“Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” by Matthew Algeo

The human brain can be very creative when bored. On day 3 of a particularly boozy stag weekend, a group of us found ourselves in a Munich park with zero desire to keep drinking, but without a football or other traditional forms of entertainment either. Within minutes we had invented “shoeball”. A target is nominated, and then you have two chances to get as close to the target as possible. By tossing your shoes. We learnt a lot of things that day. Cowboy boots have a size advantage but suffer from “floppy trajectory” syndrome. Trainers are too light and are typically thrown too far. The humble loafer is the best all-rounder, combining solid handling with a stable landing. By the end of the afternoon we had a small league up and running, and a Korean family had delightedly joined in and later sent us photos of our “George W Bush Memorial Game”.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this may explain the peculiar appeal of pedestrianism in the 19th century. Pedestrianism was essentially competitive long distance walking (and sometimes running), and a forerunner of today’s ultramarathon scene. But unlike today’s ultras, pedestrianism events could regularly attract huge crowds of 10,000 people. There was even an infamous riot in New York City at one event when spectators couldn’t get in.

Why? As society became more urban and industrialised, people found that they had leisure time, which was a completely new concept. The problem was that there were very few things to do in that time, as most forms of mass entertainment were in their infancy. As Algeo explains: “the public was so desperate for entertainment, especially affordable entertainment, that watching half-dead men stagger in circles for days on end was, if not absorbingly entrancing, at least an unobjectionable way to kill time”.

Algeo does a fine job of explaining the appeal of pedestrianism, and conveying some of the genuine excitement that these events generated. As with all great eras in sports, a significant rivalry emerged that raised the appeal. The dandy-ish and extrovert American Edward Payson Weston competed against the taciturn Irish immigrant Dan O’Leary in a number of the highest profile events, and they were the Borg-McEnroe, Hunt-Lauder, Coe-Ovett of their day.

These were serious athletes. The blue-riband event was a 6-day walking contest, where the top participants would regularly walk more than 500 miles. On a 200m track. Indoors. While the audience smoked. Pedestrians were masters of sleep deprivation in ways that perhaps only today’s transatlantic rowers are comparable.

One of the joys of this immensely readable book is that Algeo shows how the sport reflected its times, but sometimes subverted them. Women such as Madame Ada Anderson competed in their own pedestrian events, much to the horror of the moral guardians of the day. Despite contemporary commentators (including Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame) arguing that women’s bodies were not designed for endurance walking, in 1879 Madame Anderson walked a ¼ mile lap every 15mins for 1000 consecutive blocks of 15mins. She completed the feat 28 days and 2700 laps later. It would be more than 100 years before women would be allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon.

Equally notable was that one of the most popular stars of pedestrianism, Frank Hart, was African American. This was the era just following the Civil War, with slavery only recently abolished, and more than 60 years before Jackie Robinson would become the first black player in major league baseball. During his career in pedestrianism, Boston-born Frank Hart would set a world record of 565 miles for the 6-day event, win the equivalent of $500,000 (in today’s money) in a single race, and become the most discussed athlete of his day.

In 1880 pedestrianism was the most popular sport in the English-speaking world, with its stars depicted on some of the very first cigarette cards. Within 20 years the sport was dead. This was partly because other forms of entertainment took off. In Britain the Factory Act of 1878 gave workers Saturday afternoons off, which had the unexpected consequence of allowing football – previously an aristocratic pursuit – to become the nation’s favourite sport. The invention of the bicycle also put a huge dent in the popularity of pedestrianism, as a ‘cycling mania’ took over the industrial world, and cycling races offered faster paced excitement (and crashes) than pedestrianism.

However, pedestrianism also died because its credibility became eroded with accusations of match fixing. Gambling was a huge element of the sport, and criminal groups increasingly tried to determine the outcome. The association with gambling also brought pedestrianism into conflict with religious groups and other moral crusaders, who eventually succeeded in banning any 6-day race in the US. They are still banned today.

There are lessons here to be learned for today’s sport of athletics. Sports need to move with the time and protect their integrity, or else audiences will vote with their feet and find new forms of entertainment. Shoeball for the 2024 Olympics anyone?

Tagged , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: