100 Metres Cash – a history of pro sprinting
To watch the Diamond League – in which the great and good of the track and field world compete for actual diamonds – is to forget that it wasn’t so very long ago that international athletics was a wholly amateur affair.
Okay, so some competitors were more amateur than others – while college scholarships and kit deals compensated American athletes, phony government positions were concocted for their Communist equivalents. However, out-and-out professionalism was scorned and it really wasn’t until the late ‘90s that it became easy to make a living from running, jumping and throwing.
If an athlete was determined to turn their talent into cash, there were some professional opportunities. After winning four Olympic golds, Jesse Owen made ends meet by competing against thoroughbreds. And then there was the pro sprinting scene. Once a big deal in Wales, Scotland and the north of England, pro sprinting saw runners pitted against one another in a manner akin to horse racing. Indeed, as the availability of prize money benefitted the athletes, so the sport’s non-amateur status created an avenue for another popular pasttime, gambling.
For the beter part of 120 years, professional sprinting has been dominated by two events in particular, the Powderhall Sprint in Scotland (above) and the Stawell Gift in Australia. The Powderhall event – now officially known as the New Year Spring – takes place over 110 metres and is among the oldest of all professional athletics events having first been staged in 1870.
In common with horse-racing, the sprint sees the runners handicapped. However, rather than having to carry different weights, the athletes are obliged to run different distances. With the handicapping based on form, the best sprinters who compete over the full distance are said to run from scratch. Again as with conventional racing, the notion behind this is that, in optimal conditions, all the sprinters cross the line at the same time.
Naturally, things have rarely been so straightforward. What’s particularly queered the pitch are the huge sums of money that gamblers have staked on the Powderhall. With big bets come huge gains and since athletes are more open to bribery than your average equid, results have frequently called into question, most often by punters convinced that the athletes who best suited the bookmakers came out on top.
If controversy has dogged the Powderhall – it takes its name from the Edinburgh district where it was first staged – it has quite a storeyed history. Cast your eyes over a list of past competitors and you’ll find that British Olympic gold medallist Willie Applegarth contested the event during the 1910s, while American Olympian Barney Newell ran the sprint in 1952. More recently, William Snoddy, who enjoyed considerable success on the US college circuit in the 1970s, triumphed in the 1987 sprint.
As befits an event staged in Edinburgh, the Powderhall’s also produced a host of home-grown champions. Foremost among these was George McNeil (main picture, centre), a professional footballer who changed direction after an impressive showing as a 21-year-old at the 1969 event. A year to the day later, McNeil triumphed in the 100th running of the Powderhall, soon after which he’d break the professional world record for the 110m which still stands at 11.14 seconds. With few challenges left at home, McNeil upped and left for the other hotbed of pro sprinting, a small mining town on the other side of the world called Stawell.
Australia’s fairest and fastest have been racing in Stawell (above) since 1878. Back then, the Victorian gold rush was at an end and the prospectors were looking for new forms of entertainment. Hence, the Easter Gift of £24 – a vast sum at the time – awarded to the winner of a handicap race contested over 130 yards (later 120 metres). The race soon caught the public’s imagination with special trains having to be laid on to bring the great unwashed to the Grampian Mountains.
While the Powderhall sprint has been contested over a variety of surfaces, the Stawell Gift is always run on grass up a slight incline. Described by Olympic champion Christian Malcolm as “one of the most shattering events I’ve even competed in”, it takes a special kind of athlete to leave Stawell victorious. What with the location and the emphasis on stamina, it’s not surprising that many Australian Rules footballers have taken part. But while VFL greats like Bill Twomey and Treva McGregor have been rightly championed for their Stawell achievements, some champions stand apart from the crowd.
These include the only man ever to win the Gift off scratch. Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa hailed from Madagascar, a nation better known for lemurs rather than mid-distance sprinters. Then, six years after Ravelomanantsoa surprised everyone in 1975, Stawell was to play host to an even greater shock.
For in 1981, a 34-year-old was to win this most punishing of professional sprint races. The man in question had been contesting the Gift since the early 1970s and, although he had a hat-trick of runners-up spots to his name, his chances of winning seemed to have gone. To win at such an advanced age was almost as amazing as the fact that 1981 marked the 100th running of the Stawell Gift. But as has already been established, George McNeil had quite the knack for winning professional sprint races in their centenary years.
A man given to remarkable feats, McNeil now makes a good living chatting about his career on the after dinner circuit. But while he and the Stawell Gift are still in rude health, elsewhere professional sprinting seems to be in trouble. Win the event now known as the New Year Sprint and you’ll walk away with the modest sum of £4,000.
Contrast this with the riches on offer to Usain Bolt and Co. at the World Championships in Beijing, and you can appreciate why the Edinburgh event looks set for the knacker’s yard. If the pro game is in danger, it’s worth bearing in mind that, for many decades, it was held in contempt by the IAAF who feared it might poison their sport. A quick glance at the sports headlines these past few weeks demonstrates that the IAAF didn’t require professional ‘help’ to ruin the sport it purports to defend.