A website dedicated to athletics literature / from 1860 to 1920

This is not the place to describe in detail the creation of English amateur athletics, save to observe that its architect was undoubtedly John Chambers, a gentleman-entrepreneur, who created the London-based Amateur Athletic Club in 1865. For much of the next fifteen years he battled bitterly with the Waddell brothers of the London Athletic Club for the control of London athletics, while in the regions Liverpool produced the National Olympian Society and the Northern clubs a regional athletics association. All was ultimately resolved at the Randolph Hotel, Oxford on 24th April, 1880, when the Amateur Athletic Association was formed. This was a triumph of diplomacy for the twenty two year old Montague Shearman, who became the first President of the Association.  Chambers went on to pilot Captain Webb in his swim across the English Channel and to create boxing’s Queensbury Rules; in contrast, the bankrupt Waddell brothers fled the country, leaving behind them substantial debts.

Chambers had conceived a national association modelled on the Jockey Club, covering both amateur and professional codes, but there was never any appetite amongst amateurs for such a comprehensive organisation. Thus, until the Great War of 1914-18, for most of the British population, athletics’ most effective expression lay in pedestrianism and the Highland, Border and Lakeland Games. But there is little evidence of this in the literature of the period, one in which description of this rich rural culture is omitted.

The period prior to the first Olympics of 1896 produced a brief flurry of eccentric professional activity in the 1880s, in the shape of indoor six day races, known in London as “The Wobbles”. The Agricultural Hall, Islington was the British venue for these events, and resulted in the creation of the nation’s first 220 yard indoor track; and there were indoor athletics meetings there. The fever for six day racing travelled west to New York, to Madison Square Gardens, where it had a brief popularity, and ended with the English runner George Littlewood’s record of just over 623 miles, one which stood till well into the 20th century.

Three thousand miles away, in the USA, athletics took a quite different course in that, in America, though match-racing had enjoyed a brief flourish, the Pedestrian Carnival had never taken root. But on the East Coast the Highland Games had done so, and well-attended Games were held in the major cities until the Great War. And its Ivy League Universities, eager to match England’s Oxford and Cambridge, deployed sport as an educational vehicle, using the events of the Highland Games as the basis for their athletics programme. Where they differed from Oxbridge was in the intensity of their competitive structure, expressed most brutally in American Football, derived by the coach Walter Camp from rugby union. Indeed, with almost a hundred deaths in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt was compelled to summon college coaches to Washington and threaten to ban the game; this resulted in the removal of the Flying Wedge and the creation of the forward pass.

The Americans have always been generous about the Scottish derivation of American track and field, but this was not so in the United Kingdom. The most articulate form of amateur airbrushing was Shearman’s “Athletics” (1890), which glides effortlessly from Henry V111’s hammer-throwing, the Running Footmen and the 1800-1850 pedestrian period, but  abruptly stops . This means that Dinnie, Lang, Hutchens, Cummings, White, some of the greatest professional athletes of the 19th century, suddenly cease to exist.

Not all amateur writers took Shearman’s path. Griffin and the Luptons (though it is unlikely that either had witnessed the feats of great athletes like Donald Dinnie or Harry Hutchens) attempted to record the performances of both amateur and professional codes. Here, a major problem was that professional athletics possessed no governing bodies to set rules, or to record and validate performance.

And in the running events, direct comparison with amateur athletics would always be difficult, because the professionals had an infinity of sprint-distances, further complicated by handicaps, which produced times which made it hard to make direct comparison with amateur performances. Thus the greatest sprints performance of the 19th century, Hutchens’ 300 yards in 30 seconds in a midwinter handicap at Powderhall in 1885, is not mentioned by Shearman . Nothing in the literature of the period makes it clear that, at this point, professional athletes were probably ahead of their amateur counterparts in most events.

The Luptons and their successors had even more problems with field events, and clearly lacked accurate information on Scottish Highland and Border Games, their main means of expression. Thus, none of Dinnie’s throwing and high-jumping marks are included, but an infinity of non-standard hopping and jumping events (backward standing jump, jumps with weights, etc.) somehow finds a place in their lists; and even American bridge-jumping.

There are other problems for the historian of this period relative to the Highland Games in making any direct comparison with amateur performances. The first is that in the throwing events, in only one event (the 16lb shot) could professional performances be directly compared with those of amateurs. And the Highland Games contained a wide range of putting- weights and both standing and shifting events. There were only standing throws in 16lb. hammer (and in a wide range of weights) and in the turning throws there were 28lb and 56lb implements.

McCombie Smith, in his definitive work “Athletes and Athletic Sports of Scotland” (1890) is scathing in his review of the throwing events, casting doubt upon most performances. Here he relates particularly to the fact that in many Games the athletes chose their throwing areas (almost invariably downhill) and that there was often doubt about the accuracy of the weights.

He is less critical in his section on the jumps, possibly because, as a thrower, he is less well-informed.  McCombie Smith nevertheless fails to underline the vast differences in the contexts within which amateur and rural sports were conducted. There were, it is true, impeccable arenas such as Braemar but the majority of the Games were pursued on cramped, bumpy village greens or recently-cropped farmer’s fields. These facilities were light years away from the cinder tracks and runways on which much of amateur athletics was undertaken. And it is often forgotten that, even in the horizontal jumps, Games’ contests were often ground to ground, and in the vertical jumps without a take-off board or vault-box. Indeed, the author competed as late as 1950 in a ground to ground long jump at a Border Games.

