Olympic five miles champion of 1908 is remembered during Manchester International
In 2018 Emil Voigt joined legends such as Paavo Nurmi, Jesse Owens and Fanny Blankers-Koen as one of the first athletes to receive a World Athletics Heritage plaque. Now, three years later, the plaque was unveiled by Brendan Foster and Peter Lovesey at the Manchester International on Wednesday (Aug 18).
Voigt won the 1908 Olympic five miles gold and was the last British athlete to win an Olympic long-distance running title before Mo Farah’s 2012 victories.
Distance running great Foster was joined by athletics historian and writer Lovesey at Sportcity for the presentation. Fittingly, Voigt was born just one mile away in Ardwick but went on to enjoy a rich and colourful life which spanned the world.
He was the son of a German immigrant father and Scottish mother and specialised at distances such as the mile for Manchester Athletic Club before moving up to five miles for the Olympics which was, at the time, the longest race at the 1908 London Games.
At the Olympic trials at the White City he had rarely raced further than two miles but he stayed with the leaders and out-kicked them at the end to qualify for the Games as a relative unknown.
On the eve of the Olympics he won the national four miles title in a championship record. “This little man,” reported the Athletic News, “walked away without seeming in the slightest distress.”
Then at the Games itself, Lovesey takes up the story: “There were six heats and only the first two in each went through. Emil made sure of his place in the final by winning from an American by 150 yards. The crowd took him to their hearts.
“There was a scare before the 5 miles final because he had damaged his foot and wasn’t sure he would be able to run. An orthopaedic surgeon fitted his shoe with a plaster support and told him he would feel pain, but should be able to last the distance. He did better than that.
“John Svanberg of Sweden, the fastest man in the world, made it a hot pace. But with 700 yards to go, cheered by a crowd of 60,000, Emil caught the others off guard by taking the lead and making a brave run for home. He won his gold medal by 70 yards from Eddie Owen, another Manchester runner, with Svanberg well beaten.
“In an interview afterwards it emerged that Emil was a vegetarian who credited much of his success to his diet. He had spent a year studying in Austria, was fluent in five languages and was a Manchester Guardian journalist. Not bad for someone who had left school at 16.”
After the Olympics he founded an Amateur Athletes Union in an effort to bring trade unionism into sport. He then moved to Australia to start up his an engineering business. Still only 28, in 1911 he set an Australian record for six miles and was selected to run at the 1912 Olympics although he had to withdraw due to injury.
During World War One he returned to Britain and managed a firm manufacturing top secret warheads used in anti-submarine warfare. Returning to Australia in the 1920s, he set up a radio station and became president of the Australian Federation of Broadcasting Stations.
Voigt died on October 16, 1973, aged 90 in Auckland, New Zealand but there are plans to bring his story to a new audience as his granddaughter Robin Voigt is writing a book about his remarkable life.