Who knew professional running could be so corrupt?

Ashawnta Jackson wrote about the shady practices of 19th century professional runners for JSTOR Daily:

In the nineteenth century, professional running had a “reputation for deception,” explains librarian Lisa R. Lindell. It “was subject to trickery and race fixing and rewarding of those athletes who worked the system to their advantage.” That era of the sport—with all of its possible shenanigans—is illustrated in the life of James “Cuckoo” Collins.

“Running, walking, and jumping competitions, known collectively as pedestrianism, were among the most popular sporting events,” Lindell explains. But like many sports of the time, pedestrianism was full of gambling. Maximizing those winnings, which would also be enjoyed by the racer, usually meant a little bit of trickery. Runners often collaborated with each other and coaches to fix races, making the outcomes financially determined rather than athletically. American racers “would starve to death if they were honest,” a sprinter once claimed.

Cuckoo Collins doesn’t have much of a footprint on Google with most results referring to Lindell’s article. But what we do know is that Collins was a trickster on the track.

Collins colluded to lose races, ensuring that the only winners would be those who bet against him. He also went the other direction, using a fake name to enter races and “overtook local favorites for the win.” Collins’s antics often made the local papers, but he was hardly alone. The accusations of cheating were so prevalent, a group of sprinters created the Professional Athletic Association of America in 1888 to “bring a degree of organization and respectability to their sport,” Lindell writes.

Collins continued in his own, familiar way, though. But one race in particular, against a runner who used all of Collins’ tricks against him, changed everything.

In 1893, bar owner Patrick Dolan backed Collins in a 100-yard race. Dolan placed his money on an easy Collins win against a local runner. The race wasn’t so easy, however, as it turned out that the local amateur was actually “a noted Scottish runner working as a ‘ringer.’” Dolan lost his money. Furious, and not unreasonably suspecting Collins of throwing the race, Dolan shot the defeated runner.

Collins also found himself in court over his antics but managed to escape prosecution:

In October 1888, a Chicago scheme gained brief celebrity. Collins colluded with his friend wrestler Jack Carkeek and with Sol Van Praag, a “sporting man” who was proprietor of the Owl Saloon in Chicago and a cigar manufacturer, to throw a race against Carkeek, with Van Praag standing to win a large amount by wagering against Collins, the favorite. The race took place in the early morning hours of October 4, a 100-yard dash on the Michigan Avenue lakefront, Carkeek led as planned until just before the finish when, he alleged, his leg gave out and Collins, close behind him, had no choice but to win. An incensed Van Praag, claiming conspiracy to defraud, took the case to court, where a large crowd listened to the evidence with great relish. The judge declared the circumstances of the case “peculiar” and put all three men under bond to appear on charges of conspiracy. Collins apparently managed to extricate himself from the legal consequences, for he quickly resumed his running career.

Wrestlers? Cigar manufacturers? Bar owners? This sounds more fun than the current doping issues in modern athletics, that’s for sure.

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