In his chapter, ”Amateur  vs Professional Athletics”, McCombie Smith is caustic in his criticism of the pretensions of the amateurs.  “In twenty five years of competition at Scottish Games, the author has known thousands of athletes who have won prizes in athletic sports but he has never known one whose profession was athletic sports… it is as absurd to call the great majority of athletes at the Scottish Games “professionals” as it would be to call a farmer who races occasionally at a race meeting a professional jockey”

He goes on to observe that supporters of amateur athletics had as their ideal the Ancient Olympic Games, but “the fact of the matter is that… the victors at the Olympic Games… were more purely and strictly professional than any class of modern athlete“. McCombie Smith’s observations on amateurism are remarkable in their vigour, in that the Scottish proletariat had already bought into the amateur ideal and had offered little opposition to it.

The Luptons expressed themselves in somewhat milder terms, but were the only authors to suggest a governing body ruling both codes. They cite as example the Jockey Club and the MCC, who embraced and regulated both amateur and professional sports. Had this occurred in athletics, it might at some point have been possible for the Scottish amateurs to “amateurise” at least a fraction of the Border and Highland Games, thus releasing talented athletes into the Olympic movement. But it is worth observing that the Olympic Games did not possess at that time the same importance as they now enjoy, and that rural sports offered athletes a much more diverse programme of events than running-based handicap amateur meetings. And, although rural Games did not offer anything remotely resembling a profession, an athlete could sometimes win more there in a day than he could earn in a month behind the plough.

The Highland Games have survived strongly into the 21st century because they reach beyond athletics and provide a rich festival of music and dancing. They are now practised all over the English-speaking world, albeit often in a restricted form without jumping and running events. It is, however, often forgotten that in the period prior to the Great War the Scottish Border Games were as frequent as the Highland Games, and were the source of many of the jumping events in the early Olympics. They featured all of the conventional jumps, and also the standing jumps, distance-hopping competitions, jumps for distance over hurdles and events such as the Hitch and Kick - this involved jumping to kick a suspended sheep’s bladder, with the take-off foot returning to the ground first. It was an event practiced in Scotland only in the Border Games, but strangely surfaced in the mid -1890s in the New York Highland Games. The Irish-American high jumper George Sweeney records winning the event in 1895 and his height of 9ft. 2 inches still stands as a record. Strangely, the only place where Hitch and Kick is still practiced is at the Eskimo Olympics.

The Border Games did indeed sometimes feature throws, but their main emphasis was on running and jumping, their most common throwing event being the 6lb. throw, an event probably similar to javelin. And the Border Games sometimes had “throws with follow” in shot put, which rendered them impossible to compare with Highland Games’ performances. Statisticians are now beginning to list the performances of both Border and Highland Games of the pre-Great War period, thus providing us with a true history of track and field athletics.

What tends to be ignored when scrutinising this period is the fact that amateur athletics (outside of the major universities and clubs) did not yet offer a full track and field programme to most of its adherents throughout the summer.  Indeed, it did not do so until the late 1960s when National Leagues were created. For the harrier-based clubs owned few tracks and in summer existed mainly on a diet of running-based handicap meetings, often conducted on football fields. And, for Oxbridge, athletics was a college-based winter sport, culminating in a spring inter-Varsity match. For the English public schools the sport was a winter/spring sport, thus leaving room for cricket. It was therefore only the rural areas of Scotland that offered summer track and field in all its aspects, albeit in primitive conditions. This failure to deliver a field events programme doomed the amateur sport to struggle in international competition for over half a century.

Only one book in this period suggests that amateur and professional athletics create a governing body covering both codes. The Luptons, in “The Pedestrians Record” (1890), make this suggestion but there is no record of any response from the AAA. This might well have had several possible outcomes, the first that the rules of the various rural sports might have been rationalised. This being said, it would almost certainly have involved a reduction in the vast range of events which the Highland, Border and Lakeland Games offered. On the more positive side, there would have been greater safety (landing pits, throwing nets), more accurate throwing weights and more level surfaces.

Another possibility might have been a progressive “amateurisation” of some of the rural games, thus releasing talented rural field events athletes into the amateur ranks. Alas, the fact was that rural sports offered athletes a much richer programme than running-based amateur athletics, and a vast range of meetings. And the money prizes, though small, offered a welcome supplement to the meagre wages of agricultural labourers. It is difficult to imagine these men rushing to compete in amateur meetings in order to win clocks and barometers.

But the plain fact was that no one in amateur athletics had the slightest inclination to absorb the “professionals” of British rural sports, let alone their pedestrian cousins. The gilded products of Oxbridge and the public schools had no desire to engage with their rural colleagues, and their harrier-based clubs centred round major cities had little interest in anything other than running.

The amateur movement of this early period lacked any strong developmental zeal, either in increasing levels of participation or in performance. Even the 11-0 slaughter of the London A.C. team by New York A.C. in 1894 did nothing to shake their complacency. Thus it was to be half a century before the AAA was to hold its first coaching course, at Loughborough in 1933. And there were no team preparations of any kind for the 1908 London Olympics; indeed, British officials bitterly resented the Americans’ deployment of coaches at the Games. And, as late as 1933, only six amateur clubs existed in the rural areas of Scotland.

Here it must be observed that de Coubertin had drawn his inspiration for the revival of the Olympics from sources beyond the Ancient Games. The first was from the English public schools and from Thomas Hughes’ novel “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”. And then there was Dr. Penny Brooke’s Much Wenlock Olympic Games. The latter had much more in common with a Highland Games that any Greek festival of times past, but with the public schools and his edited version of the Ancient Games, they provided de Coubertin with the basis for his Olympic proposals at his Paris Congress in 1894. This resulted in the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens and the beginning of the modern era in international sport.

Tom McNab/2014

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