At first glance, a history of running seems a pretty doomed exercise, like writing a history of breathing, or sneezing. For how can anyone really describe and ‘historicise’ an intrinsic physical process, something people do, involuntarily, without thinking? Perhaps alert to this potential pitfall, Thor Gotaas confines himself to a specific sort of running — not the inevitable startling of our limbs when we are about to miss a bus, or be ravaged by bears, but rather running as competitive sport, calibrated by a track or a clock, regulated by officials. In this way, Gotaas crafts a cultural history of a sport, in the same way as he has explained the social origins and ramifications of skiing in his previous works.
His structure is anecdotal, his tone often whimsical. He either has a keen eye for grotesques and native extremists, or elite athletics has produced an unending series of such types. From Ancient Greece we hear of Ageus, who won the long race at Olympia and then raced home to Argos, a mere 62 miles, to celebrate. Beating the field was not enough to establish a reputation: crowd-pleasing showmanship was also required. Outstripping horses was a reliable way to attract attention — from the soldier sprinters of the Yuan Dynasty, to the medieval Icelanders and beyond — though the Icelanders raced against the indigenous Icelandic horse, an evil-tempered but at least stunted beast, like a Shetland pony with a headache. The Indians raced elephants instead of horses — ‘the aim was to stay ahead of the animal,’ writes Gotaas.
The Romans had made some progress in the timing of races, using sun and water clocks, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that the Turk Taqi-al-Din invented a clock which measured time in minutes and seconds. This added a new dimension to athletics, as records could be set and broken, and romantic myths could evolve around particular barriers: the four-minute mile, the ten-second sprint. According to Gotaas only 55 men had managed to run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds by the 2008 season. All of them, he adds, are non-white, and all but one of them of Western African origin. ‘The huge bias in the figures has fuelled a debate as to whether black West Africans are faster than the rest of the world’s population,’ writes Gotaas. But he is reluctant to draw any definite conclusions: ‘It is dangerous to claim that any one race is better than another at any activity.’
In general, Gotaas finds that the theories and absolutes of one era are promptly rejected by the next. One year’s ace trainer is the next year’s disturbed monomaniac, as the Chinese coach Ma Junren discovered. He achieved fleeting success in the 1990s by feeding his athletes donkey-skin soup and reindeer horn, as well as bullying and beating them. Yet he ended up discredited and forlorn. Surely few major athletes these days would follow the example of Alexis Lapointe, of 19th-century Quebec, who whipped himself vigorously to stimulate his muscles — enough self-flagellation and he could run 90 miles in a day. A sporting ‘truth’ which prevailed until relatively recently was that women lacked the strength to compete in long-distance events. Pioneering marathon runners such as Grete Waitz rather disproved that claim, as well as another Norwegian, Ingrid Kristiansen, who coolly intertwined elite marathon running with several pregnancies. Yet it was as late as 1984 that the first women’s Olympic marathon was run. Now there are ‘sports scientists’ claiming that women are better suited than men to long-distance running, because of their higher levels of body fat. The theories shift and shift again.
Gotaas writes, ‘there are so many factors at play even in something as simple as running.’ This is somewhat disingenuous, as the major thrust of his book is that running is entirely complex and many-layered. Perhaps what he means is that wider social and historical forces course onto the track, lapping at the heels of the runner. It’s like the anecdote about Mark Rothko, who was asked ‘How long did it take you to paint this picture?’ ‘Fifty-seven years,’ he replied. From starting-gun to finishing tape may be a clean ten seconds, but behind that moment swirl a few thousand years of human joy and despair and endeavour — this seems to be the argument of Gotaas’s rich and engrossing book.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 21, 2009