“Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage” by Rob Hadgraft

On the social running website Fetcheveryone, you can make bets on how other Fetchies will perform in future races. I’ve never seen the point. Winning virtual credits won’t help me pay for my running shoes (see Running Free review). Back in the nineteenth century, things were different. People gambled cold, hard cash on running and walking races, with crowds of thousands gathering to drink, bet and watch professional athletes do laps of a track. In the pre-amateur, pre-Olympic world, this was the sport known as “pedestrianism”.

It was not an honourable or glamorous world. Upper class men shunned it. Women were actively discouraged from attending due to the alarming amount of male flesh on display (actual knees!). Born out of pub culture, and managed by a loose network of landlords, this was a firmly working-class sport.

I like to think about it as similar to professional wrestling. Runners had nicknames; the Gateshead Clipper; the Norwich Milkboy; and the…erm…Welsh Chicken. There was an element of theatre involved in order to drum up interest, even if the races themselves weren’t rigged.

Having flourished in the early part of the century, by the 1850s pedestrianism was in the doldrums. Cue George Martin, a maverick promotional genius. While travelling to America, he spotted a star – a fleet-footed Native American called Louis Bennett who had won a number of local races with impressive performances. Martin brought him back to the UK for what would turn out to be an extraordinary two years, a tale well told here by Rob Hadgraft, author of several biographies of historical runners.

It is hard to convey the sensation that “Deerfoot”, as he was rebranded, must have caused. Most Brits had barely travelled outside of their home towns or visited London, let alone gone abroad. Now they had the prospect of gawping at a real-life ‘savage’ in their midst, and thousands came to see him run as he toured the country. He single-handedly reinvigorated pedestrianism, attracting toffs, the Prince of Wales, and even – can you believe it – women to attend races. When he lined up at the start line, the 6-foot and 11-stone Deerfoot must have cut an awesome sight in comparison to his 5’6” and 8-stone competitors. The closest modern comparison I can think of is when the late, great Jonah Lomu performed the haka in 1995 and then destroyed the entire England rugby squad.

Of course, much of the presentation of Deerfoot was pure pantomime. In reality he was a Christian who wore western clothing, but on race day he was paraded around in traditional costume, headdress and all, and ran with a wampum belt of shell beads. His management actively encouraged his war whoops at the finish line when he won races. And he won virtually every race, beating the best that Britain could offer with his unprecedented surging tactics.

Some saw through the game. Allegations of match-fixing were rife, culminating in a court case where fellow runners admitted they had thrown races in order to let Deerfoot win and maintain crowd excitement. American newspapers poured big buckets of scorn on the whole enterprise, with the New York Herald exclaiming that the foolish Brits were being duped, and that Deerfoot was not the “savage” he was claimed to be.

In response to all of this controversy, Deerfoot let his running do the talking. The match-fixing cloud led to accusations of him being a third-class athlete, but this was a man who regularly ran 4.30 minute miles during distance races, and could comfortably run 10 miles in 52 mins. He would break the one hour distance world record three times during his stay in the UK, in honest races against the clock that could not be fixed. As author Rob Hadgraft laments, sadly the 1-hour race has gone out of fashion nowadays, despite the fact that the holders’ list is a who’s who of the greats; Alfred Shrubb, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek, Ron Clarke and Haile Gebrselassie, who set the current record in 2007. It’s time to bring it back.

As a 21st century reader, one has to ask the question of whether Deerfoot was being exploited. Clearly people were making money from him, and playing up his ‘primitive’ credentials in a circus sideshow manner that seems deeply offensive to us now. Equally, Deerfoot appears to have gone along with it all voluntarily, and earned a lot of money in the process (enough to buy a farm when he returned home), He was presented with unprecedented opportunities to travel. Yet 2 years away from his home and family, coupled with near-constant racing, caused cracks to appear in his modest demeanour. Pub brawls and at least one Eric Cantona-esque incident with a spectator suggested his mental state grew increasingly fragile, while his injury-plagued final races were a complete damp squib. Welcomed with cheers in 1861, and feted by high society in those glorious early months, Deerfoot sadly left Britain to a chorus of bored boos in 1863. He was no longer a novelty, and no longer invincible. Back in North America, he continued pro-running into his 40s, but eventually settled down to a life as farmer, dying in relative obscurity in 1897.

Rob Hadgraft’s book, like his earlier biography of Alfred Shrubb (reviewed here), offers a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten professional world before the amateur and Olympian ideals of sportsmanship took over. Was it exploitative? Yes. Were the results sometimes questionable? Undoubtedly. Yet were the sportsmen talented? Most definitely. And in our current era of doping in athletics, match-fixing allegations in tennis, and the spectre of Lance Armstrong, have we really moved on?

 

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2 thoughts on ““Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage” by Rob Hadgraft

  1. […] from Rob Hadgraft’s definitive biography (see my reviews of his other books about Alf Shrubb and Deerfoot), Jim Peters was arguably Britain’s greatest athletics star of the immediate post-war era. A […]

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  2. […] but a difficult man to like. (See earlier reviews of Hadgraft’s books The Little Wonder, Deerfoot, and Plimsolls on Eyeballs […]

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