Bernard Nottage

An Exceptional Life in Sport, Medicine and Politics

Bernard Nottage was an influential Bahamian politician and doctor whose natural athletic ability as an Aberdeen student led to a front seat at the most famous racial protest in Olympic history.

Not many students can say they have represented their country on the world stage in some of the most prominent events in global athletics, particularly whilst studying for their medical degree at the same time. But that’s exactly what the late Bernard Nottage did, representing the Bahamas in some of the most high-profile sprinting events at both the Olympic and Commonwealth Games during his time at the University of Aberdeen in the late 1960s, before going on to an extremely notable career in medicine, politics and sports administration in his home nation.

Born in Nassau in October 1945, Bernard’s talent was evident from a young age, and he was a champion in multiple sports while at school, culminating in an appearance at the 1962 Central American and Caribbean Games where, as part of the Men’s 4 x 100m Relay team, he won a bronze medal and broke a national record. But it was during his time at the University of Aberdeen studying to be a doctor where his athletics career really began to bloom on the international stage. He quickly became prolific, winning several Scottish and British Universities’ titles for Aberdeen and also emerging victorious in the 100 and 220 Yards at the Scottish Championships ahead of the nation’s top sprinters, including a young Menzies Campbell, himself a notable athlete who went on to high-profile career in politics.

Amazingly, Nottage’s achievements came largely on the back of a natural gift, with minimal practice; indeed, when summing up his experiences at the 1966 Commonwealth Games for the University’s sports publication ‘Athletic Alma’ he admitted to “a chronic dislike for training”, and his University teammates often marvelled at the level of his achievements in the face of very little preparation. In fairness, in readying himself for the Games in Jamaica he had become, in his own words “a reformed athlete”, and even admitted that he “trained with weights twice a week” – a regime which may still seem somewhat relaxed to most top athletes!

Witnessing History: Mexico '68

The highlight of any athlete’s career is an appearance at the Olympics, and in 1968, while still studying for his degree, Nottage was selected to represent his nation in the Men’s 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m Relay at the Games in Mexico. Despite missing out on qualification from his 100m heat by an agonising 5 hundredths of a second, he made it through in the 200m before elimination in the quarter-finals, thereby participating in an event which ultimately saw what has been described as “one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympics.”

Following the 200m final, medal-winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the presentation ceremony to protest racial injustice, both raising a single black-gloved fist in a ‘Black Power’ salute on the podium during the playing of the US national anthem. The pair also wore ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badges and chose to collect their medals shoeless, wearing only black socks, in order to draw attention to black poverty.

The protest was hugely controversial; the pair were subsequently expelled from the Games and ostracised by the US sporting establishment, but many famous figures have voiced their support for the pair in the following years and decades. Indeed, the power of their actions is demonstrated by the fact that the iconic protest still attracts coverage and comment half a century later, with notable documentaries having been made about the incident in recent years and a statue honouring the protest erected in Washington DC in 2016.

However, for Bernard Nottage, the 1968 Olympics still weren’t over; just days later, he was part of a Bahamas 4 x 100m Relay team who set a new national record time of 39.4 seconds. All in all, the 1968 Games were a remarkable occasion to be part of, especially when his University classmates were all back in rainy Aberdeen attending their medical lectures!

That Bernard inadvertently played a small part in an event which brought together sport and politics seems fitting. His interest in politics was always strong, and he held several positions of office while at University, including President of the Aberdeen University Sports Union, the University’s Athletic Association and the Scottish Universities Sports Board, experience which would set him in good stead for his later career.

A Lifetime of Public Service

Following his graduation, at which he was honoured with the John Smith Award for outstanding contribution to the University, he undertook an extremely successful medical career, ultimately resulting in membership of the Medical Council, the award of a Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences and the role of President of the Medical Association of the Bahamas.

He simultaneously served as President of the Bahamas Amateur Athletic Association and the Central American and Caribbean Athletic Confederation and was instrumental in achieving voting parity for smaller countries within the International Amateur Athletic Federation, who awarded him the Veteran's Pin for his services to international athletics.

At the CARIFTA Games, 1980

At the CARIFTA Games, 1980

With his good friend and former Bahamian PM, Perry Christie

With his good friend and former Bahamian PM, Perry Christie

At the CARIFTA Games, 1980

At the CARIFTA Games, 1980

With his good friend and former Bahamian PM, Perry Christie

With his good friend and former Bahamian PM, Perry Christie

Always a strong and vocal believer in improving the lives of his fellow Bahamians, in 1987 Nottage was elected to Parliament, and two years later became a member of the cabinet. In the ensuing decades he held several high-profile roles, including Minister of Health, Minister of Education and Minister of National Security, and oversaw social developments including prison reform, the implementation of practical educational programmes for young people in key fields, an initiative for the rehabilitation of troubled youths and a drive to get academically gifted students into teaching. In 1998, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the independence of the Bahamas, he received the Silver Jubilee Award for outstanding contribution to national development. He was later appointed to the Senate.

After a long and remarkable career, Dr Bernard Nottage died in 2017, leaving behind not only a family legacy, but also a legacy of social improvement. He was awarded a state funeral, and figures from across the country paid tribute to him. Former prime minister Perry Christie spoke of his “shining unblemished integrity” and how his “magnificent achievements in the fields of medicine, athletics and politics deserve to be heralded” while his son Brian Nottage said "he was on a mission to change this country. He was on a mission to leave a legacy, not for himself, but for this great nation. He wanted our nation and everyone in it to have every opportunity to develop, grow and succeed.”

Back in Scotland, two-time Olympian and double Commonwealth Games 100m finalist Les Piggot recalls Bernard for his prowess on the track when the pair would do battle in the late 1960s: “In the best possible sense, he was a bit of a thorn in the flesh for us Scottish sprinters! He had bags of natural ability and a wonderful rhythm to his running. A smashing guy who was also very humble.”

With thanks to Jack Davidson for his obituary in The Scotsman and Brian Nottage for providing photographs