A website dedicated to athletics literature / History of Athletics

from 1800 to 1860

“Pas de documentation, pas d’histoire”. No documentation, no history. The paucity of literature on Anglo- Saxon athletics in the 19th century does not mean that the sport did not have a rich existence, only that there was little contemporary record of it. It was Marx who said that history was the propaganda of the victors, and Mencken that it was the last person with his finger on the typewriter. This meant that little was recorded at the time of the sport’s cultures from which amateur athletics derived, because most contemporary accounts were penned by the upper classes who had created amateur governing bodies.

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from 1860 to 1920

This is not the place to describe in detail the creation of English amateur athletics, save to observe that its architect was undoubtedly John Chambers, a gentleman-entrepreneur, who created the London-based Amateur Athletic Club in 1865. For much of the next fifteen years he battled bitterly with the Waddell brothers of the London Athletic Club for the control of London athletics, while in the regions Liverpool produced the National Olympian Society and the Northern clubs a regional athletics association. All was ultimately resolved at the Randolph Hotel, Oxford on 24th April, 1880, when the Amateur Athletic Association was formed. This was a triumph of diplomacy for the twenty two year old Montague Shearman, who became the first President of the Association. Chambers went on to pilot Captain Webb in his swim across the English Channel and to create boxing’s Queensbury Rules; in contrast, the bankrupt Waddell brothers fled the country, leaving behind them substantial debts.

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from 1920 to 1950

The period 1920-1950 saw an explosion of books on coaching in the United Kingdom and the USA. F. A. M. Webster was by far the most prolific of the authors, producing book after book and a host of pamphlets and articles.

Alas, the environment within which Webster coached was far from matching that within which his American counterparts operated and his works therefore lacked the hard practical edge of those written by Dink Templeton and Dean Cromwell.

The other English athletics literature of this period came primarily from Oxbridge and was frequently composite works, written by athletes or ex-athletes. Here, events like triple jump, pole vault and hammer were often ignored, sometimes with the observation that they were unimportant. The plain fact was that few of the English writers knew very much about them.

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Women in Athletics - from classical times to 1899

Women runners are to be found in the earliest myths of the Greek world with Atalanta, who was trained from infancy by her father to run, wrestle, and hunt, having the reputation of being able to run faster than any other woman, or any man. 

In the ancient Greek world, however, the roles of men and boys, and women and girls in society, were quite different, and men celebrated and recorded their own athleticism with enthusiasm, whilst the evidence about the women and girls is much more fragmentary, but in recent years evidence has emerged showing that women’s and girls’ races were extensively known in the ancient world.  Tryphosa won the race for unmarried girls at the Pythian Games, and also at the following Isthmian Games - Hedea won at the Nemean Games - and Dionysia won at the Isthmian Games and at Epidauros; thus giving us for the first time in recorded history the names of successful women runners.

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Women in Athletics - from 1900 - 1950

After the turn of the century there was an increasing number of events around the world for women and girls, not all of which were purely ‘athletic’ but which had an athletic element.  In October 1903, for example, the major couture houses in Paris organised the marche des midinettes – A 12km walk through the streets of the city.  Two-and-a-half thousand young women took part.  It was a great success and one observer noted that, “we will remember the smiles, and not the fifths of seconds”.  In November 1904, Paris hosted a different sort of event.  The managers of the Parc des Princes organised a 300m event for women and attracted 250 competitors who had to run a series of qualifying heats.  It was intended as an event for women to be watched by women, but there were many male journalists and VIPs who gained entrance and who subsequently mocked the competitors and their flying skirts, flowing hair, sweaty armpits, falls, and money prizes.  A Damensportsfest staged in Berlin in the same year provoked similar reactions.

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Women in Athletics - from 1950-2012

The second half of the 20th century began with women athletes recognised around the world and with a stable organisation.  In 1951, however, when Ross and Norris McWhirter attempted to put together a history of women’s performances they commented that in comparison to men’s athletics “the sport is ill-documented and strange decisions, oversights, and lapses concerning records tend to be the rule rather than the exception”.  Within three years this proved to be of historic and academic interest only, as women rewrote every world record.

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