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The million-dollar match races this weekend between Olympic heroes Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey in Toronto and Noureddine Morceli and Haile Gebrselassie in Hengelo, the Netherlands, ostensibly to determine the world's fastest sprinter and middle-distance runner, respectively, are being hailed as a departure for a suffering sport. But a peek in the history books reveals that such races are at least 400 years old. The launchpad for the head-to-head track event is neither the Toronto SkyDome nor the Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadium, but the turnpikes of 16th-century England.
Such was the state of the roads in Will Shakespeare's day that human foot messengers were often speedier than horsemen. It didn't take wagering lords long to begin betting on the prowess of their "footmen." By the 19th century the roads and playing fields of Britain were packed with pedestrians (or peds), as professional runners and race walkers were called, and their head-to-head matches often drew more than 25,000 paying spectators.
"Never bet on anything that can talk" runs the old gambling adage, which is based on the premise that human performers can be persuaded all too easily to lose. The peds didn't take much persuading. Louis Bennett, a Native American who ran in Britain under the name Deerfoot, was so popular with English crowds that his backers paid opponents to lose to him. Other popular forms of chicanery included ringing (competing in different parts of the country under different names to fool the handicappers) and roping (losing a couple of races in order to get a good mark in handicaps, which were more widespread than scratch races).
In 1809 Capt. Barclay Allardice failed in two well-publicized attempts to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. But the Scottish landowner was only waiting for the odds against him to escalate to 16 to 1, at which point he slapped down 1,000 guineas and won the equivalent of more than $300,000 in today's money.
Another Scot, Alfred Downer, summed up the 19th-century professional sprinting mentality in his book Running Reflections: "No one who is on the job ever dreams of waiting for the report of the pistol, or whatever the signal may be, but has already been running some five yards when the signal is given."
Notions of fair play were also absent after the starting signal. When a leading amateur miler named Walter George turned pro to race top ped Willie Cummings in 1885, George got more than he bargained for. Cummings was adept at heel-clipping—touching an opponent's upthrust foot from behind to throw him off stride. The practice served Cummings well against George, and he won two of their three races. But George learned his lesson and left plenty of distance between himself and Cummings the following year, winning a mile race in 4:12� (the watches of the day timed only to quarter seconds), a time generally recognized as the world record at that distance. The mark remained unbeaten by amateur or pro for 29 years.
But cheating became so widespread that roping and ringing were made criminal offenses punishable by up to six months in prison at hard labor. It was in this era that one of the most infamous incidents in British sporting history took place.
In 1887 the two leading sprinters of the day, Harry Hutchens and Harry Gent, were contracted to race 120 yards at Lillie Bridge Stadium in West London. With a packed crowd and with bookies yelling the odds—Hutchens, having dominated pro sprinting for years, was the marginal favorite—the athletes' backers argued over whose loss would provoke the bigger payout. Unable to reach a decision, backers and sprinters alike absconded, climbing over the back wall with the gate money. The irate crowd burned down the stadium.
Pro matches continued for at least 20 years. However the revival of the Olympic Games and the banning of bookies from track stadiums throughout Britain in the early years of the 20th century cemented the shoes of the peds.
Now, after almost a century's absence, they're back, with Join son of the U.S. and Bailey of Canada racing 150 meters for $1 million, and either Morceli of Algeria or Gebrselassie of Ethiopia taking the same prize if he wins their two-mile race in less than eight minutes. And all four runners are being hailed as potential saviors of a sport that has again fallen on hard times.