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O Magazine

The forgotten
centuries of athletics.


Prostitute races at the Vatican, Olympic Games in the British countryside, man against horse competitions, long-distance running sailors… Pre-modern athletics are far from ordinary…

What happened during the centuries that range from the Ancient Olympic Games to the celebration, in 1896, of the first Olympic Games of the modern era? Were there runners and athletes at all? Yes, OK, as the official story goes, modern Olympics were an invention of Coubertain and of department stores, which try to sell us technical trainers at gold (medal) prices. But some scholars also affirm that running is the original movement of human beings (who when climbing down from trees were compelled to stand on two legs so as to gain speed to hunt or to escape from predators). And foot races have been used in several civilizations as a means to send messages or as military training, apart from having a religious function in the Games themselves. When these finished, running progressively became a form of recreation, and a bit later, with the standardisation of measurement units and clock mechanisms, races became something measurable and comparable; that is, something predictable, comparable and something you could bet on.

When emperor Theodosius banned the Games in 393 A.D. because he considered them pagan, in the outskirts of the Roman Empire people kept on running. In Ireland, for instance, during the Middle Ages, they held the Tailteann Games, funerary games to honour goddess Tailtiu that took place annually for centuries until 1168. In these games, there were disciplines such as athletic races, high and long jump, obstacle races, javelin throw and many other sports that we would recognise today, apart from a fair and several artistic competitions. In Viking festivals too we have evidence of people running and of bets in races of men against horses.

And Benjamin Cheever says in his book Strides. Running Through History with an Unlikely Athlete that in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, races (or palios) were common. Today, only the Sienna one survives (and it’s a horse race), but back then, foot races were more common, and in some of them even prostitutes took part. One of these races was organised in 1501 by pope Alexander VI (Borgia) himself. German Historian and Sociologist Henning Eichenberg, quoted in Thor Gotaas’ book Running. A Global History, contextualises this boom of popular sport as part of a “culture of laughter” in which races had a humorous, and somewhat subversive, motivation to subvert society’s usual order. Something like that couldn’t last, and as of the 16th century, the high classes stopped joining these races. Only in Great Britain athletic races would be in vogue during the 18th and 19th centuries.


The reason for this should be found in an already long tradition of popular athletic events in that part of Great Britain. In 1604, Robert Dover organised in the Cotswolds the “Robert Dover’s Olimpick Games”, a splendorous annual festival in which hundreds of athletes took part in dancing, foot or horse races, hammer throw, hunting, wrestling or fencing; disciplines in which they could win a silver trophy. Even though they were interrupted after Dover’s death in 1652, they would be revived later on, and today, four hundred years after their first edition, they are still held. Within these games, it was normal for many villages to organise women races.

Besides, they helped the figure of the professional runner to bloom, that is, someone who makes a living thanks to the bets on his capacities against the clock. Long-distance marches became normal in Europe and North America. Possibly the most singular character at the time was a certain Mensen Ernst, who deserves an article of his own, if not a whole adventure film. Ernst was a poor Norwegian sailor that in one of his trips discovered his talent for running very long distances. He befriended princes and other wealthy people and achieved feats such as covering on foot in fifteen days the distance between Paris and Moscow, or marching between Istanbul and Calcutta in four weeks. Mensen died in Africa while looking for the fountains of the Nile.

The Enlightenment, first, and, after the 19th century, hygienist ideas contributed to the popularisation of the idea that sports were good for people’s health and also a good way of taming the instincts of the popular classes (besides, the high classes started to organise their first amateur sport associations, as opposed to the professional athletics of the common people). With that spirit, in 1850, a doctor, William Penny Brookes, organised in the village of Wenlock, in Shropshire, Olympic Games for the “promotion of physical, intellectual and moral improvement of the inhabitants of the village and of the Wenlock area and in particular of its working classes.” The Wenlock Games became very successful and soon joined forces with other games created in Athens to remember the Ancient Olympic Games, the Zappas Games, called that way because of their main patron and promoter, Evangelis Zappas, and only open to athletes of Greek origin. One of the visitors of the Wenlock games -which, by the way, still exist- in 1890 was a French aristocrat called Pierre de Coubertain. When Zappas died, de Coubertain resumed his friend Penny’s idea of creating an International edition of the Olympic Games. This would be the starting shot of Modern Olympics.