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Rowing and Track Athletics (extract)

Arthur Brown Ruhl, Rowing and Track Athletics, 1905

The author:

Arthur Brown Ruhl was born in Rockford, Illinois, USA, in 1876, and after attending the local high school, went to Harvard in 1895.  Whilst an undergraduate there he became a member of the board of The Advocate (a Harvard literary magazine) and served on the editorial staff of Lampoon (a Harvard humorous magazine modelled on Punch); and so signalled the direction in which his later career would develop, for Arthur Ruhl was to become one of the greatest journalists of his generation. 

He was also a runner, and within months of arriving at Harvard he entered for the class run for the half-mile, and was third in the half-mile in the Harvard Athletic Association’s third Biennial Games.  He was not to make it among the top-flight of Harvard track athletes, however, but his enthusiasm for running never flagged and in 1897 he entered the 440 in the dual track meet between M.I.T. and those members of the Mott Haven team who did not compete against Yale; and in 1898 he was in contention for a place in the Harvard team for the half-mile. 

He graduated from Harvard in 1899 and was taken on by the New York Evening Sun as a reporter.  Within a few years, and by the time he was 26, he was being published by Century Magazine,Harper’s,and Collier’s Weekly, and in 1902 he took his readers under New York to see the construction of the sub-way, which he knew would change their lives (Century Magazine, October 1902).  By then he had also written his first fictional piece - The Music Box - published in Harper’s Magazine, but he had started to write fiction even before he finished at Harvard, and had written stories about athletes; one introduces, within the first couple of pages, Hollis, a college half-miler, who was ‘performing badly’ under the watchful eye of his old coach ‘the Elder Halloway’.  -

"He realized, only too sickeningly, that his arms were coming up; that there was a weakish bending
 in the small of his back;
that his head was crooking over to one shoulder, with the cords of his neck
 drawn taut on the other side.”

How much autobiography is there, one wonders?  The stories were published in 1906 under the title, A Break in Training: and Other Athletic Stories (New York: The Outing Publishing Company), but some had been copyrighted as early as 1900.

It was at this point in his life that Arthur Ruhl picked up his pen and began to write his section of the book, Rowing and Track Athletics.  Track and field was central to his life and he had lived and breathed it for ten years, but he was still not yet 30 years old.

Arthur Ruhl had a strong sense of freedom - personal freedom - the sort that is aware of just how easy it is to feel hemmed-in by the demands of modern urban life, and of just how easily men, for their own ends, can curtail the freedoms of others.  We can sense it at the beginning of Track Athletics when he writes that the runner can make ‘his body not a mere machine of convenience, but a thing in itself fair and fit consciously to express beauty’.  All the runner asks to be happy is ‘a pair of comfortable shoes and a wisp of something to cover him, and only God’s out-of-doors and the open country.’  We can sense it again when he leaves the comfort, familiarity and relative security of New York and embarks on a long and difficult journey around the whole of South America.  We sense it again, twenty years later when he is on-board a steamer heading from Florida to Cuba.  

'How quaint those machines in which people rush from one prison-house to another! How many
their splendid achievements have any reality, as the beauty of this day is real, and how many
are merely
pathetic bridges flung out to escape their discontent?'

Arthur Ruhl had the soul of a philosopher poet, with all-seeing eyes and a gift for story-telling, and as he travelled he filed stories back to Scribner’s, Collier’s, and other magazines; and his writing was so popular they were later gathered together and published as books -

            The Other Americans: the Cities, the Countries, and Especially the People of South America, (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1908.)

            Second Nights. People and Ideas of the Theatre of To-day. (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1914.)

            Antwerp to Gallipoli: a Year of War on Many Fronts-and Behind Them, (New York: G. Allen & Unwin, 1916).

            WhiteNights and Other Russian Impressions, (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1917.)

            New Masters of the Baltic, (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1921).

            The Central Americans; Adventures and Impressions, Between Mexico and Panama, (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1928.)

These titles give some idea of Arthur Ruhl’s range, and he has been variously described as a war correspondent, foreign correspondent, sports journalist, theatre critic, and travel writer, and he was successful as all of these, but his first big story, and the one that made his name, came in none of them.  

In 1908 he was among a covert group of six journalists and a photographer who hid in a clump of trees in North Carolina to see what Orville and Wilbur Wright were up to.  ‘Show up those fakers - the Wright brothers’ one of them had been told, for although there had been reports that they had flown as early as 1903, and that the French had also done so soon after, the Wright brothers’ secrecy created a mood of scepticism and doubt.  Had they really built a flying machine?  Did it work?  All these questions were blown away in May 1908 when Arthur Ruhl wrote for Colliers that he had seen ‘the white streak’ in the air and heard for himself the rattle of its engines that sounded like a harvester; ‘there was no doubt that a man could fly’, he wrote - ‘I have seen it fly and seen it on the ground close enough to touch it’; and Jimmy Hare, the Colliers photographer, had even taken a picture of it in the air!  After this, Ruhl became friendly with the Wright brothers and in May 1910 he flew with Orville Wright at Huffman Prairie, Ohio, and so became one of the first men to fly as a passenger in a plane; Arthur Ruhl was also a brave man.  

But as a leading journalist, Arthur Ruhl was caught up in all the big issues and stories of his time.  He had already been to see Emmeline Pankhurst talk, and wrote of the logic and quiet intensity with which she spoke, and commented that she held her audience ‘not because she spoke almost as well as a man, but because she spoke much better than most men.’

