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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 2 (May 1, 1940.)

Panorama of the Playground — Letter From Sir James Leigh-Wood

page 61

Panorama of the Playground
Letter From Sir James Leigh-Wood

Sir James Leigh-Wood, one of England's outstanding sporting administrators, chairman of the British Empire Games Federation has a soft for New Zealanders. This in part may be due to the association of his wife (formerly Miss Turnbull, sister of Alexander Turnbull, who presented the Turnbull Library to New Zealand), but his admiration for New Zealand sporting representatives has also had much to do with his sincere regard for the Dominion.

On 28th March I received this letter from Sir James, and appended was a note giving me permission to publish it if I so desired.

“It was uncommonly kind of you to write to me and I have read your letter of the 12th January with interest—it took a long time to reach me!

“I never had the slightest misgivings as to the response of my blood brethren of New Zealand when the call went out from the Motherland, not, let it be remembered, as a vocal summons, but that more beautiful and spiritual appeal which required no words to give expression to the mutual love and confidence which is inherent between us: ‘Your people are my people and my people are your people.’

“The splendid athletes of the Fern Leaf will be in the van of victory although many will fall on the field of honour—not unhappily, for they are knight-errants defending the birthright of free men.

“To their parents I would say this: I have but one son, from whom I have not heard for nearly three months. He is at sea on a perilous mission from which he may not return. Should he fall it will break my heart, but I know the message he would send to me—‘Carry on! I have done my duty.’ Thus also will the mothers and fathers of New Zealand take courage with high pride at the sacrifice of their beloved ones.

“If you meet those who remember me, tell them I have written, for just as you would wish me to know the feeling in New Zealand, so I want New Zealanders to know and believe in the spirit of the Motherland.

“We must go through periods which will test our endurance, but we shall slay the evil thing which threaten not us alone but civilisation throughout the world.”

Sir James visited New Zealand after the British Empire Games in Sydney, and at the Jubilee Dinner of the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association paid tribute to the magnificent performances of Boot and Matthews at the Empire Games, and of the prowess and sportsmanship of Jack Lovelock. His son, Roger, who represented Great

Britain in hurdling events at the Olympic Games in 1928, visited New Zealand several years ago but did not compete.

Wrestling and Football in War-time.

In the days immediately following the outbreak of war, there were many to declare that sport should be curtailed and that we should immediately settle down to the serious task ahead. A saner message was given by our leaders—they counselled a continuance of normal sporting activities, fully realising that sport plays an important role in the development of physical fitness and mental activity.

For that reason I am pleased to notice that the Dominion of New Zealand Wrestling Union has decided to continue with wrestling and not go into hibernation until the war has been brought to a successful end. For the male there are few sports to equal wrestling as a body-developer and as a method of self-defence it is unchallenged. Many of New Zealand's finest physical specimens at present in Egypt owe their development to participation in amateur wrestling.

There may be a few to cavil at the continuance of professional wrestling, but the plain fact is that it would not be possible to continue with amateur wrestling without finance, and the only manner in which the finance may be obtained is from the funds derived by staging professional contests. It is the aim of the Wrestling Union to give additional attention to the amateur side of the sport and to make wrestling facilities available at every military camp and Air Force station. It has also been decided that individual associations shall make available for patriotic purposes portions of their surplus funds.

Football will be one of the hardest hit sports—particularly in the senior grades. Judged by the talent of the New Zealand Army Rugby team in Egypt there must be a large percentage of representative players already overseas and more will follow. The position may arise where the senior grades will be abolished and play confined to grades of under-age or military unfit players … but the game will go on!

Graduates of the Field of Sport.

In the Royal Air Force it has been discovered that the best flying men are recruited from those who have had enthusiasm for sporting activities, and if the personal files of the most daring and efficient of war-time pilots could be examined it would probably be found that without exception each man has been a leader in some branch of sport. As in the R.A.F., so it seems to be in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. In recent months many prominent sportsmen have enrolled for service with this branch of defence service. Dickison, the brilliant Otago miler and three-miler, Barnes, a former New Zealand champion on the track and across country, Woodward, a prominent hurdler, Thomas, New Zealand champion wrestler, Christensen, a junior track champion, have been accepted for service with the R.N.Z.A.F., while Don Stirling, former New Zealand professional boxing champion, M. V. Blake, past champion at pole vaulting, and many others are already serving with the Royal Air Force. Many, too, have paid the supreme sacrifice.

Perils of the Boxing Ring.

Various suggestions have been made, following on the death of Stan Jenkin after a boxing contest in Wellington, to make boxing safer for the participants. Some time ago I ran foul of prominent boxing administrators and boxers by drawing attention to the heavy toll paid by boxers, but I feel that the time is opportune to write plainly.

