Island Life by David Slack


Who else is here for the punishment?

Sports ingenue that I am, I had no idea of the origins of the madison. What a story it is.

It begins in London in 1878. Mr David Stanton bet that he could ride a bicycle 1,000 miles in six successive days, riding 18 hours a day.

Were there any takers? There were. A man named Davis put up £100. In those days you could trust the Main Stream Media. He handed over the hundred quid to the Sporting Life newspaper.

And that was the last he saw of it, because the intrepid Stanton cycled the 1000 miles in just 73 hours, riding on a high-wheeled machine at an average speed of 13½mph.

In those simpler times, you took your entertainment where you found it. If you put on a six day walking race in a hall, 20,000 people would turn out to watch. An impresario whose name is no longer known to history - or at least to Wikipedia - saw the popular appeal of the walking races and the success of the 1000 mile cycling wager and hit on the idea of combining the two.

“A bicycle contest was commenced at the Agricultural Hall, on Monday last, for which £150 is offered in prizes for a six days' competition,” reported the Islington Gazette.

You rode for as long you could, you rested, you resumed your ride. Bill Cann, of Sheffield, led from the start and finished after 1,060 miles.

So popular was the idea, it crossed the Atlantic and arrived at Madison Square Garden.

Calling all riders. We shoot no horses.

Around and around they went. They got on their bikes, they rode as as many laps as possible over a six-day period. They rested, they rode. Before long, the rest intervals dwindled to nothing. Many of the riders employed seconds, as in boxing, to keep them going. It was brutal. You rode until you dropped. You suffered delusions, hallucinations.

But the money’s so good. Just get a grip of your bike.

Promoters in New York paid Teddy Hale $5,000 when he won in 1896 and he won:

like a ghost, his face as white as a corpse, his eyes no longer visible because they'd retreated into his skull

All the way through the sorry history of our species: the bread, the circuses, the human suffering. The more grotesque the spectacle, the bigger the crowd. See for yourself on Queen Street today.

The New York Times said in 1897:

An athletic contest in which participants 'go queer' in their heads, and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that wrack them, is not sport. It is brutality. Days and weeks of recuperation will be needed to put the Garden racers in condition, and it is likely that some of them will never recover from the strain.

Last night’s madison at the Olympics seemed, as does so much of our modern life, an antiseptic shell of its forerunner.

A few blocks up from Madison Square Garden, you come to Times Square. That was one seedy place two decades ago, but then Mayor Guiliani sent in the Disney people and they prettied it up for the tourists and it just wasn’t the same.

I confess I preferred it in its earlier state; which is just downright selfish, and unreasonable of me.

The respectable face I put on this is to say that I prefer Upper Cuba Street to Lambton Quay, the old fisheries buildings and Turners and Growers to the Viaduct, the old Devonport ferry building to the new one, because I prefer character to blandness.

But I am pretending I do not see a less noble impulse.

You’re fascinated by the spectacle of human misery and degradation, you know you should applaud its elimination; but its anodyne replacement is so much less fascinating.

When these dark thoughts cross my mind I reprove myself. By any measure that was an impressive athletic spectacle last night. It even had the frisson of mortal danger with Hayden Roulston pumping away at the pedals while his delicate heart muscle pounded away inside his chest.

It’s time for me to take my gear and my iPod to the gym and give myself some punishment.

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