Charlie Booth dies at 104; invented blocks, sprinted till 99

Charlie Booth, sprinter

Charlie Booth, who sprinted for nine decades and helped invent the modern starting blocks, has died in his native Australia, according to press reports. He was 104. Aussie Athletics reported: “He instinctively put his hand up to run in the special Old Man’s race at the 125th Anniversary Carnival in 2006, until he decided that the spring in his step had deserted him and he was better served simply watching from the sidelines. He said at the time that the sound of winning the pig on offer as first prize was worth running for.”


Here’s a report of him retiring at age 99:

Athletics – Australian sprinter Booth quits, aged 99
MELBOURNE (Reuters) — Australia’s Charlie Booth, 99, won the 100 metres sprint at the World Masters Games before announcing his retirement from the sport. Booth, the only competitor in the 95-99 age group, warmed up for his event with a fried dim sum snack at Melbourne’s Olympic Park before winning in a tick over 28 seconds. Wearing baggy white shorts and an Australia green and gold > tracksuit top, > the Melbourne local ran with the 90-94 age group. > > “Incidentally, that’s my last race,” Booth told reporters.
“You can keep fit – one beer and one woman.” The October 5-13 Games have attracted 25,000 athletes including 7,000 from overseas to the host city of the 1956 Olympics to compete in 29 sports. Competitors range in age from 25 to 99-year-old Booth.

Here’s an obit that ran a few days ago Down Under:

Starting block inventor dies
Article from: The Daily Telegraph
By Eoin Blackwell
May 22, 2008 12:00am
CHARLES Booth downed six beers the night before he won the 200m dash in Eugene, Oregon, a race he was never supposed to run.
It was 1986 (me: actually 1989) and Charles Booth was 81.
But that was typical of the inventor of the sprinters’ starting block and life long athletics enthusiast who died peacefully at Queensland’s Gold Coast Hospital on Monday. He was 104.
When Booth started running about 90 years earlier, Australia’s athletics scene was made of rockier terrain than the springy tartan tracks that today’s stars run on.
Still in his teens he was competing in night time race meets in his birth place, Moonee Ponds, Melbourne.
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.
Commenting to a race steward in Heidelberg, Victoria, that the starting blocks he’d built helped him run better, Booth was disqualified for life by the official.
The decision was overturned a few weeks later and Booth’s invention became a staple of modern athletics.
Booth was fond of getting young people into the sport, and took a great interest in promising young runners at the Stawell Athletics club, home of the famous Stawell Gift run each Easter.
“He devoted an awful lot of time to them, and he never accepted a penny,” says Neville.
An avid traveller, one of Booth’s great thrills was to fish for trout in the Madison River in Montana. He fell in love with the US after a stint training athletes like Arthur Ashe for tennis coach Harry Hopman.
Even though he’d spent his life competing and training young stars, he was most proud of his early victory in the Stawell Gift hurdles in 1925, Neville said.
Winning the $25 dollar prize, Booth gave the money to his mother. His son said he was also proud of winning one race despite tearing his stomach muscles after hitting one of the large stone and metal hurdles at full tilt.
The primitive hurdles are still at the Stawell Athletics club, said Neville. “They’re painted blue and used for crowd control.”
Charles Booth will be remembered with a minute’s silence at the next school carnival at the Stawell Club, Neville said. “He never wanted to cause a fuss.”
He will be cremated in Queensland.

Here’s a story from January 2008:

104-year-old veteran of Kooyong Charlie Booth
Article from: Herald Sun
By Terry Brown
January 10, 2008 12:00am
CHARLIE Booth has been coming to Kooyong longer than he can remember, and that’s saying a lot.
At 104, Mr Booth is as much a part of courtside as the old concrete stands, and about twice as tough.
Over the years he’s been hugged and kissed by Andre Agassi and fussed over by generations of event staff.
Teenage ballkids look at him the way they’d look at Phar Lap at the museum, and he grins back happy as Larry.
Kooyong is a tennis time warp.
The gates don’t have barcode scanners and mobile phones are banned in the club house.
Around the lawns that will revert to courts, drinkers are still trusted with glass bottles.
Corporate boxes seat eight on plastic seats. Shade and a thin cushion is the closest guests get to luxury.
The rudimentary scoreboard can only do four-set games and its operators sit on a milk crate during breaks.
In the full sun, oblivious to the heat in a quilted winter-weight top, Mr Booth fits in perfectly.
His only son, Neville, does the on-court sound system for the Kooyong Classic and Mr Booth in his folding chair is part of the set up.
Mr Booth was born barely 3km down the train line from Kooyong, in Burnley.
“I’ve seen all this grow,” he says, looking around.
“I came here before the war. Oh yes. This is a lovely court here, the surroundings.
“I would say this is the best tennis court in the world.
“Rod Laver Arena is not as homely as this. This is more homely. That is a business.”
Asked for his all-time favourite player, Mr Booth nominates Harry Hopman, whose best tennis was pretty much over by 1940.
“Harry Hopman and I were boom mates years and years ago,” he says.
Mr Booth worked with Hopman in the US as a running coach for budding players.
In his prime, 90 years back, he was a pretty handy runner.
“I used to be 18 1/2 inches around the calves. They used to take photos of my legs,” he says lifting a cuff.
“I ran at Stawell in 1918 and won the 200 yards the first year I ran.”
In adult years he ran at night at Maribyrnong for ten pound purses and worked as a engineer by day.
At 86, Mr Booth won three world veterans running titles – the 75, 100 and 220m races.
He was unstoppable – so much so that three hours “dead” on a mortuary slab didn’t keep him down.
At the same age, waiting for the last tram home from a party in St Kilda, Mr Booth was bashed and left for dead.
“I was stone cold after 3 1/2 hours in the mortuary,” he says.
He says his resurrection made an impression, not least on a cleaner who was mopping the morgue at the time.
“I wake up in the mornings and I dream of it. This dirty great room, this concrete slab,” Mr Booth says.
The Reaper’s still waiting as he sits court side smiling.
“He’s a sprinter, not a long-distance runner,” Neville says.
Last year, though, he was still slipping out the gate, on to the tram, and down to the TAB.
At Easter he’s booked in for the Stawell Gift, as usual.
No sprinter, maybe, but going the distance beautifully.

