres 4:12.9, Nottingham, 4 August 1906; Long jump 21ft 11in (6.68), Rochdale, 2 July 1904; Hammer 113ft 2in (34.50), Wigan 26 May 1906; Javelin, 42.86 Halmstad, 10 August 1902, then 43.24 Kristiania (the former name for Oslo), 28 August 1904, and 44.30 at the 1906 Athens Olympics, 26 April. He was the perfectly powerful athletic build at 1.83m tall and weighing 80kg and also threw the discus 34.30 at Halmstad on 4 June 1900, before moving to Liverpool, and ran 1000 metres in 2:43.2 in 1905, presumably in Sweden. It’s a pity that he did not go to the 1900 Olympics in Paris because his best discus throw, for instance, achieved a month before the Games event, would have come very close to winning a medal.
The 1500 metres time in Nottingham must be regarded as speculative at best as metric events were unknown in Britain until the London Olympic year of 1908. According to the “Derby Daily Telegraph” report, the race that day was a one mile handicap won by J.T. Wigley, of Derby & County AC, in 4:16.0, and Mellander, who had received a handicap allowance of 100 yards, was 2nd six yards behind. Mellander thus ran 1660 yards in about 4:17, and as 1500 metres is 1640.2 yards he can thus be credited with an estimated metric time of 4:14. This was a perfectly reputable performance in an era in which any miler who could break 4:30 was regarded with much respect.
In any case, Mellander’s real quality as an athlete was his remarkable versatility and his willingness to try every conceivable event. There are commendable results to be found for him during the first decade of the 20th Century in the sprints, the 440 yards, 880 yards, mile, various steeplechases, the hurdles, high jump, long jump, discus, hammer and javelin ! The decathlon had yet to be invented – first contested at the Olympic Games of 1912 – or otherwise he would have been a World leader in that discipline, too.
Mellander was Swedish champion at 400 metres and the long jump in 1904 and was 2nd in the AAA long jump of that year, beaten by the World record-holder, Peter O’Connor, of Ireland, 23ft 2½in (7.07m) to Mellander’s personal best of 21-11 (6.68), and then 3rd the next year as O’Connor again won rather easily. The 1904 AAA Championships were held at the Athletic Grounds, in Rochdale, in accordance with the enterprising AAA policy in those years of regularly taking their meeting to the provinces – Southport, Crewe, Manchester and Huddersfield had been previous venues. On this last of those occasions Mellander’s affiliation was given as Gothenburg AS in addition to Salford Harriers, and he also apparently had a connection with another Swedish club, IFK Halmstad.
He won the Northern Counties long jump in 1905 and 1906, and in the second of those years – when the event was incorporated in the Sefton Harriers Sports on 18 August – he cleared 21-5½ (6.53), which distance had only ever been beaten once before to win the Northern title, by Ernest Horwood at 22-3 (6.78) in 1883. Horwood was one of the best long jumpers in England, winning at the AAA Championships the next year and 2nd on three other occasions at that meeting. He represented Marlow FC, in Buckinghamshire, and Blackheath Harriers and may have had no northern connections at all, but he did not need them as the championships were open to all-comers until 1901. Mellander also won the Northern high jump in 1906, which was farmed out by the Northern Counties’ AA to the Brighouse Cricket, Cycling and Bowling Club sports – which might seems like a “^parish pump” affair, except that the “Leeds Mercury” reported that there were 489 competitors in the various events that day and 4,000 spectators. .
Mellander competed every Saturday throughout the summer, and also on midweek evenings, at the endless profusion of meetings which were held throughout the North of England. Typical of these was the annual Wigan Infirmary Gala on Whit Monday, 29 May 1904, in which Mellander ran in the heats and finals of the 100 yards, 220 yards and 220 yards hurdles, though without winning any prizes. The attendance that day, as noted by the Manchester-based “Athletic News”, was no less than 18,068, though admittedly there were other attractions alongside the running events – comedy acrobats, a contortionist, clog dancers, three brass bands and a Punch & Judy show !
