The biggest stars in sport almost invariably come from the ranks of elite professional athletes. We’ll pay good money to see Serena Williams play tennis or Manchester United play football. We’re not, on the other hand, interested in watching a novice tennis player bumble their way through their first match, or a bunch of middle-aged blokes playing pub league football.
Strangely though, running seems to be an exception to this rule. Just watch the coverage of the London Marathon or Great North Run. As much attention is paid to the average runners in their fancy dress, running for charity or competing in their first ever race as it is to the real contenders.
We’re introduced to elderly runners, people overcoming illness and disability and people straining every sinew just to complete the course wearing diving suits or dressed as rhinoceroses. It’s hard to imagine the media spotlight falling on such unusual heroes in any other sport.
But then there has always been something about watching unlikely athletes race that has drawn the crowds. In fact, there was a time when races were organised purely for the spectacle of watching strange or unlikely people run.
This is a deep history, and linked to the ancient culture of carnivals and fairs, where the usual rules of life were inverted, and laughter, games and sometimes cruelty mixed. These odd races were often organised on fair days themselves, but could also come about as the result of wagers between the idle rich – people with the money to put up a prize tempting enough for people to embarrass themselves to try to win.
During the 16th century races between prostitutes were a popular element of carnivals. The women – who sometimes ran naked – were mocked and often tripped and spat at by the crowds as they ran past. One such race was even organised by the Pope in 1501.
Less horrible treatment was meted out to peasant women, who raced carrying buckets of water on their heads. Shepherd girls in Germany were encouraged to fight during their races, and elderly women in England raced one another in front of baying crowds.
And indeed, according to running historian Peter Radford, ‘it was women and girls who were the runners in rural culture… men and boys also ran sometimes, but they also wrestled, cudgelled… and climbed greasy poles’. And the reports of foreign visitors support this assertion. A Frenchman visiting England in the first half of the eighteenth century remarked that ‘young damsels are to be seen contending for the prize at a course. They are uncommonly strong robust country girls, who run with surprising swiftness’.
When men did race, ways were found to turn their races into farces too. Fat men were set against thin men carrying another man piggy-back. The disabled raced under a parody of Paralympic categories – men on crutches in one race, men with wooden legs in another. Fast runners could be handicapped by making them wear a pair of weighted boots or carry a heavy load.
Some of the runners may have taken part in these races for fun and entertainment, but many were impoverished and desperate. They would only have chosen to debase themselves like this in the hope of winning a prize or some money to ease their difficult lives. And prizes were often small – a new shirt or a cut of meat.
Of course today’s fun runners, fancy dress athletes and elderly marathoners are a far cry from the poor people who allowed themselves to become sport for jeering crowds and privileged gamblers centuries ago. But perhaps they tap into a gentler strain of the same public fascination with unlikely runners.
Today’s unusual athletes, like their forebears, raise a smile and a laugh from the crowds, but today of course they also attract our admiration. Once laughing stocks, people who run in defiance of social convention have been transformed into inspirational figures and role models.