August 12, 2016

We were watching Olympic race walking on TV this afternoon, and I got to wondering how that got started.

Why would you have a race with some restriction on how you could move? Got to keep your toe of your back foot in contact with the ground until the heel of your front foot touches the ground. Why?!

I got drawn into the history of race walking. From Wikipedia:
Racewalking developed as one of the original track and field events of the first meeting of the English Amateur Athletics Association in 1880. The first racewalking codes came from an attempt to regulate rules for popular 19th century long distance competitive walking events, called Pedestrianism. 
Let's click through to Pedestrianism
During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pedestrianism, like running or horse racing (equestrianism) was a popular spectator sport in the British Isles. Pedestrianism became a fixture at fairs – much like horse racing – developing from wagers on footraces, rambling, and 17th century footman wagering. Sources from the late 17th and early 18th century in England describe aristocrats pitting their carriage footmen, constrained to walk by the speed of their masters' carriages, against one another....
Racing their footmen as they'd race horses
By the end of the 18th century, and especially with the growth of the popular press, feats of foot travel over great distances (similar to a modern Ultramarathon) gained attention, and were labelled "pedestrianism."...

The longer form of "ultra marathon" walking featured in the popular press and in the decade after the American Civil War in the United States was a source of fascination. Edward Payson Weston, a reporter for the New York Herald won a $10,000 prize by walking 1,136 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 30 days in 1867. In the United States a series of women's competitions were staged, special indoor tracks were built in some towns, and intra-community long distance pedestrianism came into vogue. Along with sensational feats of distance, gambling was a central attraction for the large, mostly working-class crowds which came to pedestrian events.
Here's a book on the subject, "Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport."
Strange as it sounds, during the 1870s and 1880s, America’s most popular spectator sport wasn’t baseball, boxing, or horseracing—it was competitive walking. Inside sold-out arenas, competitors walked around dirt tracks almost nonstop for six straight days (never on Sunday), risking their health and sanity to see who could walk the farthest—500 miles, then 520 miles, and 565 miles! These walking matches were as talked about as the weather, the details reported from coast to coast.

This long-forgotten sport, known as pedestrianism, spawned America’s first celebrity athletes and opened doors for immigrants, African Americans, and women. The top pedestrians earned a fortune in prize money and endorsement deals. But along with the excitement came the inevitable scandals, charges of doping—coca leaves!—and insider gambling. It even spawned a riot in 1879 when too many fans showed up at New York’s Gilmore’s Garden, later renamed Madison Square Garden, and were denied entry to a widely publicized showdown.
Here's an NPR article about the book. Excerpt:
There were brass bands playing songs; there were vendors selling pickled eggs and roasted chestnuts. It was a place to be seen. There were a lot of celebrities who attended the matches....

[Edward Payson Weston] was one of the most famous pedestrians of the 19th century.... [Weston] was found to be chewing coca leaves while he walked in a race in 1876. This wasn't strictly illegal but it was considered unsportsmanlike and outright cheating at the worst. He admitted that he used coca leaves in a race, but he said it was under the advice of his doctor.

Champagne was considered a stimulant. And a lot of trainers — these guys had trainers — advised their pedestrians to drink a lot of champagne during the race. They thought that this would give them some kind of advantage...


ADDED: From the NYT, July 22, 1875, "WALKING AT LONG BRANCH":

24 comments:

Qwinn said...

The first time I saw Olympic Racewalking, i resigned myself to the fall of Western Civilization.

It's like having a competition to see who can whisper the loudest.

madAsHell said...

Pedestrianism The missing Monty Python skit.

Bob Ellison said...

Why aren't all swimming races free-style?

YoungHegelian said...

Well, at least it isn't Curling.

Ann Althouse said...

"Why aren't all swimming races free-style?"

I guess it's called "freestyle" because if you were free to choose, that's what you'd choose. When I see the other strokes, I think: Why were just those 3 other approaches to swimming established and perpetuated as the 3 other ways to swim.

Especially the butterfly. I can see the logic of the backstroke -- not for speed but just for keeping going and having your head out of the water. And the breaststroke is for underwater swimming. But how the hell is the butterfly in that set of things... and not some other strange limitation of the arms and legs?

JAORE said...

I recall a film with Gary Grant that involved race walking. Seemed absurd even to the very young me.

Unknown said...

Isn't freestyle just another name for the Australian crawl?

Achilles said...

This is just a dumb event.

Greek Donkey said...