Also in 1910 he went to Reno, Nevada to see ‘The Fight in the Desert’, and the ‘fight of the century’ - Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  A black vs. white fight, and emotions and bigotry ran high.  At the end of the 15th round when Jeffries, the white hope, failed, ‘they lifted the fallen idol and slapped his big shoulders
and led him away’, he wrote,

‘men rushed down and hopped over the spluttering telegraph instruments, to cut the ropes and floor canvas
as souvenirs, 
and Mr Jack Arthur Johnson, with only a slightly cut lip, rode to camp in his automobile with a
harder road ahead of him
than any he ever yet travelled - the gilded beguiling pathway of him who is not
climbing but has arrived.’

How right he was.  Rioting followed all over America, and even the President of the United States (Roosevelt) waded in to block films of the fight being seen - the most successful film of anything up to that point. 

In the years that followed, Arthur Ruhl’s readers were taken into the heart of a Mexican revolution, behind the German and Turkish lines at Gallipoli, watched volcanos erupt in South America, heard George Gershwin play, visited theatres in Moscow, and went with him to the Virgin Isles and to Rumania; and to all ports between. 

Arthur Brown Ruhl died at the age of 58, from pneumonia contracted just 10 days earlier, a fate all too common in that pre-antibiotics age.  His death was announced under the bold headline, ARTHUR B. RUHL ACHIEVED FAME AS A WRITER, and he was acclaimed as ‘internationally famous as an authority on foreign affairs, correspondent and drama critic.’  Friends reflected on his love of the outdoors and reported that his favourite relaxation was ‘wood chopping’.  Track and Field athletics is lucky that as a young man he devoted some of his remarkable talents to writing about the sport he loved.  The literature of Track and Field Athletics is enriched by having Arthur Brown Ruhl as one of its contributors, and athletics can be proud that running was one of the activities that helped to form him.

Peter Radford /2015

The place of Ruhl’s “Track Athletics”, in the history of Athletics literature:

If you are browsing the Athlos titles and wondering which one to read - read this one!  It captures the romance of track and field athletics in the American Colleges before the turn of the nineteenth century, and gives the history of the sport in its early years in the USA.  There is no better source - it is well researched, insightful, and beautifully written.  It will transport you into this world and make you believe you were there.  This is perhaps the greatest piece of athletics writing that we have today.  Under Arthur Ruhl’s pen, athletics writing becomes literature.  

Peter Radford / 2015

The text:

Arthur Ruhl begins with The Gentle Art of Running, a eulogy to running - not athletic running, but running itself - out in the open air. 

We have in mind running for running’s sake, freed from theatric settings, and without the stimulus of fighting for
victory - the mere striding down the cinder path, or roughing it cross country. . . . There is a poetry of straight
limbs and sunshine that we hear too little of nowadays, and the clothes with which we have so laboriously covered
ourselves have shut our eyes to the beauty of our bodies.

Next is his history of Track & Field athletics and how it got to the USA, how it got established there, and how it spread; the often overlooked importance of the athletic clubs in establishing track & field athletics as a viable sport there.  New York Athletic Club, formed in 1868, and the first cinder running track at Mott Haven in the Bronx, the Staten Island Athletic Club, the Manhattan Athletic Club, and onwards to the Orange Athletic Club, the Suburban Harriers, Prospect Harriers, Westchester Harriers, and so on, on, and on.  The level of detail had never been attempted before, nor the authenticity; Ruhl contacted and quoted as many of the old-stagers as he could and quoted directly from their memories. 

He is on even better form on his history of the spread of track & field in the American colleges, starting with its base in the Eastern Colleges, the ‘crude races’ at Saratoga in 1874, and the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1876.  Harvard and Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and then Amherst, Williams, Brown, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Trinity, Tufts, Cornell, Union, Syracuse, Hobart, Rochester, Hamilton, Madison, the spread through New York State, New Jersey, New England, and further to the Mid-West, and the East Coast, are all documented as Ruhl describes the early years, finishing in 1904.  But as the sport spread so did the rise of ‘unscrupulous trainers and managers which violated continually the laws of sportsmanship’ - not amateurism, you will notice, but sportsmanship.  Ruhl writes of ‘decadence’ and ‘flagrant offences’, of ‘bickering and backbiting’, primarily in the Western Colleges.

There is principle here, but also a feeling that the golden age, the age in which he competed, was already over.  Perhaps the sport in the USA had already grown too big for its boots.  But ‘the good that has come from track athletics can hardly, I believe, be exaggerated,’ he wrote.

His story moves on from the institutions, clubs and colleges, to the star performers, some of whom he would have seen in action, and some of whom he knew.  American sprinters, distance runners, cross-country runners, hurdlers, jumpers and pole-vaulters, throwers, all-round athletes and decathletes, and walkers, all have their own chapters.  These are not technical chapters, but history mingled with insight and analysis, but it is here that we can get our best understanding of what it was to be an elite athlete in the American Colleges in the last 20 years of the 19th century and the first 5 of the 20th - a Golden Age, and a golden place for Track & Field.

Peter Radford / 2015


Bibliographic details:


[Rowing and] Track Athletics, 1905

Extract Details:

Title page.
Contents pp. vii-viii inc.
Illustrations p ix
Part II Track Athletics, pp. 245-449 inc.


(The American Sportsman's Library). The Macmillan Company.

Place of Publication:

New York

Date of Publication:


BL Catalogue:

General Reference Collection 7286.aaa.1/15

"An Athletics Compendium" Reference:

Not included


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