Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Cautionary Tale of William Snook

William Snook
In 1887 a 25 year old Birchfield Harrier named William Snook, who was the greatest English distance runner at the time, lost his final appeal against a lifetime ban for “roping” (not trying). He notoriously became the first athlete to ever receive a lifetime ban from amateur athletics.

Snook was the sacrificial lamb in a harsh campaign conducted by the fledgling Amateur Athletic Association against what it considered to be the scourge of the sport, professionalism. Their thinking was haunted by a challenge match between two professional runners staged at London’s Lillie Bridge track during that same year. Thirty thousand people turned up to see the two fastest men of the day, Harry Gent and Harry Hutchens, battle it out over 100 yards. Bookmakers thronged the arena, but neither athlete started because each of their rival gangs wanted to arrange for their man to lose, and so the crowd set the stadium ablaze in their anger.

The major problem that the AAA faced was betting. Pedestrianism, where cheating was rife, had dominated the decades leading up to the AAA’s formation in 1880 and it continued to blight amateur athletics. Athletes were persuaded to lose races they could have won; professionals posed as amateurs; amateurs posed as other amateurs especially in the popular handicap races of the time. It was disorganised chaos and the AAA determined that if it was to have any credibility as an organisation it would have to severely implement the second of its Objects of Association: “to deal repressively with any abuse of athletic sports.” It also seemed determined that its repressions of order would not be sidetracked by any miscarriage of justice.

Lillee Bridge ablaze

It was a cold, bleak day in March 1886 with a hint of snow in the air when the runners gathered in Croydon for the National Cross-Country Championships. Snook, the defending champion, was odds on favourite to win by the numerous bookies that were present. Originally he had been a team mate of the great W.G. George at Moseley Harriers where their celebrated rivalry was intense. Walter, however, had moved over to the professional ranks to challenge its best miler William Cummings and Snook now ruled the roost. In 1885 he won four AAA titles in the championships at Southport, three on a Saturday and one, the 10 miles, in a record time on the Monday.

Snook did not win in Croydon though. He was overtaken in the closing stages of the race by J E Hickman of Godiva Harriers and finished second. A month later came a sensational announcement: Snook was disqualified for life from the amateur ranks by the Southern Committee of the AAA for “roping”. What had prompted this extraordinary move by the governing body to banish its leading runner?

Snook’s major problem was that this was not his first offence. In 1881 he was suspended for a year by the Northern AA for conniving at the entry of a professional at an amateur meeting at Southport. Snook continued to compete at meetings not affiliated to the AAA. The AAA then threatened any athletes who competed with Snook with suspension. The organisation would remember him when he again appeared before them five years later.

A month after his 1886 suspension Snook appealed. It was clear that, in contravention of English law, he would have to prove his innocence rather than the AAA prove his guilt. He said he was below his usual weight on the day and had suffered from sore feet in the closing stages. The AAA, already suspicious, did not believe him. Rumours had been rife that Snook had deliberately thrown the race to aid the bookies, presumably for some remuneration. His appeal was thrown out by 15 votes to 11. A second appeal, backed by the Midlands AAA, was lost by 13 votes to 12. Finally the matter was raised at the next AGM when, after a long discussion that went well into the night, a motion for reinstatement was lost by 26 votes to 16. Snook was finished as an amateur. The evidence against him had been subjective and circumstantial, but he could not disprove it. He provided the AAA with a major scapegoat to warn other amateur runners of the day.

The AAA continued on its draconian path. In 1882 it had financed the Northern AA to enable it to prosecute for fraud a professional posing as an amateur. He was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. Over the next twenty years there were many similar cases and imprisonment for six months with hard labour was not an uncommon punishment

Payments to athletes was the AAA’s second biggest problem after betting. Many top stars were paid by clubs to appear at their meetings to boost attendance. In order to catch miscreants it adopted the principle of Queens Evidence: indemnifying those willing to provide evidence. This meant that club secretaries who had offered payment to athletes often sat in judgment on them for accepting them. In 1896 six top British athletes were accused of receiving appearance money and five were banned for life. Others followed and by the end of 1897 the leading British runners for each event from 100 yards to 20 miles were disqualified from competing sine die. The next great distance runner Alfred Shrubb became so fed up with the AAA deciding where and when he could run abroad that he defied them by deciding to race in Canada in 1905. He was suspended for life in 1906 after an investigation into his expenses for the trip. Like all the others he turned professional.

Finally, in 1906, the AAA persuaded the government to introduce a clause into the Street Betting Act that would give power to sports promoters to control betting at their meetings, including calling in the police to deal with objectors. After a quarter of a century the battle was over.

Well, not quite. In the ensuing eighty years many fine athletes, including Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn and the Swedes, Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, fell foul of the amateur ethos and were suspended. The last great one was Wes Santee, the American miler who was banned in 1955 for abuses of expenses. By 1980, a century after the formation of the AAA, it was obvious that payments to athletes in the celebrated brown envelopes were rife. Two years later the IAAF passed an historic law that enabled athletes to receive payment for competing.

And what of William Snook? He dabbled at professional athletics for a while and then became the licensee of two pubs in Birmingham. Finally he settled in France where he continued running and won a celebrated challenge match in the Bois de Boulogne in 1891. Then he went off the radar until April, 1916 when word reached Birchfield that he was destitute and in bad health in Paris. Athletic supporters raised the funds for hospital fees and to bring him back to England but his health did not improve. He returned to Birmingham in October and was placed in the workhouse at Highcroft Hall where he died two weeks or so before Christmas. He was just 55. He was buried in Wilton Cemetery with few mourners. It was a sad end to a great runner and probably the greatest victim of the AAA’s repressive measures against professionalism.


The Official Centenary History of the AAA by Peter Lovesey, published by Guinness 1979
The History of Birchfield Harriers 1877-1988 by Professor W.O. Alexander and Wilfred Morgan published by Birchfield Harriers 1988 .


Anonymous said...

Real nice ! Many thanks !

craig jackson said...

great article, J.E (Flyer) Hickman was a relative of mine so very interesting thanks.