Seeing how they run, Geoff Watson

When Running Made History
Roger Robinson
Canterbury University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780815611004

New Zealanders have a longstanding connection with running. Long-distance running was one of the early activities of Māori and, from at least as early as the 1880s, New Zealand athletes were taking part in international competitions. Running has been both an everyday activity and a sport in which New Zealanders have triumphed on the global stage: the achievements of Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, John Walker, Allison Roe, Anne Audain, Lorraine Moller and Lisa Tamati, among others, have been enshrined in national memory. When Running Made History utilises Roger Robinson’s personal memories as a lens to explain how a formerly largely individualistic pursuit became a global phenomenon. 

Robinson is uniquely placed to trace the emergence of running from his perspective as a participant observer. Born in England in 1939, he was interested in running from an early age. “As a little boy,” he recalls, “I used to crawl through the hedge at the University of London athletic track … to watch the runners”. He became a very good runner at school. By his own admission, he was not a naturally gifted athlete, yet he was drawn to running after watching Emil Zatopek demonstrate at the 1948 London Olympics how hard work and training could overcome any deficit of innate ability. He would go on to compete for England and New Zealand as a runner and set several Masters world records. He is therefore uniquely placed to chart the trajectory of running and explain its wider significance, because of his twin interests as a runner and scholar. His athletic career coincided with the transformation of running, particularly long-distance running, from a minority pursuit, whose adherents were often regarded as eccentric, to a global movement where tens of thousands of entrants of all ages and abilities participate in the largest races. He was in his 20s when the “running boom” began in the 1960s, and in his 40s when Masters events began to take off in the 1980s, so he has witnessed first-hand the modern evolution of the sport. 

The book is loosely organised along chronological lines. It opens with an account of Robinson’s childhood in wartime London during the Blitz; charts the development of running during the Cold War (now a distant historical phase for many readers); discusses the post-1960s “running boom”; before concluding with an evocative account of winning the over-75 category at the US Masters 5km race in 2016 (“The Fire Of Youth Under The Creases Of Age”). Having variously resided in Britain, New Zealand and the United States, and travelled extensively, Robinson writes from a truly international perspective. It also helps that he is an excellent writer. Befitting his position as a professor of literature, Robinson is a skilled and fluent narrator, and one not afraid to tell a story against himself. Recounting his decision to withdraw just before the 10-mile mark of the 1990 Berlin marathon, a bubble bath in the Hotel Grand Esplanade being more appealing than grafting out another 16 miles on an injured leg, he intones “if you’re going to wimp out, do it in style”.

Robinson is intent on making the case for running as a transformative agent in history and advances a compelling argument in the affirmative. He makes no claim to being a neutral observer. He is an unashamed advocate of the benefits of running in developing the moral character and physical health of individuals and as a collective force for good in society. Chapters variously deploy both evocation, selected vignettes placing the reader in the middle of the action, and explanation, where, as a scholar, Robinson relates (in layperson’s terms) the wider social context within which the events he is recounting took place. In so doing, his writing adds an extra layer of understanding to many sports histories. 

It is one thing to demonstrate, as many sports historians have done, that sport is a reflection of society. It is much more difficult to demonstrate how sport has actually shaped and changed society. All too often, sport has been harnessed to reinforce conformity; indeed, running for many readers may well evoke hideous recollections of the compulsory cross-country at school, yet Robinson seeks to argue the opposite for running, as indicated in the title of the book. For example, he sees running as a uniquely empowering force, something which has transformed the lives of many women, giving both elite and everyday runners a forum in which they have proved, contrary to earlier medical theories, that they can run the same distances as men and do so without damaging their health. 

It has also become a global pursuit. Since Abebe Bikila’s gold medal run at the Rome Olympic marathon in 1960, long-distance running has been dominated by African runners, a phenomenon which Robinson argues has been met with acceptance and acclamation by the running community. Not only does he see running as an agent of social change, he also makes the case for its capacity to facilitate community recovery. Among the most powerful chapters in the book are those which cover the ways in which the running community responded to traumatic events, such as in 2001 when the New York marathon took place less than two months after the attacks on the twin towers on September 11, when the act of taking part in a marathon became an expression of solidarity and affirmed “the freedom of men and women to run freely together”. Closer to home, his chapter on how running and athletics events contributed to restoring morale after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes is also very powerful. 

While he is intent on showing the positive side of running, he does not shy away from its controversies. The chapter on the drug-tainted 100 metres final in Seoul in 1988 is a powerful analysis of the impact of drugs on sport. While, on one level, Robinson’s assessments are subjective, they are complemented by an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and scholarship of running. This learning is worn lightly, references to key writings appear occasionally and are usefully summarised in the bibliography. The appendices, giving a timeline of the running boom 1960-82, women’s running 1896-2017, and Masters running 1909-2018, are particularly informative.

Although much of this book is written with an eye on elite athletes, there is much in here for the everyday runner, and this is a large constituency in New Zealand, engaging nearly two out of five of its citizens. According to the most recent Active New Zealand Survey (2017), running was the fourth most popular activity, 20 per cent of respondents having taken part in running within the last seven days and 38 per cent within the last 12 months. Running is among the most democratic of sports. In the major events, both the top runners and first-timers compete in the same race (although the fast runners start at the front of the pack). As someone frequently among the backmarkers, I can testify at first hand what a remarkable sight it is to see the best athletes running at top speed, particularly on occasions when you are running towards a turnaround point and see the front-runners coming towards you at a speed faster than most people can sprint, yet sustaining that speed over 21.1 or 42.2 kilometres. Robinson’s tribute to the runners who complete marathons between three and four hours (“You don’t win many awards, but you are real runners and tough”) will resonate with many, perhaps the majority of runner readers. 

His statements about the camaraderie of long-distance running, when competitors, volunteers and spectators, cheer each other and assist fellow runners who fall over, may seem romanticised to those outside the sport, but they are representative of the culture of running. Robinson focuses primarily on the experience of being amidst a large crowd at the largest events, such as the 26,000 who gathered to run the 1990 Berlin marathon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but such experiences are equally present at smaller meets. Indeed, at rural events such as the Feilding marathon, it has not been unknown for virtually every competitor to receive a spot prize (the reviewer being the fortunate recipient of a miniature artificial Christmas tree following the 2016 event). A tangential benefit of reading such an erudite book is the wider insights it affords into New Zealand’s history. The account of the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch is a valuable piece of social history, as Robinson explains both the massive contribution of volunteer labour and the state-of-the art technology employed, the games being “the first major sports event in the world to be designed from the start for colour television”. When Running Made History has been widely and rightfully acclaimed. It is among the most readable and rewarding works of sports history ever published. 

Geoff Watson teaches in the history programme at Massey University and co-authored Sport And The New Zealanders: A History (reviewed in NZRB, Autumn 2019).

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology, Sport
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