The tragedy of the boxing ring is not the number of boxers who have died following on concussion—it is the large number of men and boys who have suffered mental disturbance or failing eyesight. Among boxers themselves and those who follow the sport, page 62 page 63 the term “punch drunk” is used with abandon. There does not seem to be any doubt, even among the participants, that participation in boxing contests will bring about a state of mental disorder that may vary from insanity to partial paralysis or bad eyesight. But year after year they come forward, as one American sports writer put it, “like lambs to the slaughter.”

If world champions cannot escape this blight of punch-drunkenness what chance have amateurs, many of whom have little conception of how to defend themselves? Without delving too deeply into the subsequent history of former world ring champions, a most dazzling and discouraging list is unearthed.

These men were world champions—but they fell victims to punch-drunkenness or blindness!

“Terrible” Terry M'Govern, one of the greatest featherweights of all time, died in a mental asylum; Ad Wolgast, former lightweight champion, trained for several years for a fight he had already fought and lost. Now an inmate of a mental home.

Billy Papke, former middleweight champion, murdered his wife and then committed suicide. At the inquest it was revealed that the one-time great boxer had suffered from punch-drunkenness.

Frankie Neill, who won the bantam-weight title when M'Govern graduated to the featherweight class, is now in a mental asylum.

Pete Herman, former bantam-weight champion, is now blind in both eyes. Fidel La Barba, another former champion, lost the sight of one eye as the result of injuries received in boxing.

Mike Gibbons, recognised as world middle-weight champion in America when Australians were claiming the title for Les Darcy, is blind in one eye.

John Henry Lewis, light-heavyweight champion, was barred from fighting in England because of total blindness in one eye and failing vision in the other.

Tiger Flowers died from the effects of boxing after losing his eyesight; Sam Langford, one of the great negro heavyweights, is now totally blind; and Pancho Villa, who brought the Philippine Islands to the fore in boxing, died from an infection received in boxing.

This list is by no means complete, and I do not propose to labour the point. In a paper read before the New York Pathological Society, Dr. Harrison S. Martland stated that a fighter who fights long enough is almost certain to become punch drunk.

Jack Dempsey, still the idol of boxing fans although he has long since retired, recently stated: “Now, we all kid a lot about the punch-drunk fighter. We say he is on his heels, or slap-happy, or goofy. Every young fighter sees them in a gymnasium and training camps on his way to the top. I saw them and was impressed, as any kid must be.

“I made no dramatic resolution never to be one, nor did I get sentimental about it, but I was always aware of the fact that every punch-drunk fighter was one who had taken too many wallops. Those early sights came to my mind after the second fight with Gene Tunney. After his own retirement, a year later, Tunney made a remark for publication that stamps him as wise indeed.

“ ‘But most of all,’ he said in an interview, ‘I wanted to leave the game that threatened my sanity before I met with an accident in a real fight with six-ounce gloves that would permanently hurt my brain’.”

There is no cure for punch-drunkenness! Dr. Martland, when he started on the subject of punch-drunk boxers persuaded a boxing promoter to dig up a variety of well-known ring tragedies. Twenty-three unfortunates, famous in their day, were examined. Their reactions to a series of detailed tests duplicated many of the doctor's bad concussion cases that he had handled as a staff member of one of America's greatest hospitals.

The doctor showed by illustration how a hard punch can so jar the head that a small rupture occurs within the brain. That break, no matter how slight, permits the formation of a blood clot around the artery which is separated from the brain cells by resting in a fluid. When this ring-shaped clot forms within that area of fluid it presses outward, or against the surrounding portion of the brain. By hardening it becomes a tumour or lump and the pressure remains permanently. Usually it is below the surface, beyond reach of the most skilled surgeon.

There are many who subscribe to the theory that the advent of the boxing glove is responsible for the ring malady, but this is a theory that cannot be tested unless we revert to bare-knuckle contests and check the results. In the old days a pugilist was invariably of “no class,” mentally or socially; to-day, a boxer may come from the rank and file or from the “Upper Ten.”

My own belief is that a more searching medical examination should be held before any boxer is permitted to engage in a ring contest. This examination should pay particular attention to reactions to certain well-defined mental tests and a failure in this should bar the boxer for all time. What shall it profit a man if he has the perfect body but is mentally deficient? It is a matter concerning which the Council for Physical Welfare and Recreation might well give consideration. If boxing is undermining the health of young New Zealanders some remedy must be found to remove the evils associated with the sport.

Death of Prince Obolensky.

New Zealanders learned with regret of the death of Prince Obolensky, killed in an air accident in England. To most of us he was but a name, but to the members of the 1935. All Blacks he will be remembered as the scoring winger who cut their defence to ribbons in the rout against England at Twickenham. The Brotherhood of Sport was made evident when the members of the 1935. All Black team forwarded a wreath to the funeral of the Russian Prince who went to England, won the honour of being the first foreigner to represent England at Rugby football and then died fighting for his adopted land.