THE World Indoor Championships open in Portland next Friday, and Glasgow is pitching for the 2019 European Championships. The Worlds, in Oregon, will be the 16th edition of an event first staged in 1987, so you'd be forgiven for thinking indoor athletics is a modern upstart. Not so.
Back in 1877, 110 years before the first IAAF World Indoor, Edward Weston engaged in a 24-hour walking race against Daniel O'Leary for £500 a-side in Islington Agricultural Hall. In those days, endurance, rather than speed, was what gripped public imagination. The average weekly wage of a farm labourer was then 70 pence per 60-hour week. Dozens of events were staged in the likes of Edinburgh's Royal Gymnasium, Newsome's Circuses in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Dennistoun ice rink, Perth Drill Hall, even tents and public houses. More spectators watched indoor athletics than outdoors.
The £1000 challenge in Islington was extravagantly billed as, "The Largest Amount of Money ever Walked for in the World." Though a staggering sum, Scotland's Captain Barclay won 1000 guineas (and thousands more in side bets) for covering 1000 miles in 1000 hours, one mile every hour, in 1809. Barclay was the earliest inductee to the Scottish Sport Hall of Fame.
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O'Leary won comfortably, watched by some 70,000 paying spectators (he also negotiated two thirds of the gate, after expenses). Undeterred by defeat, Weston, the so-called "Father of Pedestrianism" completed several other prodigious feats, including 1000 miles in 400 hours, in a tent at Northumberland cricket ground, and a challenge of 1500 miles in 625 hours, most of it in Dennistoun Skating Rink.
Ultra-distance walking and running challenges, already popular outdoors, were moving indoors in Europe and the USA. Six-day races avoided offending Sabbatarian sensitivities, and several would be done in a year, suggesting modern runners who limit themselves to two marathons per year may be pampering themselves.
Contemporary 19th century reports describe competitors' diets: eel pie and raw eggs, beef tea and stale beer.
Events with wagers and prizes worth hundreds of thousands today were promoted. Betting, and consequently corruption, was rife. Bands, dancing, and gymnastics were part of the entertainment. With smoking the cultural norm, competitors ran through a fog of smoke.
In 1853 William Hughes undertook to walk on a three-foot plank for 100 hours without resting. Races were often on very tight tracks, as little as 56 yards around, optimising spectator space.
Runners & Walkers, a US sports journal, reported in April 1857, a Mrs Bentley, due to walk the plank for 30 hours at the Broadway Tabernacle in Manhattan. "Much sympathy was expressed in her behalf when it was discovered that she was in the advanced stages of consumption and had resorted to this activity to support her three children." Another contestant, Kate Irvine, had competed in a 500-mile challenge in England, making her one of athletics' first female globe-trotters.
The earliest known reference to an indoor athletics meeting appeared in Bell's Life (January 16, 1859): at London's Lambeth Baths, promoted by the proprietor, a former England swimming champion "Professor" William Beckwith. Some 400 spectators saw William Priestly win a £22 bet and gold pin by "jumping 500 hurdles, 10 yards apart, under 40 minutes". He did so in less than 30.
Big Ben chimed that year for the first time, and Dickens's Tale of Two Cities and Darwin's Origin of the Species were published. In the US, the first oil well was drilled, and slavery abolitionist John Brown was hanged - helping trigger the outbreak the following year of the American Civil War.
The first US indoor athletics was in Cincinnati, in 1861, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The first fully-documented indoor US match was in November 1868, immediately after the founding of the New York Athletic Club. They had to scour the city for tarpaulins which were: "stitched together and stretched over the gaping wound in the roof as the roof was incomplete." Yet 2000 spectators, many of them fur-wrapped ladies, watched in the gas-lit Empire Ice Skating Rink as a 42-piece band played a Bellini overture.
The NYAC competed against the Caledonian Club, competitors reportedly shivering in flimsy tights and paper shoes. One item of footwear attracted singular attention. A founding member of the NYAC had "spiked leather shoes - they were second hand, having been brought from England by a friend - but as far as was known, they were the only such shoes in the United States."
The shoes "with little tacks" were passed round the NYAC, worn in sprints, walks, and throws, but to little avail.
Ther only US winner was in the mile walk (7min 50.5sec). The Scots won, the Goldie brothers and WL Campbell amassing nine firsts. Other clubs were formed almost immediately, even in far-off San Francisco. And when Madison Square Garden opened in 1879, its meetings were far more popular than any outdoor athletics in North America.
A popular competitor on the sawdust track there was Noremac, the competition name adopted by Edinburgh pedestrian legend George Cameron whose remarkable life is documented by Paul Marshall in his excellent book, "King of the Peds". He set a 72-hour world record of 384 miles in Edinburgh for prize money of £40 - almost doubling his annual income as a lithographer.
In New York, where rewards were much greater, he set a Scottish six-day record of 567 miles, plus four laps, which still stands. He bought a pub on Eighth Avenue, calling it the Midlothian Arms. But days after it opened his trainer, George Beattie, murdered Cameron's wife in front of their son, and then shot himself dead.
Yet even those 19th century athletes were simply continuing an ancient sport. Djoser's pyramid at Saqqara, south of Cairo, is the oldest surviving building complex known to man. The Egyptian pharoah reigned more than 2600 years before Christ. His burial site walls include running and jumping scenes. It seems inconceivable that sculptors and painters, apprentices and fit young men, could fail to be influenced by their subject, and try contests against each other while working in these tombs. This is speculation, but may have been the seminal moment for indoor athletics.
The sport continues to evolve. When the World Indoor opens in Oregon Convention Center next week, significant changes are planned for the shot, long and triple jumps: after five rounds only the leading four athletes will have a sixth attempt.
That may be the norm by 2019 when Glasgow hopes to host the 35th Europeans at the Emirates. A decision is expected from the governing body by the end of next month.