'Tom Watson' wins bronze for New Zealand

7 July 1924

Arthur Porritt (left) wins bronze in the 100-m sprint at the 1924 Olympics (Radio New Zealand)

The Academy Award-winning film Chariots of fire (1981) was based on a true story about British athletes who competed at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

During the film one of the main characters, Briton Harold Abrahams, wins gold in the 100-m sprint. American Jackson Scholz finishes second, while New Zealander ‘Tom Watson’ comes third. Watson was based on Arthur Porritt, who reportedly refused permission for his name to be used in the film out of modesty.

Porritt was one of four New Zealanders who competed at the 1924 Olympics. He claimed to have been selected not only because he was New Zealand’s fastest sprinter but because it was cheap to get him to Paris – he was studying medicine at Oxford.

About 30,000 spectators saw Porritt, Abrahams, Scholz and fellow Americans Charley Paddock, Loren Murchison and Chet Bowman contest the 100 m final. Scholz was the fastest away and still led at the halfway point, but with 20 m to go Abrahams edged ahead to win in 10.6 seconds, follwed closely by Scholz (10.7 seconds) and (10.8 seconds).

New Zealanders had competed in athletics at previous Olympics. Taranaki walker Harry Kerr had won bronze for the Australasian team in 1908, but Porritt’s was the first track medal won by New Zealand – and in one of the glamour events. It was an amazing feat – Porritt did not even have a coach. Following the Games he trained under Abrahams’ coach, Sam Mussabini, and in 1925 he beat Abrahams over 100 yards (91 m). Until Abrahams’ death in 1978 the two men and their wives dined together at 7 p.m. on 7 July every year to commemorate their final.

Porritt captained the New Zealand team at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, but had to withdraw from the 100 m because of injury. By then a trained physician, he treated members of the New Zealand team, including boxer Ted Morgan, who won gold. Porritt was team manager at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he crucially advised Jack Lovelock to compete in the 1500 m, which he won, rather than the 5000 m.

From 1934 to 1967 Porritt was the New Zealand member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). He greeted New Zealand teams when they arrived in London on their way to various Olympic Games, arranging medical treatment, accommodation, training facilities and equipment. He also presented Yvette Williams (1952), Murray Halberg (1960) and Peter Snell (1960 and 1964) with their Olympic gold medals. Sir Arthur Porritt was accorded life membership of the IOC when he resigned to become Governor-General of New Zealand (1967–72).