And here’s a great story from 2003:

Sports active: Ready, steady, go for the money
By Mark MacKenzie
Good Friday, 1925. In the outback town of Stawell in the Australian state of Victoria, 22-year-old Charlie Booth takes a deep breath and walks to the middle of the small grass oval known as Central Park. His heart is thumping so ferociously he fears it will burst through his running vest as the raucous crowd of 30,000 packing the perimeter and wooden grandstand quieten to a whisper.
From his pockets, Booth takes a pair of rolled-up track shoes cut from the softest wallaby skin. With a small trowel, he carefully excavates two small holes to give his feet good purchase at the off. The starter calls the eight runners to their marks. Silence.
The race is a handicap, and Booth has a yard start on the favourite. Looking down the 130-yard turf lane, he knows this is the big one. Round one of the Stawell Easter Gift, the world’s richest foot-race. A man might clear three years’ wages from the next three days of racing. At the gun, Booth fires himself up and into the noise exploding from the grandstand.
Fast forward 78 years. In the living room of his Melbourne home, Charlie Booth thumbs through the little black book documenting his career as a professional foot- racer. “How are your eyes, sir?” he asks. “What does it say there?” He interrupts as I read. “Forty-four placings between 1922 and 1945. That was a lot in those days.”
Booth is a sporting treasure. Not simply because of his many contributions to athletics; he gave the world the first starting blocks, for example. Not even because last year, aged 99, he won the 100 metres event for his age group at the World Masters Games. Charlie Booth’s real value lies in his part in the story of a remarkable sporting past. The story of the men who roamed Australia, racing for hard cash and using all manner of means to get their hands on it.
Professional foot racing, or “pedestrianism”, began in Britain. The oldest race, Scotland’s Powderhall event, has been run every year since 1870 yet, in migrating to Australia in the late 19th century, the sport found a spiritual home. Developing as a pastime in mining townships, foot races used a handicap system to give every runner the chance of winning. Allowing weaker competitors starts, or “marks”, of up to 10 yards, the races offered the ideal stage for the Aussie “battler”, the blue-collar everyman who, if game enough, could land a handsome purse racing his mates. By the early 20th century, most towns boasted foot races.
Over time, a number of lucrative “gift” meetings – theories for the name range from the gift of the prize to the god-given gift of running – came and went. The Stawell (pronounced “Stall”) Gift, first run in 1877, at one time challenged the Melbourne Cup as Australia’s premier sporting event. Races at the meeting range from 75 yards to two miles, but the blue- riband event is the Gift race itself, the 130 yards or “Sheffield” distance, named after a race between pubs in Sheffield in the 19th century. Lanes are separated by ropes, and runners complete the race through finishing gates. Strong favourites run off a “scratch” mark, the full 130 yards, and each runner wears a traditional silk jersey related to his position on the starting grid; red for the back marker through to grey for the man heading the field.
Booth’s own foot-racing career was determined by his genes. “I learnt running from my mother. I had to lift my legs 33 times in front of the mantelpiece, the number of times a fellow lifts his legs in 100 yards, before I could even put a shoe on. Mother learnt this from her father, Josiah Prout, who was once champion of Wales.”
Booth set out on the long road to Stawell after a rudimentary education. He took a job as a lathe operator and ran his first amateur race in 1918. He produces a large rat trap and snaps the loud mechanism. “Many’s the time they used these to start races. They weren’t allowed a revolver and, in any case, most couldn’t afford the bullets.”
Booth ran his first “gift” in the Victorian town of Jeparit in 1925. “I was up against the champions of Australia,” he recalls, “Frank Schultz and a fellow named Till. I knew the track dropped 18 inches to the finish, which was beaut; if I could hold my mark, I’d win. I won by a yard-and- a-half, which was a mistake. When I went to Stawell for the first time two months later, the handicapper gave me a terrible mark.
“But the handicap, sir, gives every fellow a chance. I spoke to [Linford] Christie of England a few years back [Christie competed at Stawell in 2000]. Who wants to watch you win every week, I told him. You watch races to pick a winner, that’s the excitement of professionalism. He agreed.”
Picking the winner explains the Australian public’s love affair with foot racing. Landing bets on heats, semi-finals and finals meant serious money. And everyone was at it. “One year I won pounds 36 [tradesmen such as Booth earned around pounds 3 a week at that time] in the St Andrews Day handicap in Melbourne. I started well before the gun but kept running and won. When I came back, the starter thanked me for keeping going. `Why?’ I asked him. `Because I backed you,’ he replied.
“You could sometimes get as much for pulling up as for a win,” Booth says. “Running dead” – not showing a true turn of foot when running heats – was a popular method of deceiving the handicapper, and in the 1918 Stawell Gift final, the first three placed were disqualified for “incorrect performances”. Other attempts to influence race outcomes have been less subtle. In 1933, Gift winner C G Heath was attacked by a disgruntled punter after a heat, and it became common for finalists to be escorted to the race under police guard.
Despite never winning the Stawell Gift, Booth remained passionate about running. “We used to dig holes in the lawn to practise our starts until it looked like a rabbit warren. So dad bought some plywood, nailed it to timber cut at angles and said: `Try that, son’. Well sir, this gadget was marvellous for starting and I tried it at a local meeting and won. The other runners went to the stewards and do you know what? They banned me for life.”
The ban was rescinded a year later, yet Booth’s gadget was to prove a turning point in athletics history. “Here it is,” says Booth, unfolding a fragile piece of paper. “A world patent for the first starting block.
“I was desperate to get these blocks overseas. An American fellow called Eddie Tolden, champion of the world at the time, came to Melbourne. I introduced myself, challenged him over 10 yards and beat him. Nobody had ever beaten him over 10 yards; he was so impressed he took the blocks back to America.”
The advent of aluminium meant Booth’s wooden blocks would reward him with nothing more than a footnote in athletics history, and he eventually turned his attentions to coaching. Those who have benefited include three- time Wimbledon winner Margaret Court, the great Arthur Ashe and the current darling of Australian athletics, Cathy Freeman.
Today’s Stawell Gift is a far cry from Booth’s era yet, despite dope testing and electronic timing, the professional handicap continues to thwart big-name entrants such as Christie. This weekend, Britain’s Christian Malcolm runs in search of the pounds 12,500 first prize. As he takes his place on the scratch mark, the knowledgeable crowd will know that history is against him. They will know that when Madagascar’s Jean Louis Ravelomanantsoa became the only man to win the gift from scratch in 1975, the race caller shortened his name to Ravelo “because the race only lasts 12 seconds”. And most of all, they will know Malcolm’s personal best of 10.09sec for 100 metres is meaningless.
“Never talk to a professional runner about times,” says Booth. “He only cares about breaking the tape, getting the money. If you’d come to me when I was a young man and asked me what time I ran the 100 yards I’d say: “Oh, about 12 o’clock.”
This year’s Stawell Gift final takes place tomorrow. Details: www.stawellgift.com Mark MacKenzie visited Australia courtesy of the Australian Tourist Commission (www.australia.com, 0191 501 4646) and Qantas (for reservations: 08457 747 767 or www.qantas.co.uk



