A lively account of America’s first major spectator sport, competitive walking, which attracted thousands in its day.
“It was like watching a NASCAR race in super-slow motion,” writes reporter Algeo (The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, 2011, etc.), “hypnotic, mesmerizing, with the promise of imminent catastrophe.” Competitive walking began when bookseller Ed Weston bet that he could walk from Boston to Washington, D.C., in 10 days to attend Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration. He missed the president’s oath by a few hours, but his feat of footwork launched a new spectator sport. In epic rivalries, treks of more than 500 miles in six days (there were no competitions on the Sabbath) were common as pedestrians left the public roads and walked in circles in venues like the first Madison Square Garden. The mania to see competitive ambulation soon became a phenomenon in England, as well. While the American style demanded “fair heel and toe” (part of one foot on the track always), the Britons allowed “go as you please” (run if you like). However, sporadic runners usually could not keep up with steady walkers. Walking events spawned trainers, trading cards, endorsements, scalpers and, not surprising considering the betting, fixes. There were also widespread charges of doping—in particular, the chewing of coca leaves. Sportswriting flourished, and sports medicine was born. Women began walking, followed by African-American pedestrians. Soon, the clergy denounced the whole business. Ultimately, pedestrianism, an attraction of the Gilded Age, was replaced by six-day bicycle racing, boxing and the new national pastime, baseball. The world-class practitioners of the trudging art and their sport were soon forgotten. Algeo brings them back to life.
An entertaining biography, step by step, of a diversion in the earliest days of today’s sports industry.