Friday, 20 December 2013

Review of Donald Walker, ‘British Manly Exercises’ (1834).

I’ve used my British Library card as it was surely intended – ? –  and ordered up a 19th-century book whose full title is in fact: ‘British Manly Exercises; in which Rowing and Sailing are now first described and Riding and Diving are for the first time given in a work of this kind; as well as the usual subjects of Walking, Running, Leaping, Vaulting, Balancing, Scating, Climbing, Swimming, Wrestling, Boxing, Training, &c. &c &c’.

So, laughs-a-plenty are promised by the language of the title, and the book doesn’t disappoint. But if it wasn’t written like that, could we still tell it was written in 1834? Yes. For example, we are told that the dress code for exercise was a straw hat and loosely-fitting trousers. Our modern notion of pushing the limits is ruled out: ‘whenever the gymnast feels tired, or falls behind his usual mark, he should resume his clothes, and walk home’. Why exactly these exercises should be British, and why they should be manly, is not explained – although we are told that for Greek and Roman athletes ‘the sexual intercourse [sic] was strictly prohibited’. The line forms a paragraph on its own. Let’s hear no more about it.

The section on running cutely defines it as ‘precisely intermediate to walking and leaping […] a series of leaps from each foot alternately must be performed, in order to constitute it’. I’ll have to remember that next time I’m doing cross-country. Later, the action of running is described as follows: ‘the whole arms move but slightly, in order that the muscles of respiration on the chest may as little as possible be disturbed’. Again, I’d never thought of it like that, but it’s true that your arms should be relatively still. The section describes ‘moderate running’ (up to 700 yards) and ‘rapid running’ (100 yards), before telling us about some ‘feats in running’. Of course, 1834 is a long time before Roger Bannister: ‘the mile was perhaps never run in four minutes; but it has been done in four minutes and a half. A mile in five minutes is good running. Two miles in ten minutes is oftener failed in than accomplished. Four miles in twenty minutes is said to puzzle the cleverest’.

The book also has some unusual training tips. These are probably its most interesting part because they raise the possibility that in future our current training wisdom could sound just as strange (for instance the obsession with drinking: see Tim Noakes, ‘Waterlogged: the Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports’). We are told that little sleep is best, and that training is helped by doses of medicinal Sodium sulfate. In terms of nutrition, two meals of broiled beef or mutton per day are prescribed, but – careful! – without any salt or ‘spiceries’. Very little is said about what distances to actually run, the emphasis instead being placed on a sauna-like treatment: having run four miles in flannel kit and ‘at the top of his speed’, the athlete must drink a pint of hot ‘sweating liquor’ containing caraway seed, coriander seed, root-liquorice, sugar-candy, and cider. He then must sit in bed beneath 6-8 blankets, sweating and dreaming of glory.

Perhaps in future garmin watches, energy gels, and breathable clothing will sound as quaint as what ‘British Manly Exercises’ prescribes for its athletes. I can’t wait to hear about the new ways in which exercise will ‘confer beauty of form and contribute to impart an elegant air and graceful manners’.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Runners of Victoria Park

Review of Bill Jones, ‘The Ghost Runner: the True Story of John Tarrant’ (2011).

In 1959, Alan Sillitoe published ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, the story of a young convinct who purposefully loses a race simply to irritate the establishment. The moral is that running is a solitary sport and alien to fame and fortune.

1959 was also the heyday of another runner, this time in real life. John Tarrant was world record holder at 40 miles and 100 miles (set over 160 and 400 laps of the track respectively). But he was most famous as the ‘ghost runner’, who would leap barriers to run races from which he had been banned.

Farrant’s exclusion dated from two years when he fought as a low-ranking boxer, accepting a total of £17 (£500 in today’s money). He was first excluded from domestic races, then following a media campaign and partial reinstatement, from representing Great Britain. Contrary to Sillitoe’s book, the moral of this tale is that solitary though running might often be, it is also a human, social activity. Being denied the chance to compete on equal terms caused Farrant’s life to revolve around bitter resentment. 

It did so in another age, one of taciturn men and downtrodden wives. Farrant has a succession of labouring jobs – including chipping off the asbestos from train brake pads –, and the runners in question are hard men who ‘would shove you in a ditch as soon as look at you’. His father’s hobby was breeding rats, and for his part John’s holidays were spent at Butlins (where, aged 27, he won the knobbly-knees contest). All this clashed with the athletics establishment of Roger Bannister and Harold Abrahams (see ‘Chariots of Fire’), a.k.a. the ‘blazerati’. Amateurism was the watchword, gentlemanly values the veneer beneath which the dirty work of privilege was done.   

