From Jailbirds to Presidents: The Extraordinary Rise of Running for Fun

Today, running is part of the fabric of everyday life. Yet only fifty years ago the sight of someone running down the pavement without a very good reason could cause a minor scandal. Pavements, after all, were for going about your business or for dignified promenading. Jogging seemed as inappropriate and inconsiderate as cycling on a busy pavement might seem today. It also seemed inexplicable. One jogger in 1960s New Zealand was jailed overnight by local police because they could think of no legal reason for a grown man to be running down the road after dark!

So how did we get from there to here? How has running on the public roads gone from being an activity practised by a few eccentrics to the mainstream, highly popular sport of today?

Preparing the ground

As with many cultural changes during the second half of the 20th century the emergence of running as a mass participation sport began in America. During the 1950s and 1960s the country was experiencing an economic boom. This prepared the ground for the growth of running in two ways. First, young people became wealthier and were more likely to stay in education longer, giving them the space and funds to develop their own separate cultural identity. This new ‘youth consciousness’ challenged many existing conventions and placed great value on youth and appearances, and had a profound effect on American culture over the coming years. Secondly, more affluent, luxurious lifestyles were linked to rapidly increasing rates of illnesses relating to obesity and inactivity, causing great public concern.

All this generated a receptive environment for the promoters of healthy living. Anything that could keep you young (i.e. slim and toned) on the outside and healthy on the inside found a willing audience. Fitness entrepreneurs pushed all manner of regimes, from the short-lived ‘Dance of Socrates’, which involved slow motion jogging with a ‘completely limp’ upper body and rolling head (in the privacy of your own home, thankfully) to activities that remain popular today, such as aerobics.

Bill Bowerman goes jogging

At around this time Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach and future founder of Nike visited New Zealand to meet fellow coach Arthur Lydiard to discuss training techniques. Whilst he was there he was invited to attend one of Lydiard’s jogging groups which, Lydiard explained, were like normal training sessions, but stripped of their competitive element and attended by non-athletes, many of whom were recovering from heart attacks. Bowerman joined in, and was shocked to find he couldn’t keep up with even the slowest group. A 74 year old man graciously slowed down to keep the 52 year old Bowerman company as he slogged to the finish.

Bowerman was an instant convert. Modified, low intensity training sessions could transform the health of even elderly heart attack victims. As soon as he returned to the US he began setting up jogging groups at his university and writing his million selling book, Jogging, which brought the concepts to a wider audience and is widely credited with sparking the running boom.

Respectable at last

By the mid-1970s, as a result of the work of evangelists such as Bowerman and the success of American long-distance runners such as Steve Prefontaine, jogging had become a fashionable pastime and an everyday sight in cities across the US. Soon after, the rest of the western world followed suit. Mass races sprang up, tapping into competitive motivations and providing grass-roots runners with access to prestigious events in a way unparalleled in any other sport.

Such was the transformation in the status of running that even President Nixon was keen to have a go. He entered a 10k race in 1979, but was unable to finish and needed medical attention. For his opponents this was seized on as evidence of his lack of the ‘right stuff’ for the highest office. Once worrying evidence of a subversive streak, running had become a symbol of presidential qualities. In just two decades the transformation in the cultural status of running had been complete.

 

This article was originally published in Running magazine, August 2016. www.runnersradar.com

 

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