Many years ago, at a dull party in a southern U.S. city, I performed my usual trick of excusing myself for a bathroom break, and then escaping to the basement TV room. In this case, unfortunately, some other fellow had gotten the same idea first. And as he had the remote control in his hand, I had no choice but to sit there passively while he methodically scanned every available viewing option with the up-channel button. One final click brought the speakers abuzz with the sound of internal combustion, a drone emitting from dozens of seemingly identical cars racing counterclockwise around an oval track.
“Now we gittin’ somewhere,” my formerly silent companion exclaimed enthusiastically, his eyes wide with delight. He threw the remote control onto the coffee table, and wedged his backside deeper into the sofa, in a twinned gesture universally understood to connote channel-selection finality. Thus began the only hour of my life that I have spent watching NASCAR — a spectator sport that I then imagined to be more boring than any other that man could conceive.
But now I know otherwise. At least NASCAR races feature high speeds and (for those who like this sort of thing) the possibility of a crash. And they’re over relatively quickly: The Daytona 500 takes just three hours. But just imagine a different kind of Daytona — in which drivers are required to ditch their cars, and walk those same 500 miles on foot, in races that take a week to complete. We still gittin’ anywhere?
And yet, amazingly, the form of competition I just described in the last paragraph — “pedestrianism,” a word I’d never heard in my life till reading Matthew Algeo’s newly published book of the same name — was the most popular spectator sport in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s. Crowds would pack leading venues to watch groups of bleary-eyed, blister-footed men circle a dirt track. Bookies did a roaring trade, and the sport generated all sorts of lurid scandals. There were even sets of popular playing cards printed. Hooliganism was rife, too: In 1879, rioters eager to watch the third Astley Belt race at Madison Square Garden generated the worst episode of civil unrest the city had witnessed since the Civil War draft riots.
The pedestrians would set up tents in the middle of the track, where they would eat, rest and hit the chamber pot during brief interludes
These 500-mile races were like Le Mans for the human body. Typically, the pedestrians would set up tents in the middle of the track, where they would eat, rest and hit the chamber pot during brief interludes. They would sleep for only about four hours out of every 24 — a form of deprivation that sometimes would produce fits of madness as the events wore on. In one case, a pedestrian named Peter Van Ness, having covered 859 miles in a month of walking, grabbed a revolver and began shooting randomly into the audience. (Police were summoned. But he was permitted to continue the race once he’d put down the weapon.)
Walking more than 70 miles per day would be grueling under any circumstances. But it must have been doubly so in the late 19th century, given the prevailing standards of fitness and sports nutrition. There was nothing in the way of formal training: For the most part, the contestants were just traveling salesman or manual workers who’d developed reputations among their peers as people who liked to walk a lot. In terms of hydration, it was believed that the best way to restore a pedestrian’s vitality was to drink lots of champagne — and it was not uncommon to seem some contestants swigging heartily from the bottle as they walked.
The sport having originated in 19th-century Britain, contestants’ culinary habits were predictably disgusting. One well-known English pedestrian, the 114-pound William “Corkey” Gentleman, subsisted on eel broth, which his doting wife cooked for him in his tent as he walked.
Pedestrianism was a remarkably progressive sport in its acceptance of black athletes
Pedestrianism’s heyday coincided with the early days of vaudeville, and pedestrians were expected to be one-man crowd-pleasing showmen, tired legs and all. Many dressed in silks and satins, and played cornets as they proceeded along the track. The large races also featured orchestras that performed throughout the competition. In the modern age, sports purists denounce the broadcast of loud music during NBA basketball games. It turns out that the practice goes back to the days of Jim Crow.
Speaking of which: By Algeo’s telling, Pedestrianism was a remarkably progressive sport in its acceptance of black athletes. At the fifth Astley Belt race, a Madison Square Garden crowd cheered on a black Boston grocery store clerk named Frank Hart — seven decades before the Brooklyn Dodgers started Jackie Robinson at first base. Souvenir sellers reported that Hart’s portrait was the best selling of any they had in stock. “Still, all was not brotherly love,” Algeo reports. “When Hart began [gaining ground on] another pedestrian, the band struck up Pop Goes The Weasel, which includes the line ‘the monkey chased the weasel.’ ” However, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle would later publish an editorial entitled “The Pedestrianism of Our Friend Mr. Hart,” declaring “that there is nothing in a black skin or wooly hair that is incompatible with fortitude.”
Other minority groups also found heroes among the ranks of pedestrians. Most notably, Daniel O’Leary of Chicago, an immigrant pedestrian whose penniless family had come to America amid the suffering of the potato famine, became the most famous Irishman in America in the 1870s. His races against Edward Payson Weston — considered the father of modern pedestrianism — were cast as New America vs. Old America morality plays. When O’Leary went on to beat Britain’s finest pedestrians, Harper’s Weekly declared: “With this triumph, the effeteness of monarchical institutions becomes more evident to many minds.”
Concessions were sold, including the fast-food favourites of the day: oysters, clam chowder and pickled sheep tongues
As absurd and dull as pedestrianism seems to us now, it occupies an important place in the history of American sport. “The only spectator sport that prospered in the years before the [Civil] War were the blood sports — cockfighting, dogfighting, and bare-knuckle boxing … Fights were staged in the back rooms of saloons, in rural areas where jurisdiction was ambiguous, on remote islands — even on barges,” Algeo writes. With walking races, on the other hands, children and even women were welcome to attend. The sport even attracted a few famous female stars, including London’s Ada Anderson, who declared herself to be the daughter of a “Cockney Jew,” and shocked audiences with her habit of walking on Sundays, not to mention “her shapely and superbly developed limbs” (as the New York Times described them) “visible to the knee.”
Events could be staged at large, reputable venues, the sort of places once associated primarily with agriculture shows and religious revivals. Concessions could be sold (including the fast-food favourites of the day: oysters, clam chowder and pickled sheep tongues), and the proceeds taxed by the state. It was the dawn of the modern, regulated, mass-market, souvenir-hawking sports industry as we know it, in other words.
Yet that same trend toward regulation also, eventually, would help kill pedestrianism: Progressive reformers, shocked by the demands placed on the human body after six straight days or racing, lobbied for an end to multi-day events. Prominent ministers declared that pedestrianism was un-Christian. At the same time, the invention of the modern safety bicycle — which allowed racers to cover several hundred miles per day — made walking races seem quaint. Also increasingly popular were the events organized by something then called the “National Association of Base Ball Players.” In the 1880s, pedestrianism was the most popular spectator sport in the United States. By the turn of the century, it was dead.
Last month, the National Post published an essay by Bruce Yaccato, arguing that soccer’s enduring popularity is owed to the fact that the act of scoring a goal reminds our evolutionarily conditioned brains, in some symbolic way, of the glorious moment when primitive hunters would return from the hunt with an elephant or gazelle to feed the tribe for another month. Is there some similar phenomenon at work when it comes to racing?
Algeo’s book proves that racing is not just about cars, or motorcycles, or things that go fast. No sooner do children learn to ride tricycles than they start racing them down driveways. Put a bunch of bored men together without video games or TV available, and there’s a good chance they’ll soon be racing dogs, frogs, mice or snails to pass the time or win a few dollars. Clearly, this sports-spectator habit is rooted deep inside our brains. What is its origin?
Algeo doesn’t tell us. But there’s definitely something there, in our genes, that has us sitting track-side, watching animals or machines of one kind or another go round and round and round till a winner is declared. Whatever it is, I’ve concluded, we really need to stop making fun of NASCAR.
Source: National Post
July 4, 2014
By Jonathan Kay