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Scientific Athletics

John William Sutherland. Scientific Athletics. 1912

The author:

The family name of Sutherland is very common in the county of Sutherland in the Northern Highlands of Scotland and it is not certain where ‘our’ John William Sutherland was born, but it was almost certainly in Sutherland, possibly in Farr on the northern coast of the county.  He reports that he was 11 years old in 1902, making his birth date 1890/1.  By 1908, when he was 17, he was living at Golspie, on the south-east coast of Sutherland, and by 1910 he was living at Rogart, a few miles inland, where he wrote his book Scientific Athletics.  He was brought up in a culture that valued throwing and, although he was not a big man (nor a big boy or youth), he excelled in the throwing events, particularly the Shot and Hammer.  Indeed, so slight was he that he created something of a sensation because he was very successful when very young and was much smaller than the people he competed against.  In August 1908, the Aberdeen Journal described him as ‘a lad of 17 years of age and weighing 10 stone’ [140lbs/63.5kg] and ‘he was repeatedly cheered’ when he won the Hammer Throw (16lbs) [7.26kg] by 8 inches [20.3cm], and was second in Putting the Ball (22lbs) [9.98kg]. 

Writers were repeatedly to comment on his youth and his diminutive stature.  In September 1908, The Aberdeen People’s Journal wrote - ‘A young athlete competed here, who promises exceptionally well.  John William Sutherland, by name, he is 17 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches [1.70m] tall, and weighs 10 stones 7 lbs. [147lbs/66.7kg]’.  They went on to say that he had thrown a 16lb Hammer ‘well over 95 feet [29m]’, putt a 22lb Shot 32 feet [9.75m], and ‘was good for 5 feet 3inches [1.60m]’ in the High Jump (ground to ground).  All these distances can be authenticated in Sutherland’s own diary.  He retained this boyish appearance throughout his athletic career and, in September 1911, the Aberdeen Journal again commented on his youth and size - ‘He was, to all appearances, the youngest athlete in the heavy events, and his victory was a popular one’; he was 20 years old, and was still 5ft 7ins tall, and still only 10½ stone [147lbs/66.7kg].  In that event he won ‘the Light Stone’ by over a foot with a throw of 38ft [11.58m], and won £2; this would be equivalent in purchasing power to £182 in 2014.  By this date, however, his diary has come to an end in Scientific Athletics, so we can only guess at how heavy the ‘light stone’ was, but it was probably 22lbs.  The John O’Groats Journal were to make similar comments about his age and size a year later.

John William Sutherland’s performances are not easy to trace; his performances were sometimes reported under the name, ‘John William Sutherland’, ‘sometimes ‘J.W. Sutherland’, and sometimes ‘John Sutherland’, but in the same competitions there were other Sutherlands, and even a John, J, and W. Sutherland, and some were even from Golspie and Rogart.  By June 1909, John William Sutherland had joined the Territorial Army, and he competed in the Camp Sports at Burghead, winning the Hammer Throw for the 5th Seaforths (i.e. the 5th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders). 

John William Sutherland’s diary comes to an abrupt end after reporting his results for August 1911, perhaps because of illness or injury.  His diary records that he was ‘indisposed’ on 18 August, although he set a ‘county record’ on that day, and he competed the following day.  His diary then records that he became ‘incapacitated’ and ‘greatly indisposed’, and yet we know he continued to compete, as there are newspaper reports of one of his competitions the following month; and Scientific Athletics adds a newspaper report of two other competitions in August 1912.  More results can be found of a Putt the Ball (16lbs) and a Hammer Throw (16lbs) competition he won at the Brora Highland Gathering in September 1913, but that seems to be the end.

World War I started before the 1914 Highland Games season could get properly underway and, in August 1914, his Territorial Unit had been absorbed into the army and the Seaforth Highlanders were moved to Bedford for further training; and a number of the original units were redeployed.  In May 1915 they landed in France, were retitled the 51st Highland Division and fought at the Somme, Ancre, Beaumont Hamel and Arras; and John William Sutherland was killed in action at the Battle of Cambrai, on 23 November 1917. 

Peter Radford/2015

The place of Sutherland’s “Scientific Athletics
in the history of Athletics literature:

The brash confidence of youth shines from every page of Scientific Athletics.  Although published in 1912 when the writer was 21, internal evidence suggests that it was completed a year earlier, and added to just before it went to press.  The book is self-published with the author’s signature embossed in gold on the cover - quite a statement for a young man of 20!  His purpose was to increase the popularity of athletics and calisthenics, and to give instructions on all the throwing, jumping and running events. But he knew that many would wonder how he could have the temerity to do so at such a young age - “some of my readers may be surprised that I should assume such an authoritative attitude in regard to so important a subject”, he wrote, which was probably something of an understatement.  He saved himself however by addressing himself to the novice who might learn from his own experience as a very successful young athlete. 

He did believe, however, that he had special insights into the athletic events and into athletic ability and training generally, and that those insights gave him the authority to tell others how to do it - his insights were centred around the word scientific, and included calisthenics and the latest ideas on Physical Culture. He gives no sources, except to quote ‘Dr Guthrie’ [Dr Thomas Guthrie, a Scottish preacher, temperance campaigner, and philanthropist], but Sutherland was clearly an admirer of Arthur Saxon, a German strongman, and he also included photographs of Maxick [Max Sick, another German strong man] and Monte-Saldo [aka Alfred Montague Woollaston, from Highgate in London] in his book.  The last two, however, seem to have little or nothing to do with the text and may have been part of an advertising deal whereby ‘Maxick & Saldo’ put money into Sutherland’s book in exchange for advertising space, including a postal tuition course and, perhaps, two photographic plates placed within the text, as there are four pages of advertisements at the end of the book, which presumably helped offset some of the book’s costs.  There were advertisements from a strength and fitness magazine, and from Maxick and Monte-Saldo.

