Benita Johnson (AUS) shows off her gold medal (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Johnson’s victory is rooted in cross country history

Brussels, BelgiumBenita Johnson’s victory in the women’s long race at the 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships here was in many respects unprecedented. Australia’s first medal of any description at this event was described in some reports as possibly the biggest shock in the century-long history of international cross-country races.

And yet Johnson actually represents a firm link back to the very beginnings of organised cross-country running, for she is a member of the club that started the whole sport.

Thames Hare & Hounds lays claim to being the world’s oldest cross-country club by virtue of its having staged a race over Wimbledon Common, in south-west London, on December 7, 1867. “Hare and hounds” events, “paper-chases” and cross-country steeplechases, where one or two runners would set off in advance of the field as the “hares”, scattering a trail of paper for the “hounds” to follow in a contest of wits as well as stamina, were popular in many English public schools in the early 19th Century - there is an account of the annual race at Rugby School in Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Such runs and other organised sports were regarded by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr Thomas Arnold, as an essential diversion for the boys’ less constructive energies, but they indirectly contributed to the development of much of what we recognise today as sport, since Baron Pierre de Coubertin ascribed his inspiration for the founding of the modern Olympic Games to a visit to a school sports day at Rugby in 1886.

The rigorous, character-building runs popular at schools more than a century ago also became acknowledged by some of the better organised rowing clubs as an essential part of their conditioning training for their races on the River Thames.

137 year event history

Thames Hare & Hounds’ first race 137 years ago was in fact staged by Thames Rowing Club, which to this day organises an annual race for rowing clubs in Richmond Park. Thames’s first run prove so popular, though, that a running club was established exclusively for the purpose.

It is around Richmond Park where Johnson and her training group regularly train when they are based in London. As they churn out the miles alongside the royal herd of deer in one of King Henry VIII’s favourite hunting grounds, Johnson and her friends are running in the footsteps of a rich sporting history.

The beautiful setting has remained popular with runners with good cause. And Thames Hare & Hounds have been ever presents.

But much has changed to cross-country, and Thames Hare & Hounds, in the intervening years.

The “Rules and Bye-Laws of The Thames Hare & Hounds Club”, from c. 1874, offer some idea of the strict and somewhat class-bound attitudes of the times. The club’s purpose, according to it rules, “shall be the promotion of Paperchasing in and near London”.

Not unusually for a sports club of that time, the club’s headquarters were to be a pub, the King’s Head at Roehampton; in some respects, this is something that has not altered too much, since Thames Hare & Hounds, together with Ranelagh Harriers, continue to have changing facilities at a pub, the Dysart Arms, across the road from the park.

Rigorous club rules

With an annual subscription of five shillings - the equivalent in today’s money of 25p, but at the time an amount which would have been worth about five times the average weekly wage.

But then, Thames Hare & Hounds was not a club that opened its membership to just anyone. “No one who is not over eighteen years of age, or who is not a gentleman by position and education, shall be eligible for election.” And further, “No Member shall compete at any Tradesmen's Meeting under pain of expulsion at the next or any subsequent Club Meeting. Members are particularly requested not to run at any sports as to the management of which there is the least doubt; and it is suggested that, in case of doubt, they should communicate with the Secretary of this Club”.

Short and long club distances races

As well as establishing the sport, Thames Hare & Hounds also appear to have set the precedent for the structure of the IAAF’s World Championships. According to the club’s early, Victorian rules, “The Rules for the two Challenge Cups shall be as follows: (1)The Short Distance Cup shall be run for in May and October, over the four miles and five furlongs course from Roehampton to Beverley Bridge, and then along the brook, over the Rounds, to the left of Wimbledon Mill, and the right of the Iron Houses, to the Well House. (2.) The Long Distance Cup shall be run for in January and July, over the eight miles and one furlong course, from Roehampton to the right of the Iron Houses, and the right of the Mill to the Rounds, through Fishponds Copse, up Combe Wood, down Malden Lane to the Chapel, and then to the left, up Cottenham Park, to Christ Church, and back over Wimbledon Common, to the right of the Mill, to the King's Head”.

So, some things have changed at TH&H - such as permitting women, including Benita Johnson, to join, although this is a relatively recent development. Yet Johnson is not even Thames’s first woman world champion: one of her training partners and clubmates, Sonia O’Sullivan, of Ireland, beat her to that accolade in 1998.

But other things, such as the close association with pubs and beer, have not. “I am in the team for the 4km race on Sunday,” Australia’s new world champion said after her victory on Saturday afternoon, “but I think I might celebrate a little, and maybe try some of those famous Belgian beers.”