So there’s clearly a story about class here. But there are also things to be said about individualism, and about bodies: in both of these areas, John Farrant comes across as less of a hero. First, he was a difficult man, abandoning his wife and child to live in South Africa, irritating many with his story of iniquity, and hurling expletives at youngsters who overtook him. Second, he pushed himself too hard, eventually dying of stomach cancer aged only 42, having ‘trained’ even in hospital by running on the spot inside a locked bathroom. The unanswerable question is how much of this attitude was caused by resentment at his ban, and how much was innate. John Farrant should cross our mind whenever we romanticize the loneliness of the long distance runner.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Review of Tony Perrottet, 'The Naked Olympics' (2004)

Tony Perrottet’s book ‘The Naked Olympics: the True Story of the Ancient Games’ was released to coincide with the Athens olympics of 2004; talking about it might not be wholly timely, but can there be a wrong time to talk about naked, oiled men and the slaughter of 100 white oxen? I thought not. (And by the way, the book isn’t about ‘naked running’ – a phrase runners use to describe the now rare experience of heading out without a satellite watch pacing their every step).

Perrottet highlights a healthy number of differences between the ancient games at Olympia and their modern incarnation – as we might have guessed, badminton and dressage were not included. In fact, few of today’s disciplines were: events were limited to boxing, wrestling, ‘pankration’ (a vicious combination of boxing and wrestling), chariot racing, pentathlon (discus, javelin, standing jump, running, and yes, more wrestling), and running. The latter took place as lengths of a straight track, over distances of roughly 200m, 400m, 1500m, and 5k.  

But although it mentions these differences, the book does its smallminded best to boil everything down to American capitalist values. We are shown why various aspects of the Greeks’ games show them to have been Americans who just didn’t know it yet – they are ‘brash’, ‘nouveau riche’, they spend their time in ‘sports bars’ seeking out ‘potential for business’. Perhaps some of these elements are even correct; but the impression the author gives is of someone ignoring historical variety in the name of some pretty predictable values.

Despite himself, though, Perrottet presents us with some of the good stuff. Who knew that the games were held, every four years, continuously from 776 BC to 394 AD (when they were banned by Christians)? Or that every competitor had to prove his Greek heritage? The Greeks were far from the modern Olympics’ universalist message – Johnny foreigner just wasn’t allowed to play.

So, what’s the message that we can take from the Greek Olympics? To take part, you needed to be good either at fighting, or at short sprints. You needed to not be a barbarian from outside Greece, and certainly – horrors! – not a woman. But if you still qualified, you got a chance to be crowned with laurel leaves, to enjoy glory without end – and also without payment or reward. Something that the author of ‘The Naked Olympics’ does his level best to ignore.  

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Things that Runners Say

Continuing this blog’s focus on some of the weirdnesses of running, here are a few sayings that runners are used to hearing, but which might leave non-runners bewildered.

1. ‘I didn’t have any legs left’.  This doesn’t meant that you’ve put in so much effort that your legs have fallen off and you are left crawling round the track on your stumps (is that why they paint them red? I think we need to know). But that gruesome image gives an idea of the pain that you can feel if you’ve put in too much effort too early. ‘To have legs’ therefore means ‘to have energy reserves left’.

2. One thing you could use those energy reserves for, if you had any, would be to ‘kick’. This doesn’t mean lashing out at your rival, tripping him up and using the distraction to gain 30 yards. But again, the violence of the metaphor is telling: ‘to kick’ means to put in a spurt towards the end of a race, with the intention of leaving your competitors feeling as if they had a boot stamping on their face forever (as George Orwell put it).

3. If you were left behind by someone ‘kicking’, you might say ‘I died’. In other words, when things go wrong in races, you’re off the pace and behind your rivals and embarrassed, the phrase used to describe this feeling invokes an existential crisis. I wonder if our friends and partners know that when we return from races where this happens, we’re doing so as ghosts of our former selves who have ‘died out there’?

RIP Alain Mimoun who has died aged 91.

French-Algerian 5 times Olympic silver medallist at 5 & 10k, Olympic champion in the marathon, 2.34 marathon runner at age 51, and long-time second fiddle to Zatopek.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Review of Leni Riefenstahl, 'OLympia: Festival of Nations' (1936)