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May 25, 2008

4 Responses

  1. Geoff Williams - April 2, 2012

    Wonderful stories. Part of country’s history.

  2. A Calves - August 5, 2012

    I had the privilege of meeting Charlie about 10 years ago, he had me in stitches with the morgue story. I played a lot of sport as a kid and have listened to a lot of inspirational speakers both famous and not so famous, but after an hour of Charlie you couldn’t help but feel his energy and enthusiasm and I felt as anything was possible if I put my mind to it.

  3. Mary Dows - November 14, 2014

    I had the privilege of meeting this wonderful man Charlie Booth in approximately 1976, when i was in secondary school competing at Victorian catholic school championships at Box Hill Reserve. After I completed and won my sprint he pulled me aside and asked me if i did athletics and i said no. He asked myself and my parents if he could coach me and we said okay. He picked me up after school in his car as my parents didn’t have a car and trained me behind his house in Burnley and Olympic Park. He gave me my first blocks and leather spikes with long metal spikes i was so appreciative as my parents had seven kids and where unable to afford them. Charlie was such a kind and caring man and i learnt a lot from him.

  4. Richard Tadday - April 16, 2017

    I worked with Charlie,he was the most amusing and loveable chap you could find . I remember one day he challenged me to a race around the warehouse for a $5 bet, he was giving me a 50 meter start ,I said no way am I giving you $5 , the stories he used to tell was unbelievable ,he knew so many people of influence it was remarkable. Loved by all that knew him.

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