Re: The race walking film, Cary Grant and Jim Hutton (Ellery Queen and Tim's father) in "Walk, Don't Run" set in the Tokyo Olympics.
I believe it was his last film as he finally starting to look close to his actual age and he figured that as enough.

gadfly said...

It's kinda like Air Rifle Shooting except you have to use a Red Ryder Daisy BB Gun.

TWW said...

As others have noted, "Walk Don't Run" was quite a good movie with Cary Grant, Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar. It was notable as the first movie where Grant was not cast as the romantic lead.

Yancey Ward said...

It was a UK sport in the early 20th century, so it isn't surprising that it ended up in the Olympics pretty early on. Considering that if you actually use freeze frame on the events, you will often find people breaking the rules literally all the time, I think it should be canned.

Seriously, do they not use cameras to judge this thing?

Big Mike said...

In other Olympic news, Kim Rhode has earned an Olympic medal (this one a bronze) in six different Olympic games. Six games, six medals.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Unknown said...

Isn't freestyle just another name for the Australian crawl?

Practically, yes, but strictly speaking, no. In freestyle, the swimmer can use any stroke they like. Since the ( Australian/American/front ) crawl is the fastest, that is what everyone uses.

rcocean said...

What a great post. Its always fascinating to see what people did in the past. It makes sense that before Autos people would have been fascinated by walking, since that was the only way of getting around - other than by horse.

John Muir once wrote a very popular book about his "1,000 mile walk to the Gulf".

Unknown said...

Thank you, Iggy, though your ignorance fell short of mine, I hope your bliss persists.

rcocean said...

While the history is different, the real reason for the various strokes is to allow more people to participate and form "Swim teams" to participate against each other.

rcocean said...

"Olympic Racewalking, i resigned myself to the fall of Western Civilization."

Looks like someone didn't read the post.

Bob Ellison said...

In the 100-meter dash, the "fastest man/woman in the world" competition, anyone out of the blocks within 0.1 seconds of the starter's gun is ruled to have committed a false start. Two false starts, and you're disqualified. Too bad if you're faster than biologists think you can possibly be.

Which reminds me: what is the OIC going to do about high-estrogen men and high-testosterone women with otherwise verifiable hermaphroditic and/or gender-dysphoria qualities? Will the WNBA ban them from the locker rooms? What about the Tour de France?

One reason I like the Olympic gymnastic competitions is that you can watch those tiny women and men do things and think, "there's no way under the sun that the other sex could do what that little lady/gentleman just did".

But we digress here.

Fernandinande said...

I like to swim by waving my arms and yelling.

gpm said...

Walk Don't Run is a loose remake of The More the Merrier, with the always excellent Jean Arthur and Charles (not James!) Coburn and the usually just OK Joel McCrae, which fortunately has nothing whatsoever to do with race walking. Same general plot with a housing shortage, older man moving himself in with a less than pleased young woman, older man bringing in young man as a third tenant, etc. Though Cary Grant seeing himself in the Charles Coburn role would be reason enough to retire from making movies.

--gpm

dbzdak said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUxbnadlIz4

dbzdak said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUxbnadlIz4

Big Mike said...

As to swimming, in the beginning there were three stokes: the crawl, the back crawl (back stroke), and breast stroke. Breast stroke has historical significance because if one wants to move pretty silently through the water (e.g., crossing a river after dark to get behind enemy lines) then breast stroke is the way to do it. (Let's assume the river is too wide to swim all the way underwater.)

Butterfly came about because back in the 1930's a breast stroker noticed that nothing in the formal rules at that time required him to recover his arms below the water, so he tried recovering his arms above the water and beat everybody he swam against. Pretty soon everybody competing in breast stroke was recovering the arms above water. Circa 1950 the international rules committee decided to make above water arm recovery into a separate stroke called butterfly.

Back when I was a competitive swimmer (a full half century ago!) there were all sorts of rules associated with both the breast stroke and butterfly that are gone today. In the 'fly you used to have to be on your belly before you started doing underwater dolphin kicks, which led to disqualifications for swimmers who rightly or wrongly were judged to still be short of dead flat before they started kicking after the turn, and in both strokes your shoulders had to be flat when you touched the wall.

"Freestyle" means just that -- there are no rules about the form. In fact at an AAU swim meet I attended I saw the world record holder in two of the backstroke distances qualify for the 200 m freestyle final by flipping over on his back and swimming backstroke after diving into the pool (he did swim the crawl in the final).