Magazine article The Spectator

Origins of the Human Race

Magazine article The Spectator

Origins of the Human Race

Article excerpt


by Thor Gotaas, translated from the Norwegian by Peter Graves

Reaktion Books, £19.95, pp. 392,

ISBN 9781861895264 . £15.95 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

At first glance, a history of running seems a pretty doomed exercise, like writing a history of breathing, or sneezing. For how can anyone really describe and 'historicise' an intrinsic physical process, something people do, involuntarily, without thinking? Perhaps alert to this potential pitfall, Thor Gotaas confines himself to a specific sort of running - not the inevitable startling of our limbs when we are about to miss a bus, or be ravaged by bears, but rather running as competitive sport, calibrated by a track or a clock, regulated by officials. In this way, Gotaas crafts a cultural history of a sport, in the same way as he has explained the social origins and ramifications of skiing in his previous works.

His structure is anecdotal, his tone often whimsical. He either has a keen eye for grotesques and native extremists, or elite athletics has produced an unending series of such types. From Ancient Greece we hear of Ageus, who won the long race at Olympia and then raced home to Argos, a mere 62 miles, to celebrate.

Beating the field was not enough to establish a reputation: crowd-pleasing showmanship was also required. Outstripping horses was a reliable way to attract attention - from the soldier sprinters of the Yuan Dynasty, to the medieval Icelanders and beyond - though the Icelanders raced against the indigenous Icelandic horse, an evil-tempered but at least stunted beast, like a Shetland pony with a headache. The Indians raced elephants instead of horses - 'the aim was to stay ahead of the animal, ' writes Gotaas.

The Romans had made some progress in the timing of races, using sun and water clocks, but it wasn't until the 16th century that the Turk Taqi-al-Din invented a clock which measured time in minutes and seconds. This added a new dimension to athletics, as records could be set and broken, and romantic myths could evolve around particular barriers: the fourminute mile, the ten-second sprint. According to Gotaas only 55 men had managed to run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds by the 2008 season. All of them, he adds, are non-white, and all but one of them of Western African origin. …

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