A Brief History of Track and Field in the US
The sport of track and field has a long history dating back to the Ancient Greek Olympics and other festivals in which athletics played a key role. There have been many books and articles detailing the ancient Olympic Games and the modern Olympic games, which began in 1896. However, few have looked into this sports influence and development in the United States. The purpose of this paper is to look into how the sport of track was brought to the U.S. and how it flourished and fully developed during the same time when other sports, such as baseball, were taking root into our society.
The first official national track championship was put on by the New York Athletic Club in 1876, but how the sport got to this point started much earlier. The development and modernization of the sport seemed to occur via two avenues which were a pure running one and a carnival or athletic contest one. The final combination of these two different avenues resulted in the modern sport of track and field. Both of these avenues developed in Europe, mostly Britain, before taking root in America.
The Carnival pathway to modern track can be traced back a long way. It’s roots our in the ancient Greek Olympics, but there are many other examples of where the athletic carnival could have come from. The longest sport festival in somewhat recent times was the Tailteann Games which began in 1829 B.C and lasted until 1168 A.D. These games were held in Ireland and consisted of variety of competitions of running, jumping, wresting, and other competitions (Sears 2001). The next major yearly athletic carnivals were the Highland Games held in Scotland beginning in the 13th century. From these types of athletic carnivals evolved many competitions between towns, kings, or nobles. This idea of holding periodic carnivals to display athletic prowess was carried from the British Isles to Colonial America.
The purely running aspect of track can first be seen in Colonial America in the 17th century. Races called “she-shirt” contests were held at weddings and other festivals where women would race for a smock or occasionally a husband. In addition to these, competitions such as Sir Francis Nicholson’s Virginia athletic games in 1691 took place (Sears 2001). These competitions had their foundations in the British tradition of footmen and pedestrianism. Footmen were runners who were used to guide coaches of Noblemen, but they were also raised and raced against others for amusement and betting. Once stage coaches could travel faster than footmen, pedestrianism took its place providing competitive runners and was the precursor to professional running. Pedestrianism was officially defined as a running or walking contest between anyone. The foundation of pedestrianism centered on the betting that occurred with it. With the onset of betting in the sport, professional runners came about in the early 1800’s in Britain. These races mostly occurred on turnpike roads. It wasn’t until the 1830’s in which competitions with professional runners spilled over to America.
By 1840, running competitions were so developed in the U.S. that they were only second to horse racing as a spectator sport in the country. This huge spectator increase coincided with the moving of races from roads to horse tracks. During the 1840’s purely running competitions took hold in America. There were reports of 10 mile races with a prize purse of $1,000 and over 30,000 spectators (Sears 2001). In addition to this, the top competitors began to take nationwide competition tours. One such tour was done by the first great American star in the sport, George Seward, who toured 23 states and Canada seeking to run against anyone any where. Since at this time the sport was intertwined with betting, the top athletes would often give handicaps to other competitors. For example, a 5 to 10 yard lead in a 100 yard race was not uncommon. During the civil war, there was a lull of competition, and it wasn’t until the formation of athletic clubs that the sport began to take on the modern look of what we now know of as track and field.
Once again, Britain was ahead of the U.S. in standardizing running as a sport. They held competitions in cross country between primary schools as early as 1837. Their first intercollegiate meet was held in 1857 between Cambridge and Oxford. The U.S. started to organize track with the foundation of the New York Athletic Club in 1866 by three New York athletes, Henry Buermeyer, John Babcock, and William Curtis (NYAC). This organization brought amateurism to the sport. Before this time most runners were “professional” in the fact that they got a part of the winnings from the betting that occurred. The New York athletic club brought amateurism to the forefront. The Manhattan, Boston, and other major city track clubs followed the NYAC. At first, the NYAC and other clubs that popped up were restricted to upper class citizens, professional runners were banned, and gambling was allowed. However it was soon realized that mixing amateurism with gambling did not fit with the intended purpose of the club, so gambling was officially banned. Even though professionals were banned officially, there were many incidences of amateurs taking “under-the-table” money from race promoters. This was done to insure that the best amateurs attended their meets to attract more spectators. During this time there were two divisions of the sport, the outright professionals and the amateurs. For the next couple of decades the professionals would produce the fastest times, but in the early 1900’s the amateurs caught up and surpassed the professional track athletes. This led to the death of the professional side from the sport. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that true professionalism took the place of the amateur ideals. Throughout this 100 plus year period, amateurs continued to take under the table payments to create an idea of a kind of fake amateurism that would be referred to by many as shamateurism.
The first organized series of track meets was started by the NYAC in 1870. They were held twice a year and called the spring and fall games. In 1876 it was decided that a national championship for track and field was needed. So the 1876 Fall Games were chosen as the host meet for these games. Thus the first American track and field championships were held. That same year the first collegiate championships for track were held. They were termed the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) championships. For the next three years, the NYAC hosted the national championships. By 1879 however there were enough clubs established in the U.S. that they decided to form a governing group, the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America (NAAAA). This group lasted and hosted the national championships until 1888, when a rival group took over, the Amateur Athletic Union, which would last as the governing body until the late 1970’s (Mallon 1986). The national championships helped move track competitions from roads and horse tracks to tracks specifically made for the sport.
Until the 1880’s the sport of track in America was not viewed as entirely legitimate. Other countries called into question the tracks and timing used in America. Therefore times or records set in America were often not ratified or accepted around the world. Track and Field in America would never reach legitimacy from the rest of the world until these problems were resolved. The NYAC tried to remedy this by building the first cinder track used specifically for track and field in America. In addition to this a Swiss stopwatch, which were invented in 1844, that could time with up to 1/5 of a second precision, became widespread in the 1870’s (Sears 2001). However track in America was not seen as genuine until a great American runner could run as fast as the Europeans. This occurred when Lon Myers came around in the 1880’s. He beat all competitors from Britain and established world record times on both American and British soil. Lon Myers domination of the sport finally changed the British view that running in America was inferior because of the belief that the difference in atmospheric pressure in America made it impossible for runners to run fast there. With the acceptance of track in the U.S. more and more meets popped up. In fact indoor races became popular with the using of Madison Square Garden as an indoor track facility in 1885 (Sears 2001). As a sport the momentum kept growing all the way until the foundation of the modern Olympics in 1896. Although held in Athens, the Olympics served purpose to develop standardized distances and competitions throughout the world. Although Americans would not accept the metric distances run in their own competitions, their imperial equivalents became the standard in American competition. With the advent of the Olympics professional running slowly gave way to Amateur competitions. The Olympics helped bring track into a fully developed sport.
The sport of track and field as it is in current times, a combination of running, throwing, and jumping competitions, can be seen to develop through numerous pathways to America. One pathway was that of the old European athletic carnivals. These carnivals involved several athletic events combined into one big competition just like track is now. Another pathway was that of the pure running competition. Competitions involving only running developed in Europe and then were brought over to America. It is interesting to note that once brought to America, both the pure running aspect and the athletic carnival idea were developed concurrently in both Europe and America. Both would then progress to a more formal competition based on gambling and betting. Following the Civil War, track began to take on a more formal and amateur style. Distances raced and events contested became more standardized and athletic clubs began popping up around the country. These athletic clubs consolidated the two different paths of the sport into one. Running races became more standardized and the other now standard events involving jumping or throwing, such as the shot putt or long jump, were held at the same competition as the running events. Better timing methods and the building of tracks meant specifically for the sport helped make track and field a formal sport too. With all of these developments, the sport of track and field began to resemble what the sport is today in America.
Leave a Reply