LONDON — An angry man threw a boot at former Australian prime minister John Howard during a debate at Britain's Cambridge University, the quick-thinking student who caught the shoe said Thursday.
Andrew Chapman, a senior officer at the Cambridge Union Society which organised the debate, told AFP how he stepped in to stop the boot thrown by an Australian man who had earlier branded Howard a "racist".
Howard "took it amazingly well -- he just brushed off the incident", according to the 20-year-old politics student and keen cricketer.
In the debate last Friday, Chapman had introduced Howard ahead of his speech on "leadership in the new century" but was heckled by a man shouting "go home, racist" to the former premier.
When Howard got up to speak, the man repeated this, shouting: "You make me ashamed to be Australian. Go home, racist."
A short while later, Chapman said, "he reached down to his foot, and I knew what was going to happen. I stood up, and got in between Mr. Howard and this gentlemen. He threw this boot and I caught it."
The man, whose identity remains unknown, was escorted out of the building by university security. He later returned to retrieve his boot, but "we politely turned down this request," Chapman said.
The student said the incident, witnessed by some 300-400 people at the event, was "hugely regrettable" given the number of high-profile figures asked to speak.
"It's not unusual for there to be a lively atmosphere in the chamber and there to be occasional outbursts," Chapman said, but added that such an outburst was a "completely isolated" incident.
Asked about his lightning reflexes honed on the cricket pitch, he added: "There wasn't a large amount going through my head at the time, other than that we had invited John Howard, he was our guest, and we have to protect him."
Howard, who led Australia's conservative government between 1996 and 2007, joked afterwards that Chapman "must be a cricketer".
One Cambridge student reportedly posted on their Twitter page later that night: "Saw an angry Australian chuck a shoe at John Howard earlier, was perhaps the worst throw ever -- and they wonder why they lost the Ashes."
Shoe-throwing has become something of a trend in Cambridge, after a German student hurled his footwear at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao there in February. The act was inspired by a similar attack on George W. Bush in Iraq in December.