The value of Scientific Athletics is not in the chapters on The Efficacy of Athleticism and How it is Ensured, or the Acquisition and Conservancy of Vitality, or in any of the other fourteen chapters that make up the book, but in the twelve pages at the end of the book in which he gives extracts from his Athletic Diary from 1902 to August 1911 (i.e. from the age of 11 to 20).  This is a unique account of an athlete’s development, and in great detail; for example, he has entries for eight different dates in May 1908 alone, and 11 dates in June 1910!  They are only ‘extracts’ however, but we can fill in some of the gaps from other sources.  For example, he competed in the Thornton Highland Gathering in July 1909 but does not list it in his diary, and in 1911 he competed at the Durnoch Games and lists the events he competed in, but he does not list all of them - other sources show he was also 2nd= in the vault.  There are also inexplicable inconsistencies in the diary; for example, he reports ‘a new county record’, and a personal best, of ‘110ft 2in [33.58m] - two feet over own previous record’ in August 1911, but he earlier lists many that are even better!  Nor might his diary always be accurate; for example, he reports in his diary that he threw the 16lb hammer 99ft. 7in. [30.35m], and the 22lb. ball, 32ft. [9.75m] at the Durnoch Games in July 1909, but the Aberdeen Journal report of that meeting describes him as 2nd in the hammer with 100ft. 7in. [30.66m], and 3rd in the 22lb. ball with 30ft. 5in. [9.27m].  So, although his diary is not complete, is sometimes apparently inconsistent, and not always accurate, no other book of this period gives so much detailed information about athletic progression, or so much insight into an athletic culture.

He also has useful chapters on -

*World’s Records and other remarkable achievements in athletics (though sadly without dates).

*Prominent Scottish Athletes and their Performances (which is very useful and contains some dates). 

*Results from the 1908 Olympic Games (with some results reported in metres and some in feet and inches), and

*Martin Sheridan’s records as ‘Champion All-Round Athlete of America’. 

There are 29 photographic illustrations, 11 of the author demonstrating various training exercises. 

Peter Radford/2015


The text:

Scientific Athletics provides us with a brief, tantalising, account of the athletics career of John William Sutherland, a young Highland Games athlete, in the period immediately prior to the Great War.  This was the point at which the Games and their Border counterpart were at their peak.  The Great War was to end the development of that rich athletics culture, blighting every hamlet the length and breadth of the nation.  For, though the standards of the Highland Games were to rise subsequent to World War Two with an influx of amateur athletes, their numbers dropped substantially after the Great War and the Border Games withered.  Neither would ever again be that expression of national vigour that they had been in the first decade of the century.

Sutherland’s book must be read with “Men of Muscle” and “Athletes and Athletic Sports of Scotland” if the historian is to secure a picture of what was a vibrant and extensive sports culture.  It was one which extended far beyond Scotland’s borders, and which was to be a major influence on the early development of athletics in the United States.

Sutherland records in minute detail his progress from the age of eleven, hurling light shots and hammers into the turf of his father’s fields, to 1912 when at the age of twenty he puts the 16 pound shot to forty eight feet ten inches at Bower Games.

Extracts from the author’s Athletic Diary.

1902, aged 11 years, weight six and a half stone

September. 7lb. hammer 42 feet.

October. 10lb shot 21feet. 7lb. hammer 44 feet.

1906 (age 15)

16lb. shot 30ft. 18lb. shot 27ft. 6in.

18lb. hammer amateur style. 76ft.

Pole vault 8ft.2in.

Hop step and jump 34 ft. 3in.

High jump 4ft. 8in.

Finally, to 1912, after page after page of his training-notes, and to the columns of the John O’Groats Journal, and to its report on the Bower Games.

Sutherland is only 21 years of age, weighs not more than 10st. 10lb., and stands but 5ft. 7in. high; yet he putted 16lb. ball 48ft. 10in.,
and threw a hammer of like weight 117ft. 1in. The former distance is 1ft. 2ins. over the present world’s record, established some
years ago by an athlete of 6ft. 1in., and weighing about SEVEN STONE more than Sutherland…

He attributes his prowess to (1) methodical training; (2) indefatigable assiduity and perseverance; (3) abstemious habits; (4) teetotalism;
(5) great concentration of will …

The bulk of Scientific Athletics is devoted to an unexceptional description of each event, but Sutherland also attempts to give an account of the Games’ performances of his period.  It is understandably incomplete, but one performance stands out, and it is that of his friend George Murray, who in 1907 achieved a long jump of 23 ft. 9 in., a mark which would have won him a silver medal at the 1908 Olympic Games.

It is ironic that Sutherland’s performance was achieved in 1912, a year in which Swedish amateur athletes had spent over three months in full-time training, all paid for by their government.  Yet Sutherland and his “professional” colleagues, having earned a few pounds at their local Games, were banned from Olympic competition.

Even now it is difficult to read Sutherland’s account of his ten years of solitary training without a tear.  For in bleak, remote Rogart, a young man trains from childhood, through adolescence into manhood, in daily challenge with himself.  A true athlete.

Tom McNab/2015

Bibliographic details:

Title: Scientific Athletics
Extract Details:
Publisher: Self Published
Place of Publication: Rogart, Sutherland, N.B. (i.e. North Britain - Scotland).
Date of Publication: 1912
Date(s) of Re-Publication:
BL Catalogue: General Reference Collection D-7904.aaa.19.
"An Athletics Compendium" Reference: A346, p. 31.