Entertainment for the masses was an important element of the sport, and even the “Athletic News”, which carried long and informative coverage of dozens of meetings every week, readily recognised the fact. Their correspondent at the Manchester AC Sports of 27 June 1903 had cheerfully reported of the steeplechase event that “the appearance of thinly clad athletes plunging into water and coming out looking like half-drowned rodents is calculated to get the spectators in a roar”. Such off-hand treatment by press and public evidently didn’t deter either Mellander, who had led that race for a while, or such serious practitioners as the eventual winner, Joe English, of the host club, who would twice be AAA champion at the event.. Steeplechases varied in distance from as little as 500 yards upwards, though three-quarters of a mile was favoured, and the water jumps were dug deep for the crowd’s delight rather than the competitors’ demeanour.
The 1906 Olympic pentathlon took place over three days, 25 to 27 April, and Mellander won none of the five events which it comprised but had consistent placings in succession of 7th, 5th, 5th, 4th and 3rd of the 26 competitors to take the overall title by one point from István Mudin, of Hungary, with Eric Lemming, of Sweden, 3rd. Lemming had won the individual javelin gold medal the day before the pentathlon began to become Sweden’s first Olympic athletics champion. Mellander had also taken part in that javelin event and placed 4th with his career best of 44.30. In addition, he was 4th in the individual long jump and 4th again of six in a heat of the 800 metres. These were the days when specialisation was an unknown concept in athletics !
The American decathlon expert, Frank Zarnowski, is undoubtedly right in his view that the Irish-born Martin Sheridan, of the USA, had started as “an overwhelming favourite” for that Olympic pentathlon, Sheridan was unquestionably one of the most versatile athletes of his generation and had won the US national “all-round” title (the predecessor to the decathlon) the previous year, finishing 1st in seven of the 10 events, and would take the title again in 1907 and 1909. He also set eight World records in the discus and won four Olympic titles in the shot and discus. However, he retired after only one event of the 1906 pentathlon because of a knee injury, though this could not have been too serious an ailment as two days later he won the individual shot and was 2nd in the standing long jump, and on 1 May he was equal 2nd in the standing high jump.
The 1911 Census lists Hjalmar Mellander as living in “a city in Cheshire” (which must surely be Chester) with his wife, Daisy, and a son, Hilary, born in 1910, and there is also an entry for Axel R.W. Mellander, described as a “visitor”, who was born in 1888 and is the youngest brother of Hjalmar Mellander.. One of the leading athletes to make regular use of Mellander’s massaging skills was Benjamin Howard Baker, who lived in Liverpool, where he owned a prosperous chemical manufacturing company, and competed twice at the Olympic Games. He was to hold the British high-jump record for 25 years from 1921 as well as playing as a goalkeeper for the England professional and amateur football teams..
Mellander’s win in the 1906 Olympic pentathlon led to a long-drawn-out dispute with the Greek organisers, who later demanded the return of the impressive trophy, described as “an antique urn of art historical value”, which they had awarded, claiming that it was intended for competition again at the next proposed “intercalated” Athens Games of 1910 (which, as it happens, never took place). Mellander disagreed, believing that the trophy was a permanent gift, and it was only after the intervention of the Games founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in 1909 that Mellander was persuaded to change his mind.
The trophy was eventually despatched from Liverpool to Stockholm in November 1911, and though the ship carrying it foundered in the North Sea the urn was apparently salvaged by the helmsman. All 10 crew were saved, and the ship had been taken in tow by a trawler when it finally sunk. So it is entirely possible that such valuables could have ben retrieved. A further twist to the tale is that the Swedish Olympic Committee then gratefully gave the helmsman £500 – worth about £24,000 in today’s values ! There is some substantial academic seal of approval for all this detail because it was referred to in an article by Karin Wikberg, of the International Society of Olympic Historians, in the “Journal of Olympic History” issue for May 2002. It might have been thought that as a gesture of appreciation Mellander would then have been invited back to his native land as an honoured guest at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, but there is no evidence that this happened.
The sad irony to this stirring episode of Mellander’s trophy having been rescued from a watery grave is that he himself was drowned at the age of 38 in October 1919 in the sea off the Isle of Man, attempting to rescue a child in difficulties (though, oddly, an entirely different account of his sudden death was reported in Sweden). Martin Sheridan, who might have challenged Mellander for that 1906 pentathlon gold, had already also died young in March 1918, aged 36, as an early victim of the Worldwide influenza epidemic, and by macabre coincidence that has been suggested as an alternative cause of Mellander’s death..