Many New Zealand sports fans are familiar with the deeds of boxers 'Torpedo' Billy Murphy and Bob Fitzsimmons, who brought early sporting glory to the country by capturing world boxing titles in the nineteenth century.

Murphy won the world professional featherweight crown, defeating the 'Belfast Spider' Ike Weir in 1890, with Fitzsimmons winning the world middleweight title in 1891.

The former Timaru blacksmith is still remembered as a legend in professional boxing, going on to win the heavyweight and light heavyweight world titles.

However, shortly before the exploits of the country's world champion pugilists, a Dunedin race walker became New Zealand first world champion athlete.

Pedestrianism (running and walking races) was a massive spectator sport in the 1880's and 1890's, attracting thousands of spectators, in Britain and the United States,.

An Otago Daily Times narrative tells us that Joe Scott was born in Ireland in 1859, arriving in Dunedin as a youngster with his family.

He came under the influence of Alfred Austin, an athletics handicapper for the Caledonian Society, who trained him to become a professional race walker.

Under the guidance of Austin, Joe Scott became one of the best heel-and-toe racers of all time.

The long distance walking races of the time were not held on the road as they are today, but indoors attracting large crowds of spectators.

In 1875, Scott beat Australian champion William Edward, walking 25 miles around the Queens Theatre in Dunedin on a track comprising 31 laps to the mile.

During 1879, the Dunedin walking machine became the New Zealand champion, after walking 106 miles (170 kilometres) in 24 hours, against eight other competitors at the 22 laps to the mile.

Scott continued on his record breaking ways, defeating visiting British champion Arthur Hancock by walking 114 miles in a 24 hour match race, at the Garrison Hall in 1885.

A few weeks later when Hancock failed to front, Scott set out by himself to set a new world record of 17 hours 59 minutes over the 100 mile distance, breaking the old world record by eight minutes.

Scott travelled to England and beat the best walkers in Europe, to win the 72 Hour Champion Belt of the World, at the Royal Agriculture Hall in May 1888.

There were 29 walkers in the race, with the New Zealand athlete biding his time and not taking the lead until late in the race.

Public interest grew and 3000 noisy spectators saw Scott take the lead on day four.

At the end of the fourth day, the New Zealander led by two miles increasing his advantage on day five, to win the race in covering 363 miles in 71 hours, 51 minutes, 23 seconds.

Many a hat was flung in the air to celebrate what has seemed impossible only a couple of days earlier.

Scott received £100 and the R Lewis Champion Belt for winning the event. Scott returned home to a hero’s welcome at the Caledonian Sports meeting in Dunedin in January 1889

A special display of Joe Scott's achievements can be found at the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in Dunedin.

Sideline Sid
Sports correspondent & historian