Thursday, May 29, 2008

RIP Charles Booth

Aussie Charles Booth passed away without a lot of folks noticing--it's been a week now, and I've only seen it mentioned in one little throwaway email newsletter that I get. There's no wikipedia entry for him (yet, Scrappy Doo has an entry), But Charles Booth is one of the most influential men in the history of sports, particularly track and field.

The Daily Telegraph tells the story:

In the 1920s runners shared their track with racing dogs. They would dig their feet into the earth to start the race, leaving holes that would injure the dogs.

"The dog owners started complaining,'' Charlie Booth's son and last surviving relative, Neville, said. "He then got into a bit of trouble with his father because he was digging holes in the front yard to make a mark.''

In 1921 he took a T-bar and two halves of a four inch block of redgum wood and fixed the problem, but Charles Booth created a few more of his own.

That's right--Charles Booth invented starting blocks. Someone invented starting blocks--and he lived in my lifetime--I find that very surprising. Starting blocks are such an intrinsic part of running track that it is hard to imagine that there was a time when they weren't used. Of course, Booth was running at a time when dogs shared the track, and hurdles were made out of stone and metal. Clearly, track & field has advanced in any number of ways in the technological department since its early days. But the basic design of starting blocks haven't undergone much radical change since Booth dreamed them up, to avoid angerin' his dad.

The change of dynamic that blocks bring to any race under 800 meters is hard to quantify, but I can say having run some sprints in my day that knowing how to come out of the blocks is a skill set all to itself. Races can be decided on that factor alone.

Booth didn't rest on his innovatin' laurels, apparently, spending a good chunk of his life (almost all of his life) working and training with other athletes, including some big time names. (the article specifically mentions tennis great Arthur Ashe). The article also paints a portrait of a pretty fun loving guy, who just happened to help modernize the sport he loved. We salute you, Charles Booth. Please join fellow forgotten innovator Parry O'Brien is the Hall of Pretty Awesome Soundin' Track Guys Who Did Cool Shit.

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