Victorian Australia was a tough and wild place. Transports from Britain had dumped over 160,000 convicts there between 1788 and 1868, and from 1851 onwards the first gold rush inspired thousands of volunteers to follow them. The frontier society that emerged from this potent mix of criminality, ambition and entrepreneurialism was one in which fortunes could be made and lost overnight. Gambling was rife amongst gold prospectors in particular, who were eager to multiply their new found wealth by betting on anything from bare-knuckle boxing to a hand of cards.
Professional runners were quick to capitalise – there were hundreds of them in Sydney and Melbourne by the 1880s, operating out of ‘stables’ presided over by famous coaches. To make the betting interesting and less predictable they ran in handicap races with faster runners starting behind their slower rivals. Of course this created opportunities to cheat, and some faster runners would deliberately perform below their best in modest races to minimise the handicap they would have to overcome in an important, money-spinning contest later on. Punters and judges were wise to this, so runners had to be very careful to give the impression of straining every sinew each time they raced. Some devised tricks to limit their speed without limiting the effort they had to put in. One runner, for example, ran with lead insoles to slow him down, another ran two hard 400m sprints a few minutes before a race.
Runners who beat a well-backed athlete or local champion could be subject to violence. One Irishman who beat the town’s favourite in Wangaratta in 1869 was punched by spectators and had to run back to his hotel and barricade himself in escape the angry mob. Sometimes this kind of violence was spontaneous, but powerful gangs also operated throughout the country, fixing races and intimidating runners. The most notorious of these, the ‘Black Hand Gang’ had undermined faith in the sport by the 1920s.
But as well as the gambling, cheating and violence, the vibrant world of Australian professional running also produced important innovations that influence the sport to this day. The sprinter’s crouch start was first deployed in modern times by an Aboriginal runner, Bobby McDonald, in 1887*. He developed the technique, however, not to maximise his explosive starting power, but to keep warm! McDonald claimed that he hated feeling chilly on the start line, so curled himself up into a ‘ready’ position to retain body heat. On the gun he would leap up and race off so quickly that rivals complained to the judges and he was asked to desist.
Another runner, Harry Bushell, experimented with the crouch start, adding the additional innovation of digging two small holes into the track for his feet to push off from. After he won a race in Sydney the judges were once again called on to ban this new style of starting, but this time the protest was overruled. The advantage Bushell gained was clear, and now sanctioned by the authorities, the crouch start quickly spread across Australia and then around the world. As so often happens in sport, professionalism and money provided the incentive to probe the boundaries of fair play, eventually redefining what was acceptable and helping to shape what we see as ‘normal’ in running today.
* There is some contested evidence of a four point sprinter’s start being deployed at the ancient Greek Olympics, two thousand years earlier. But if this is true, the technique appears to have fallen out of favour in the intervening centuries.