Why Walking Fell As 19th Century America’s Most Popular Spectator Sport

Decades before baseball became America’s pastime, and over a century before football reached the height of its popularity, our society found its athletic entertainment through a more casual activity. Although it still boasts a wide participation, the once-prevalent competition draws no interest outside those who actually do it. “Walking really was the dominant spectator sport […]

Why Walking Fell As 19th Century America’s Most Popular Spectator Sport

Decades before baseball became America’s pastime, and over a century before football reached the height of its popularity, our society found its athletic entertainment through a more casual activity. Although it still boasts a wide participation, the once-prevalent competition draws no interest outside those who actually do it.

“Walking really was the dominant spectator sport in America,” stated New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in his September 1, 2014 article “Heaven’s Gaits. “Working class enthusiasm for the contests was so keen that indoor stadiums were needed.”

Times have certainly changed. Nowadays, rather than paying money to watch people walk, we actually pay to avoid having to see them walk.

A few times a year, some organization or business promotes a walk or run marathon on the pretext of raising money for a charity or someone in need. In reality, though, the event is merely a way for its participants to garner some attention.

Those who enter the marathon ask their friends, family members, and co-workers to sponsor their efforts by pledging a certain amount of money for every mile. Most of us, thankful that we are not being asked to watch the marathon, reluctantly make a cash commitment.

Then we forget all about the event. We know that nothing could be as unentertaining as watching people walk, or even run, a marathon, which seems a sharp contrast to the walk- watching mania of 150 years ago.

The attraction, however, was not so much the activity itself. The most well-known walkers, such as Dennis O’ Leary and Edward Payson Weston, donned costumes for their competitions and indulged in heavy promotional gimmicks.

Beyond the costumes, though, lay an even bigger reason for the sport’s short-lived popularity. It is rooted in the masochism that has also made thrive the sports of football, hockey and auto racing.

“The contests were no longer really walking competitions. Mostly they were something crueler,” Gopnik said. “They were competitions in not sleeping. The crowds were not coming to watch the walkers walk. They were coming to watch them drop.”

Eventually, watching people drop was less entertaining than watching two men try to knock each other down. So, by the turn of the twentieth century, boxing replaced walking as the most popular spectator sport.

Then a sport emerged in which eleven men on one team tried to knock down eleven on an opposing team, tremendously increasing the chances of someone dropping. Sure, the gear over the years has improved safety for football players, but the purpose is the same as ever.

Consider the two most viewed videos this past month, Ray Rice’s assault on his mate and the death of the NASCAR driver who left his car, as testament to our entertainment tastes. As disturbing as it sounds, we still watch the event not for the walking, but for the dropping.

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