JP McCann – Mile Maestro of the 1920s

The outstanding Ulster middle-distance runner of the 1920s was undoubtedly J.P. Clarke. Not only was he Irish champion over 880yds/ 1 Mile in 1923, he also successfully defended his mile title the following year. For most of the 1920s, the County Antrim Harrier was Ulster or Northern Ireland champion over 440yds/880yds/1 mile and at least in one year he also added the 1000yds to his collection of titles.

In open sports meeting Clarke could compete successfully at distances from 100 yards right through to two miles as well as the high and long jumps. His appearances over cross country appear to be rare and did not compare with his prowess on the track where he preferred a cinder surface to grass.

Clarke first came to national prominence when he was a surprise winner of the 880yds title at Croke Park on 30 June 1923. Clonliffe Harrier Norman McEachern was the two lap doyen of the time and started hot favourite for gold, but the Belfast policeman turned in a scintillating final straight to win in 1:59.8.

He franked that form the following day, taking the mile, again by eight yards, in 4:37.4. Almost 100 years later these times would still put him top of the CAH rankings. Clarke returned to Croke Park in 1924 but McEachern got the better of him in the 880yds run in heavy rain. Undeterred, Clarke turned out on the Sunday to retain his mile crown in 4:39.6.

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That earned Clarke the honour of representing Ireland at the annual match v England v Scotland which in 1923 took place at Stoke although it was felt a better venue could have been chosen. It was central enough, but the track was not considered to be good enough for the standard of international competition.

Clarke and J.U. Stuart wore the shamrock vests in the 880yds where they faced Douglas Lowe and Edgar Mountain of England, and the Scots Duncan McPhee and C.S. Brown. Mountain had represented Great Britain at both the Antwerp (1920) Olympics, where he finished fourth, and again in Paris four years later when Lowe had taken the gold medal in 1:52.4.

The race in Stoke was said to be run in “uncommon fashion” with Clarke going off hard and quickly building up a lead of 3-4 yards. This had increased to six at the bell and a serious attempt was made to catch him with 300 yards to run which they did quite quickly. At the furlong mark, Lowe piled on the pace with Mountain and McPhee in chase.

However, Clarke stormed back to take third spot 13 yards behind Lowe who broke the tape in 1:57.2. Clarke’s time at a conservative estimate would have been around the 1:59 mark. One contemporary report had the County Antrim Harrier finished second six yards behind Lowe.  

He turned out later that afternoon in the mile but finished outside the podium positions. The race was won by England’s Henry Stallard, who would pick up a bronze medal in the 1500m in Paris following year as well as finishing fourth in the 800m.  Highlight of the meeting was a fantastic treble (100/220/440) treble by Chariots of Fire hero Eric Liddell who led Scotland to team victory.     

Clarke’s prowess in the middle-distances almost the centre of a tug-of-war the following year. He and two other Ulster athletes, Ulsterville Harrier Alec Gilmore and Cecil Ogle of Duncairn Nomads, when their names were brought up at a meeting of the British Olympic Committee. All three by this stage had been included in the Irish squad selected for special training in advance of the Paris Olympics. Their eligibility to compete for Ireland was queried by Harry J. Barclay.

General Kentish who was a member of the International Olympic Committee was unequivocal in his reply. For the purposes of the Olympic Games, Ireland could not compete as one, but the Free State must enter as the Free State and Ulster must come in with Great Britain. Consequently, as all three athletes were not born in the 26 counties, they could not represent the Free State.  

Clarke was also one of a number of athletes who fell victim of what appeared to be over-zealous officialdom in 1924. Clarke who was a Special Constable in the RUC was reported for “not trying” at a Celtic Sports and suspended until 1 June 1925. He was said to have been in conversation with a bookie prior to the start of the race in question. He rejected the accusation and repudiated the charges made against him in a letter to the Irish Independent.

He explained that the race in question referred to a heat of the 880yds in which he had qualified for the final in second place. He also said that his time of 2:01.5 was one of the fastest of his career. His appeal against the suspension was heard by the Central Council of the NACA who rejected Clarke’s arguments. He also pointed out that nowhere was there an obligation to run flat out in a heat and cited examples of athletes finishing second in their heat at the 1924 Olympics but winning the final.

He also cited instances where other athletes had been reported that season for “not trying” and explained the extenuating circumstances. He highlighted that it was the same set of judges who had been behind each and every instance. He said he had contacted an eminent (athletics) judge about the matter and in his opinion was that it was “absurd”.  

Unfortunately, his representations fell on deaf ears and he was suspended until the following June. He was phlegmatic about the suspension in that it only covered the cross country season in which he had not intended to take part. The lay-off from competition did not seem to do him any harm and he returned in top form the following year.

The suspension may also have been a blessing in disguise in that he was prevented from being involved in the problematic Celtic Sports on Easter Monday 1925 that, directly or indirectly, led to the formation of a separate athletics body (NIAAC & CCA) in Northern Ireland.

Clarke was said, in the contemporary press, to be well in advance of his time in terms of training and lifestyle. He did not have a local trainer but was coached by correspondence from Alec Nelson, the Cambridge University trainer at the time. He had a basic gymnasium of his own at home comprising punch ball, skipping rope, gloves, dumbbells, and other paraphernalia. At home each evening he went through a series of “Nelson” exercises.

J P Clarke (left) wins the 440 yards at Killough Sports 1926

His diet was a little unusual in that he was reported to be satisfied with half a potato a day, preferring bananas and cream for nutrition. He did not smoke nor drink alcohol and eschewed cinemas and theatres. He also wisely avoided training in the smog of 1920s Belfast, going out to the country “to get the air about him.”

There was speculation that Clarke would remain with the NACA after the split in 1925 but this proved unfounded as he stayed with his club, County Antrim Harriers, who opted to form part of the new Northern association. He won the Ulster 880yds and mile titles in 1925 and 1926 but there is no evidence of him continuing active in the sport after that. He is probably remembered for being the recipient of the first medals struck by the new Northern body after winning the 880yds and mile championships in 1925.