Imagine a world where walking was considered a sport. And not just a sport in the same way that cheerleading is a sport, but in a real competitive, spectator-drawing, gambling-on-the-winner type way. Now stop imagining, because that was the reality of the world of the late 1800’s.
The sport was called Pedestrianism and I only learned about it because of an NPR story featuring Matthew Algeo, author of the book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport. According to the story, one of the events that led to the rise of this sport was a lost wager between gentleman concerning the presidential election. Edward Payson Weston bet against Abraham Lincoln and terms of the bet were that Weston had to walk from Boston to Washington in order to see the inauguration in ten days time. This, he did.
Word of this feat of tired feet spread. Soon, 6-day walking competitions started popping up, and people were walking for fun and profit.
I was fascinated, but not too surprised, to find out that my favorite president, Chester A. Arthur, was a fan of attending pedestrian events in his hometown of New York City. I can just imagine him strolling among the crowds, dressed to the nines, rubbing shoulders with the big city elite who came to wager on the outcome.
Sadly, the popularity of walking competitions waned in proportion to the rise of technological advances in getting from Point A to Point B. When the modern bicycle replaced the penny-farthing, things started to stroll downhill. And when the bicycle was usurped by the automobile, we became a nation no longer impressed by moving long distances in short amounts of time. Time and interest gave way to new sports like baseball and American football, and pedestrianism was all but forgotten.
Today, it limps along as one of the most derided of Olympic events. Perhaps it is time for a comeback. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do nothing but walk for the better part of six days, but I could see that being more likely than my playing baseball or football.
Would you come out to watch me walk?