Athletics: Enduring allure of the one-to-one challenge

There is nothing new in this weekend's lucrative battles between champion athletes. Mike Rowbottom reports
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As Somerset Maugham once wrote, the greatest truths are too important to be new. If that holds good for life, it will also do for sport - and the oldest truth of competition is man against man, head-to-head.

The history of athletics can be traced in terms of individual conflicts - Chataway against Kuts, Ovett against Coe, Christie against Lewis. For a sport seeking to raise its flagging profile worldwide, the series of sporting tete-a-tetes arranged for this weekend are a logical exercise in consciousness raising.

Tonight, in the Dutch town of Hengelo, the two finest middle distance runners of the moment, Haile Gebrselassie and Noureddine Morceli, will race each other over two miles, with the winner taking a prize of $1m (pounds 625,000) - assuming he can become the first man to run the distance in under eight minutes.

Gebrselassie, the world and Olympic 10,000m champion, and Morceli, world and Olympic 1500m champion, will be paced towards their target.

No such complications will be allowed the following day in Toronto's SkyDome, where the self-styled Challenge of Champions, featuring head- to-head meetings between leading contenders in a range of athletic events will climax with a race over 150 metres between Donovan Bailey, the Olympic 100m champion, and Michael Johnson, the Olympic 200 and 400m champion.

Both men will earn $500,000 for going to their blocks, and the winner will take a further $1m as well as the title - like it or not - of world's fastest man. The lurid goings on in Toronto will be televised live to 150 countries. The 50,000 live tickets are said to have sold out. The whole event looks like making a splash; but when the water has settled, what will remain other than several flourishing bank accounts?

The earnest hope is - a stimulated market for sports shoes. Morceli and Gebrselassie both endorse Adidas shoes, and the sportswear manufacturers have put up the money for their challenge.

Although there have been reports that two Nike runners - including the current world two miles record holder, Daniel Komen, received an invitation to join the Hengelo party, it appears to have been offered too late to be viable. This is a party with limited entry.

The Toronto extravaganza has a different thrust - it is being built up like a heavyweight boxing match, with Johnson and Bailey slighting each other and maintaining their own claims to be the fastest man in the world.

The evidence is this: Johnson completed the second half of his Olympic 200m final in 9.20sec - significantly faster than Bailey's world record from a standing start of 9.84.

The Canadian, however, points to the fact that he was timed at 27mph during his 100m final, as compared with Johnson's top speed of 23mph.

Underlying this is Canada versus the United States; and a brand war, between the Adidas man, Bailey, and Johnson, whose golden shoes raised Nike's profile in Atlanta. Both companies are banking on this weekend's activities stimulating the demand for their goods. The question is: will it catch the kids' imaginations?

The rhetoric of head-to-head matches has been well worked in recent years - in 1985, a re-match between Zola Budd and Mary Decker after their Olympic collision saw the British runner paid $125,000 despite losing.

Four years ago, Carl Lewis and Linford Christie each received a fee reputed to be around pounds 100,000 for a meeting billed as a head-to-head in Gateshead, although on that occasion Lewis only managed third place.

Such confusion will not occur in Toronto. But the restrictions have angered those left out in the cold, such as the double Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks, who has said he will attempt to steal thunder by breaking the 150m world mark in Cardiff today.

The underlying challenge is to the sport of athletics, which is seeking to raise its profile worldwide with this latest outcrop of lucrative challenges. The hype, at least, is reaching record proportions.

Such verbal extravagance has not always been necessary as an accompaniment to a form of racing which has been, in historical terms, central to the sport.

The 1906 Street Betting Act, which outlawed wagering at sports events, ended a tradition of challenge matches which went back at least 300 years. In his diary of 1663, Samuel Pepys describes a race on Banstead Downs between the Duke of Richmond's footman and another runner. Aristocrats regularly pitted their servants against rivals from other households, and large wagers were placed on the results. By the 19th century, individual challenges regularly attracted large crowds of spectators - and betters.

"There wasn't a great deal of hype because it didn't seem to be necessary," said Peter Lovesey, whose book The Kings of Distance is one of running's set texts. "There would be little write-ups in the papers some weeks ahead, but there were scores of challenge matches between individuals, and people would come along to see the better known performers."

In 1844, 2,000 spectators turned up at a stretch of road in Hammersmith to see the US sprinter George Seward - aka, for reasons not now known, The Cockfield Putter - take on Lancashire's William Robertson over 100 yards. The Briton won, recording 91/4 seconds, and earned himself pounds 50.

Forty years on came the celebrated series of meetings between W G George of England and Scotland's William Cummings, which culminated in a world mile record for George of 4min 123/4 seconds, a mark which stood for 29 years.

Twenty thousand spectators were present at London's Lillie Bridge stadium on 23 August 1886 for an event billed as The Mile of the Century. On this occasion the hype was justified as a gripping race saw Cummings lose an eight-yard lead on the final lap and collapse 60 yards from home.

"Thousands broke loose and rushed madly across the ground towards the victor," a witness wrote. "Those who got near him slapped and banged him on the back, yelling as they did so: `Good! Splendid! Glorious!' This continued until all the little remaining breath in George's body was well nigh beaten out of it."

The worst Johnson or Bailey can anticipate in Toronto is an over-eager TV reporter thrusting a microphone up his nose. But if the Lillie Bridge runners faced greater physical hazards, they were not walking away empty- handed.

George's milestone was one element in a three-part challenge against Cummings, the other distances being over four and 10 miles. The same format had been used the previous year, and for each race the winner received pounds 100. Additionally, the runners shared the gate receipts after expenses had been paid, a source of revenue that was at least as lucrative. For the first of their mile races, in 1885, 30,000 had turned up to watch.

That particular source of revenue for challenge racers disappeared in scandalous circumstances two years later, however, when riots between supporters of two sprinters - Harry Hutchens and Harry Gent - culminated in the stadium being burned to the ground. The rival groups were each said to be intent on arranging for their man to lose.

George, who had to turn professional to take up Cummings's challenge in 1885, estimated he made pounds 5,000 in two years.

But even those gains did not match the profit made by Captain Barclay Allardice in 1809. Allardice was a wealthy Scottish landowner, but he himself - rather than one of his footmen - took part in a challenge of walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours for 1,000 guineas. With side bets, his stake went up to pounds 16,000 - nearly pounds 250,000 by today's reckoning. Almost enough to get Johnson and Bailey to their SkyDome starting blocks.