William Land: sporting soldier so close to becoming an Olympian

William Land: sporting soldier so close to becoming an Olympian
Black and white portrait photograph of man in army uniform
William (Bill) Land, soldier and athlete.
Image: private collection

William (Bill) Anthony Land was born in 1914, and like so many of that generation, both his athletics and military career were shaped by the events of the early twentieth century.

A keen school athlete with an aptitude for many sports including cricket, hockey, tennis, rugby and football, Bill was born into a ‘Sapper’ family. His father and grandfather had both served in the Royal Engineers, as a Warrant Officer and Captain respectively and Bill followed, joining the Royal Engineers as a Boy Bugler the age of 15 in 1929 and training as an architectural draftsman.

Aged just 16 and a half, Land made an impression at the 1931 Inter-Services Championships where he cleared 6’1” (1.85m) in high jump. This gained him selection for the British Team that summer – the youngest athlete at the time ever to be selected – in matches against Italy, which he won, and Germany where he jumped a career best of 6’2¾” (1.90m) to tie for first place. 

1932 saw Land continue to win multiple domestic matches and titles, including becoming Amateur Athletic Association High Jump Champion with a jump of 6’1” (1.85m) and retaining his Army Championship with a jump of 6’2¼” (1.89m).

Land was tipped to make the GB Team for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and was even measured for the kit, but budgetary constraints meant the team selectors had to make a decision about who to take. In the end they went with a more experienced athlete instead of Land, believing he would get his chance in future competitions.

Land missed most of the 1933 season with a knee injury, but returned in 1934 as a triple threat, having added discus and javelin to his repertoire. Land set English records in both of his new disciplines and was chosen to represent England at the 1934 British Empire Games in London in High Jump, where he placed 6 with a jump of 6’1” (1.85m), and Discus, placing 5 with a throw of 129’1” (39.36m).  

A selection of Land’s gold medals from the Army Athletic Association.
Objects and image: private collection
Black and white image of male athlete throwing a discus
Bill Land throwing the discus, just one of his disciplines.
Image: private collection

1935 continued in a similar vein, with domestic titles and records. 1936 saw Land win the Inter-Services treble: high jump, javelin, and discus, and take second place in the shot put for good measure. Combined events we know them today were not particularly established at this time; the Amateur Athletic Association had held a decathlon championship in 1928 but not since. If an athlete was good at several disciplines, they either picked one to focus on, or competed in all of them as individual events. Don Finlay was another all-round athlete. A few years older than Land, Finlay had made the 1932 Olympic team, winning bronze in the 110m hurdles. As a member of the RAF, Finlay and Land competed against one another in the Inter-Services Championships and were due to meet in the second AAA decathlon, to be held in 1936, which would put both athletes very firmly into contention for selection to the 1936 Olympic team. Before they could face each other however, Land was posted to Hong Kong, missing both the opportunity to compete against Finlay, who would go on to a further two Olympic Games, and the chance of Olympic selection – this time for the 1936 Berlin Games – for the second time.

Letters kept by Land’s family show that Bill was on the radar to compete for England throughout the 1930s, where his military career would allow. He was approached to compete at the 1938 British Empire Games, this time in Sydney, but turned down the selection, feeling that he wasn’t performing at competition level.

The onset of World War II saw the suspension of all athletics competitions. Land served with the Royal Engineers, reaching the rank of Captain. He was a ‘Desert Rat’, fighting in the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942 before being involved in Operation Huskey, the Allied Invasion of Sicily in 1943, and D-Day on 6 June 1944. In 1945 in Germany Land’s unit were shelled while building a bridge over the Rhine. Land organised the evacuation of dead and wounded soldiers whilst still under fire and was awarded the Military Cross later that year in recognition of his exemplary gallantry.

After the War Land left the military, becoming a civil engineer. His prodigious sporting talent earned him offers from both Huddersfield Town and Chelsea Football Club to play professional football; Kent County Cricket Club’s selectors too were keen to sign him. Having just married however, Land felt that the wages he could make from a career in sport would not support a family as well as the wage he could earn as an engineer and turned down all offers. His commitment to athletics continued unabashed though, his daughter Bridget recalls;

Letter from Amateur Athletic Association to his regiment regarding Bill Land being given leave to compete for England, 1931
Letter from the Amateur Athletic Association to the Royal Engineers regarding Land’s release on leave to compete for England in Athletics.
Private collection.

“wherever we lived, we’d have a chalked or painted discus circle in the back garden so he could practice. Even on honeymoon apparently, he took mum to a field so he could practice his throwing.”

Bridget Morrison (nee Land), Bill’s daughter
Black and white image of male athlete with multiple trophie
Land with multiple athletics trophies.
Image: private collection

Land continued to compete. In 1947 he took part in match between GB and France, and in 1948 was once again up for Olympic selection. Rationing was still in place after the War, and the Amateur Athletic Association sent Land food parcels to supplement his ration so he could train effectively. Heartbreakingly, on this third possible Olympic selection – having missed out in 1932 being deemed too young, and in 1936 as his military career posted him overseas – in 1948 younger throwers were selected ahead of him and he missed out on Olympic selection yet again.

One of Land’s last appearances as a competitor came on the 7 May 1954 in a match between the Amateur Athletic Association and Oxford University. Land, competing for the AAA team, was present to witness history as Oxford University athlete Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile.

After retiring from international competition, Land continued to be involved with Athletics for many years through his club, Borough of Enfield Harriers AC. He also carried on playing tennis and table tennis until well into later life.

Bill Land died in 2006. His ashes are at the Royal Engineers in Chatham, Kent. A Sapper, an MC, and very nearly, an Olympian too.