Traditional Sporting Festivals
The history of athletics can be traced back at least as far as pre-industrial Britain taking place at traditional fairs and festivals such as the Cotswold Olimpick Games, a sports festival which emerged in 17th century England. These festivals and fairs would take place on church holy days, such as Easter, and were seen as a chance for celebration and enjoyment. Here lower class men would compete in events such as stick fighting, running, climbing a greasy pole and wrestling. These activities were seen as ‘athletic’ events and were an opportunity for the lower class men to show off their power and strength to the village.
British aristocrats pitting would wager upon a race between their carriage footmen, constrained to walk by the speed of their masters' carriages. By the end of the 18th century, and especially with the growth of the popular press, feats of foot travel over great distances gained attention, and were labelled "pedestrianism". One of the most notable exponent of this long distance walking was Captain Robert Barclay Allardice. In April 2002 five British athletes repeated the unique feat of Captain Allardice who ran 1000 miles in 1000 hours for a wager of over 1000 guineas at Newmarket Heath 200 years ago. That is, a mile an hour, every hour, every day and night for six weeks. Pedestrianism was first codified in the latter half of the 19th century, evolving into what became racewalking, thus diverging from what eventually became cross country, fell running, other track and field athletics, and recreational hiking or hillwalking.
The industrial revolution, with the migration of the rural population into urban areas, brought these two sporting past times together. The resultant athletic events became extremely popular in such towns and cities, with purpose-built facilities in most major cities by the mid-nineteenth century. Walking and running races took place over set distances on race courses. Enormous cash prizes were offered for the races and they were a popular activity for the press, crowds of working class spectators, and the betting public until the late 19th Century.
In 1866, the Amateur Athletic Club (AAC) was formed by ex-public school and ex-university men who excluded the working classes, or those earning money from running, from membership of the AAC. Emphasising endeavour, fair play, courage and no wagering, the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) , established on 24 April 1880, withdrew the exclusion clause and opened up the sport to everyone. A professional became defined as somebody who ran for money as opposed to someone from the working classes. Track and field athletics was not deemed to be an acceptable activity for women, as it was thought unladylike and did not have an appropriate dress code. The Women's AAA was not founded until 1922.
Athletics was included in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and in the inaugural Paralympic Games in 1960, and it has been as one of the foremost competitions of the event ever since. Originally for men only, the 1928 Olympics saw the introduction of women's events in the athletics programme.
More information about sports in England can be found in the Dossier: Sport in England - Public funding and participation.