Anyone who reads this blog should be familiar with the question: do we run for inner peace or do we run for glory? I’ve been thinking more about it having watched Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which is often mentioned as a glorification of athletic success. Is this view right?
I’m going to steer away from the obsession with Nazism and WWII which fills much of the British public conversation. Yes, the film shows Hitler, Mussolini, and Goebbels; and yes there is some straight-arm saluting, but beyond that there is little that you wouldn’t find at any other Olympic games. Little hint of the horrors which were to be discovered later.
The film shows a variety of track and field events which are recognizably similar to those in today’s athletics, but performed or described differently. Runners have no starting blocks but dig holes in the cinder track with trowels; high jumpers scissor-kick their way over a bar at 6 foot 5 inches before landing neatly on their feet. Athletes compete in the ‘javelin-throwing’, the ‘hop, step, and jump’ (triple jump), and seek to get a ‘world’s record’.
Although obviously very fit and posting good times, the athletes are not the lycra-clad aliens they are today. Some in field events wear woolly jumpers and slacks. And the phlegmatic English commentator discusses them without the layered encrustations of sporting metaphor – a runner is simply described as ‘putting on a terrific burst of speed’, and of a corpulent shot-putter, it is said that the shot ‘looks like a pea in his hand’.
Riefenstahl’s use of the camera is famous (as anyone who has seen ‘Triumph of the Will’ can remember). We see the athletes perform in slow motion, or speeded up. Dramatic cello- or trumpet-heavy music builds the atmosphere, and crowd shots are carefully inserted. The action in each event is not only as interesting to watch as in today’s coverage, it’s more so: rather than retaining the same camera angle for each pole-vaulter (say), each successive jump is shown from a different angle. This means that your ability to compare the height of the jump is impaired (but who cares, as the announcer reads it out); instead you can appreciate in 3D the sinews and the coordination of the human body, a marble statue hotly breathing.
That’s where people object, of course: when a particular type of young – and often white – body is presented as being better than others. In terms of all Riefenstahl intended her film to be used for, they are right. But I propose throwing a spanner into the thought process that says that because these bodies are *good* at what they do, they are *better* or more worthy than others in general terms. Athletes’ beautiful bodies do not tell us about nationality or race or ideology. Instead they tell us about lives spent ‘obeying in one direction’ (Nietzsche) and thus sapping the ability to obey anything or anyone else. After all, this is what our word for what they do means, with its roots in notions of emptying, sending- or giving-away. That word is sport.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Review of Robin Harvie, 'Why We Run: a Story of Obsession' (2011)

This is by far the most engaging book about running I’ve come across: it is both weird and wonderful, and I encourage you to read it. To get a sense of its intellectual ambition, we need wait no longer than the epigraph, a quotation from Apsley Cherry-Garrard (a survivor of Captain Scott’s antarctic mission) which takes us away from the brainless positivity that usually surrounds running: ‘If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have the need to prove their bravery’.

The book recounts the author’s monomaniacal relationship with running, which began after a hazy all-night party with him seeing the London marathon on TV, and vowing that next year he would be on the starting line. He eventually becomes dissatisfied with what a devalued currency the marathon has become, and turns to ultra-marathons, ultimately taking on the Spartathlon, a 152km race from Athens to Sparta.  

But Harvie’s kaleidoscopic vision takes in much, much more – from discovery of his family roots to death and illness of those close to him, and beyond. Most of the major figures in the history of running are discussed, from Zatopek to Bannister (‘his legs moved as easily as milk pouring from a jug’) and from the Greek Olympic games to Bill Bowerman’s founding of Nike in the 1960s. A lot, perhaps too much, therefore goes on in this busy book. But this does mean that each reader is treated to tidbits of information she didn’t previously know. Some of mine were that the Greek ‘gymenazesthai’ (whence gymnasium) means to exercise naked, that running was the only sport in the first 13 Olympic games, and that a monastery of Japanese monks dedicate their existence to enlightenment through running. 

The author openly states that he is not built like a runner, and one of the strongest aspects of the book is the glee with which metaphor is mixed with gruesome description in describing what happens to the body during and after running: ‘My feet wept for days. Blisters, forming and popping under the nails, turned the skin a mottled black as the damage done to the tissues slowly revealed itself like some peculiar deep-sea creature’.

This description is of Harvie’s feet following the Spartathlon – for the benefit of non runners, the experience is not normal –, and reveals one of the unresolved debates going on beneath the book’s surface, which can be put as follows. Is this a book about training for and running a single, monstrous event (as its narrative and structure suggest)? Or is it about running in general (suggested by its title, Why We Run), about the way the impulse to run comes back again and again, no matter whether we are training for a race or not, thus creating patterns in our lives full of sound of fury but signifying nothing?

This question receives an ambiguous answer with the crossed-out title of the final chapter on whether he will re-run the Spartathlon: ‘Never Again’.  And although I’ll leave you to discover how the race pans out for the author, I can give a sense of the conflicted state in which it leaves him. On the one hand, he comes close to describing running as a parasite inhabting him: ‘There was a better person, an idealised version of the man I wanted to be, who had never returned’. The language here is that of a Vietnam veteran. On the other hand, when describing a sensation of cosmic harmony, he gives it both barrels: ‘my will had been exposed to a divine knowledge’. 

The book that ends by being pulled in these two directions is both interesting and ferociously honest; one of those I’m looking forward – without ambiguity or crossing out – to reading again.