Friday, January 10, 2014

Who Was the First Superstar American Athlete?

I sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal last week, but the letters editor turned it down. It is on the subject of who should be considered the first superstar athlete of the United States.

My letter was a response to another letter in the WSJ, which starts off as follows:
"Edward Kosner, in his review of Christopher Klein's "Strong Boy" (Books, Dec. 21), a biography of America's professional boxing legend, the great John L. Sullivan, makes the claim that Sullivan was America's "first superstar athlete" and that he was also America's "first athletic god."

History and the magazines and newspapers of the time will show that America's "first superstar athlete" and "first athletic god" was not Sullivan, and moreover, was not even an American!

Edward "Ned" Hanlan, the "Boy in Blue," the first international sports superstar, was a Canadian from Toronto, who after winning the World Professional Rowing Championship in 1880, was hailed and claimed as an American by the U.S. press of the time . . ."
Here is how I responded:
In his letter of Dec 31, Edward A. English makes the case that the title of America’s “first superstar athlete” should go to Edward “Ned” Hanlan, a professional rower, rather than to John L. Sullivan, the famous boxer.  Both Sullivan and Hanlan gained their fame in the 1880s.

A more deserved holder of the title “America’s first superstar athlete” is Edwar Payson Weston, who rose to great national and international fame for his accomplishments in pedestrianism – long distance walking, often around a track -- in the 1860s and 1870s.

In their excellent biography of Weston (A Man in a Hurry, 2012, deCoubertin Books), Nick Harris, Helen Harris and Paul Marshall explain that Weston’s career started with a failed attempt to walk from Boston to Washington, C. over 10 days, having planned to arrive in time to witness Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.  The effort nonetheless gained him much attention and he followed it up by trying to win a bet of $4,000 on whether he could walk from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois over a period of 30 days (minus 4 Sundays).

Harris and colleagues describe the scene as Weston walked into Chicago on Thanksgiving day, 1867, winning the bet, “The pavements were blockaded, the streets choked with buggies, handkerchiefs waved from every window, balcony, tree and telegraph poles as the people of the city fought for a view of this man.”

Soon, Weston was racing competitors. In 1875 some 22,000 people gathered to watch him “race” (i.e., walk 100 miles around and around a track) at the Chicago Exposition Building. By the end of the decade Weston’s fame went global as similar numbers of spectators turned out in London to witness pedestrian races. Weston’s feats were accompanied by what might also be the first public debates over “match fixing” and doping.

Harris and colleagues characterize Weston as “largely forgotten today” but in his time he was “one of the most famous people in America, indeed in the English-speaking world, as the first age of international celebrity unfolded,” which makes for a strong claim to the title of America’s first superstar athlete.  
The WSJ missed their chance to set the record straight on this important subject!


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