The beginnings of organised athletics in New Zealand in the 1840s lie in what were called ‘rural sports’. These were a popular part of anniversary-day fêtes, and other celebratory occasions in the early European settlements. Foot races were part of the entertainment, usually for a cash prize. Other rural sports included climbing greasy poles and wheelbarrow races.
From the early 1860s, firstly in Otago and then further afield, annual Caledonian Games, celebrating Scots heritage, provided other opportunities for the athletically minded. The games featured field events such as tossing the caber, putting the stone, hammer throwing, vaulting, the standing jump and running high leap, as well as running events.
By then interest in athletics had taken hold in Britain, and it soon spread to New Zealand. As in Britain and elsewhere, the new popularity brought with it a struggle for control of the sport. On one hand were those who welcomed professional opportunities – the chance to earn money through sport. On the other were those, mainly from the colonial middle and upper classes at first, who extolled the new ideology of amateurism.
World champion walker
Joe Scott began winning professional walking races as a 13-year-old boy, and was soon New Zealand’s best endurance walker. His many early triumphs included a ‘championship of the colonies’ 24-hour race on a 22-lap-to-the-mile track in Dunedin’s Garrison Hall in 1879. In 1886 in Australia he defeated the Australian champion William Edwards in a six-day competition. His greatest triumph came in 1888, when he won a 72-hour ‘world championship’ race in London.
Pedestrianism, the name then given to professional running and walking, had become very popular in Britain, America and Australia by the 1860s. There were widely publicised matchups between the best performers, with large amounts gambled on the outcome. A particular interest was in endurance walking, on tiny circuits in smoke-filled halls, with competitors trying to outlast each other over very long distances.
In New Zealand, existing sports days were too infrequent to meet the demand for running and walking races at first. In some places foot races were included at horse race meetings. One-on-one race-offs for large stakes were common. Dunedin endurance walker Joe Scott became New Zealand’s first international sporting star with a series of lucrative victories in New Zealand, Australia and England in the 1870s and 1880s.
Two tiers in Timaru
The leading citizens of Timaru and the surrounding area were pioneers of New Zealand amateur athletics. They formed the South Canterbury Amateur Athletic Club in 1871. The annual athletic sports were a highlight of the local social calendar, Timaru businesses declared a half-holiday, and a grandstand was built for the ladies. The club was socially exclusive, and for several years a separate South Canterbury Tradesmen’s Amateur Athletic Club ran its own annual sports.
The first amateurs
In England the rise of professional, working-class sport was viewed with distaste by the better off. They preferred the ideals of amateurism: amateur sport was seen as morally and physically uplifting, instilling good manly values and untainted by money. By the 1860s amateur athletics was well established in the leading English universities and the first amateur clubs were being formed.
New Zealand soon followed. An amateur athletics sports meeting was held in Dunedin in 1870, and in 1871 leading citizens of Dunedin and Timaru formed New Zealand’s first amateur athletic clubs.