Indoor athletics was first conceived in 19th century London, but it was on the other side of the Atlantic that it really took off. SPIKES traces American track history back to the ice rinks of old New York to find out how athletics conquered the world.

Before there was indoor athletics, there was ice-skating. Or more accurately, before there was ice-skating, there was indoor athletics.

In the late 1800s renowned athlete, entrepreneur and former American Civil War secret serviceman John C. Babcock wanted to build an ice rink for the people of New York. Construction began on “a magnificent structure” at the corner of 63rd and Third in the Lennox Hill area of New York. In September 1868, before the rink was ready, Babcock met with fellow athletes William Buckingham Curtis and Harry Buermeyer (the three had run a gym together since 1866) at Knickerbocker Cottage. Together they formed the New York Athletic Club (NYAC).

This was a time when an increasing number of clubs were being formed as track and field became a more coherent sport (running, jumping and throwing competitions had been popular amongst American frontiersmen for generations, partly a relic of Scottish emigrants recreating traditional Highland games). It was decided that Babcock’s soon-to-be finished Empire City Skating Rink would host a night of indoor amateur athletic games, their first public display.

The programme took place on 11th November 1868 under a tarpaulin-patched roof. Events included the running high jump, the standing three jumps, shot put and a half mile race. Dodworth’s Band played “choice music” during intervals in the schedule.

It was a hit. The New York Times correspondent waxed about the new building and the athletics on display. J E Russell, winner of the one mile race walk, treated the large crowds to “a splendid exhibition and drew forth loud applause”. (According to Frank Zarnowski, author of All-around Men: Heroes of a Forgotten Sport, a “craze of indoor six-day walking matches” swept the USA in the 1880s.) The report concluded that “The New York Athlete Club is thus finely established, and gives promise of a long and useful career”.

That proved true: two months later the Times lauded the NYAC for promoting the “the benefits arising from out-door exercise to young men engaged in sedentary occupations”. It added: “We have plenty of the substance here to compete with any country, but the substance requires practice and training to become perfect.”

A contemporary lithograph of the Empire City Skating Rink. Don't look for it, it's not there any more

The club quickly grew in size and support. By 1872 they had a club track located at One Hundred and Thirty-First, where they hosted a one mile foot race. The NYAC still exists today. Its members have won more than 200 Olympic medals in sports ranging from judo to water polo.

The Empire City Skating Rink did not last. As the NYAC moved to new premises, the American Institute moved to make use of the huge space during summer months. Athletics meets still took place there, but a chance visitor was more likely to see an exhibition of the New York State Poultry Society or the American Bottlers’ Association than a display of standing long jump.

But the seed had been planted. Through sport, the American public sought heroes of their new, unified nation. The NYAC began a regular series of two-day indoor competition in 1878, the first at Gilmore’s Gardens (soon renamed Madison Square Gardens). On 21st November 1888, the Amateur Athletic Union (W B Curtis was a founding member), which was beginning to outmuscle the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America in a sports administration land grab, hosted an indoor track and field championships at Madison Square Gardens. It was technically the first ever national indoor meet, although sports historians acknowledge the 1906 American Indoor Championships as the first official national meet.

By that time, New York sportsfans had developed an affection for indoor events. The distinction between track and field, gymnastics and boxing as different sports was becoming more clearly defined as clubs began to specialise. A Times preview of the 1911 winter schedule noted that “It is almost impossible to get a date in one of the armories for a set of games, every available one having been taken for the next three months”.

The inaugural meeting of the NYAC is now widely considered the first indoor track and field meet in America

The most popular of these armory meets was organised by the Millrose Track Club, which was formed by employees of New York’s Wanamaker’s department store in 1908. Their annual meet was considered the highlight of New York’s winter sporting calendar and quickly outgrew its original armory venue. In 1914 the meet moved to Madison Square Gardens where it enjoyed a 98-year run until 2012, when it moved to the Armory in Washington Heights. The 109th NYRR Millrose Games – featuring the Wanamaker Mile – takes place there on 20th February.

The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes organised a varsity championships in 1918 and held them annually from 1923 through to 1965, when the NCAA took over. Women’s events were added to the AAU Championships schedule in 1927, marking the first truly national indoor track and field champs (the following year’s Amsterdam Olympics allowed women to compete for the first time). Indoor track and field had become established across the country, with no small amount of thanks to the relentless efforts of Babcock and Curtis (who apparently never wore a coat) to promote amateur sport in cities across America.

The championships that their efforts spawned kept the indoor flame alive at a time when there was simply a lack of suitable venues elsewhere in the world. That began to change as the old continent recovered from successive world wars. The European Indoor Championships of 1966 in Dortmund, Germany, were the first continental champs. This marked the beginning of a modern era as indoor competition reemerged as popular format. The first world championships were held soon after in Paris in 1985. They were repeated in Indianapolis two years later and are now a permanent biennial fixture.

After a 27 year hiatus, in March indoor athletics returns to the country that fell so hard for it in the first place. The city of Portland will host the 16th IAAF World Indoor Championships. It's been 150 years in the making.

Head this way to get your tickets for Portland 2016

P.S. Main image is not athletics. It is a cock fight.