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Out of sight, out of mind

28 April 2012

10:00 AM

28 April 2012

10:00 AM

Running for Their Lives Mark Whitaker

Yellow Jersey Press, pp.358, 17.99

Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi, long-distance interwar runners, are two of the most extraordinary British athletes. They are also the most forgotten. This is because the distances they favoured were too long to be accommodated by any athletics event: to them a marathon would have been a mere warm-up jog, their distances were 100 miles, and, in one case, a run across the whole of the United States, when they completed 40 miles a day for 80 consecutive days.

Mark Whitaker has thus set out to write a poignant account of unrecognised achievement. The only thing is, in the process he has written the most bizarre and bleakly humorous book there will probably ever appear on athletics.

First there was Arthur, a mild-looking bespectacled bachelor with the sort of moustache favoured by some English murderers in the 1930s. He took up running when he was over 40 as a protest against the racial politics of the South African government. Only he did so for all the wrong reasons.

A Nonconformist minister’s son, he had emigrated to South Africa before the first world war, hoping to run a cotton farm. Alas, for this he needed a workforce. Unfortunately the local blacks he meant to recruit, or rather whose wives and children he meant to recruit (the men he considered too lazy), had been made grants of land by the South African government so that they could start their own small-holdings and raise cattle, for which they needed their own wives and children. So no workforce.

The result was that Arthur tried to get compensation from the government, which they refused to give. So, wanting to publicise his plight, he turned long-distance runner. Just like that. This, you will by now have begun to realise, is a very strange story, because this middle-aged man, who had not done any long-distance running before, was doing so as a form of political protest. Only Arthur won his first race, of 54 miles, and within a few years was the holder of every amateur running record from 29 to 100 miles. And it is here that the black comedy starts.

Just as it did for Peter Gavuzzi from south London, the son of an Italian chef and a man half Arthur’s age, who did not come to long-distance running for political reasons, but out of boredom. A liner steward, he was bored out of his skull by his job, but, unlike John Prescott, he did not turn to politics; he turned to running round the deck. Round and round, round and round, getting faster and faster, until he too entered the black comedy. It was an inevitable process.

Blame it on two things: classical Greek history, and on the Greeks who were short of puff. The rigorously amateur athletics events of the early 20th century were based on the original Olympic games, and the Greeks had drawn the line under the 26 miles of the marathon. There was nothing beyond this. So against whom were the extreme distance-runners Arthur and Peter to compete, and where?

Here comedy splinters into tragedy as the two found themselves doomed to travel the world to find events, and, with each short of cash, to find the means of doing so. There was only one recourse: to do this they had to patter forever out of amateur running and into the wastes of professional sport already littered with the bones of some of the greatest athletes who have ever lived.

The Red Indian Jim Thorpe, hailed by the king of Sweden after the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 as ‘the greatest athlete in the world’ (to which Thorpe replied, ‘Thanks, King’) had had his gold medals taken from him after it was found that as a schoolboy, at two dollars a game, he had played semi-professional baseball. The athletics authorities do not come well out of this story. They did eventually return his medals, but that was after Thorpe had been dead for 30 years. He died in poverty.

As did Arthur and Peter, despite years of running during which they were swindled by race promoters and knocked down by cars, being obliged to run on roads. They ran on snow shoes, on treadmills in theatres, against horses and, had it been possible, would have run against anything in the animal kingdom, carnivores and all, that might have offered them a challenge. They were men straight out of boys’ comics: Wilson of the Wizard to the life, or Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track, whose pre-race diet was chips (Arthur’s and Peter’s was tea and tobacco), except that Wilson, even at 300 years old, and Alf were both amateurs. Only of course as small boys we did not appreciate the distinction, or the humbug of the athletics authorities who made the rules.

Arthur and Peter, being professionals, were doomed to be the outcasts of sport, and it is only now, long after their deaths, that their achievements — as well as Jim Thorpe’s — are being recognised. I just wish Mark Whitaker had put the boot in more into the smug committee men who made the tragedy.

As it is, I shall find it hard to forget the two runners in vests and shorts who stand side by side on the dustjacket of this book (reproduced left). They look stunned.

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