Uncovered: the tragedy of the first great Aboriginal sprinter
By Philip Derriman
May 31 2003
Patrick Johnson, who broke 10 seconds for 100 metres earlier this month, is not, as many assumed, the first world-class male sprinter of Aboriginal extraction. According to a new book, an Aboriginal named Jack Marsh did even better than Johnson a century ago: he equalled the world record for 100 yards.
Marsh is well known to cricket historians as a controversial fast bowler in the early 1900s, who was accused of chucking. He played for NSW over three seasons, and died in miserable circumstances in 1916, killed in a brawl outside a pub in Orange.
It was also known he had previously been a professional sprinter, although until Max Bonnell, lawyer and sports historian, began researching a biography of him nobody realised just how fast he was.
Now, on the basis of Bonnell's findings, Marsh deserves to be included near the top of the list of Australia's best male sprinters.
In Melbourne in 1894, when he was probably in his late teens or early 20s, Marsh started from scratch in a handicap race and ran 9.8s for 100 yards, equalling the world record set by an American, John Owen, in 1890. It was no fluke: Marsh had run 9.9s in Sydney the year before.
Marsh's record time was reported in Australia's most authoritative sports journal of the day, The Referee, but went virtually unnoticed. "Marsh's feat has never been included in the record books since," Bonnell writes in How Many More Are Coming? The Short Life of Jack Marsh, which is about to be published.
"The only published acknowledgment of his exceptional time was a throwaway line in the Town and Country Journal eight years later, to the effect that it had set an Australian record."
How come? According to Bonnell, times and records did not count for much in professional athletics then. Most races were handicaps, so times were irrelevant unless a sprinter was running off scratch. Moreover, while amateur runners valued their own times and records, they ignored what professionals like Marsh did.
During his research, Bonnell had a special problem to overcome. He writes, "As an Aboriginal, Jack was excluded not only from citizenship, but also from the quotidian acts of record by which the state keeps track of its people. His name appears on no electoral roll, nor in any postal directory. Because he was illiterate, he produced no correspondence, and no one wrote to him. This lack of paperwork makes him a difficult man to track."
Marsh, who came from the Grafton area, was a shortish (170 centimetres) man of muscular build, who was renowned on the track for his explosive starts. Over shorter distances such as 75 yards, it seems nobody in Australia could match him, because nobody could catch him.
He switched from athletics to cricket in the late 1890s and bowled for NSW with so much success that arguably he should have made the Test side. After that, he performed in a travelling circus, bowling in a net to people who were prepared to bet that he couldn't hit their stumps.
He made one belated return to athletics. In 1906 the entrepreneur John Wren organised an athletics carnival in Melbourne, with big prizemoney. A 100-yard event was staged to give the most famous Australian sprinter of the day, Arthur Postle, a chance of breaking the world record. Marsh also competed.
Postle was on scratch and Marsh, by this time in his 30s and not in peak condition, had a two-yard start. Watched by a crowd of 12,000, the sprinters ran on a wet, heavy track into a headwind.
"At the sound of the starter's pistol, Jack bolted from his line with all the power of his younger days," Bonnell writes. "Within a few strides, he had claimed a clear lead and, for sixty yards, Postle could do nothing to close the gap. But the younger man was stronger over the last third of the race. He caught Jack with his last stride before the tape."
Postle was officially declared the winner in 10s flat, although several reports had it a dead heat. It was Marsh's last appearance as a celebrity sportsman.
"Jack's sporting career was over," writes Bonnell. "And as soon as it ended, the privileges that he had been allowed for more than 10 years were immediately withdrawn. He had no job, no income, no lodgings and, worst of all, no respect. As a runner and cricketer, Jack had been permitted to live among white men, almost like a white man, and his talents were admired and appreciated. As an ex-sportsman, he was just another Aboriginal."
Marsh became a drifter, drinking heavily and periodically getting into trouble with the police. He was camping outside Orange with other swagmen when he was killed. The awful irony of his death was that the former world record-holder died while trying, but failing, to run away from his attackers.
How Many More Are Coming? The Short Life of Jack Marsh (Walla Walla Press) $27.45