The history of sport contains multitudes

  • Themes: Sport

Historical awareness fosters a healthy appreciation for the infinite variety and depth of modern sport.

1930s montage of sports and games.
1930s montage of sports and games. Credit: ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo

I have always argued that it is an important aspect of the understanding of the history of sport to appreciate that it has not been understood. People want to see sport as the source of mythology and heroism and, until recently, there were few academic scholars prepared to take the risk of researching this truth. The idea that the game of rugby was ‘invented’ in 1823 by William Webb Ellis is not just false, but ridiculous, as Tom Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays was one of the first to point out when the myth emerged at the end of his life and after Webb Ellis’s death. What game did they imagine was being played on the Close when Webb Ellis ‘picked up the ball’? All existing forms of football at that point allowed handling, not least because the smooth surfaces and symmetrically round balls of our times did not then exist. In the United States there was a parallel and more deliberate myth: that Abner Doubleday ‘invented’ baseball in Cooperstown in 1839. This was despite abundant evidence that it was in almost every respect a game that had been played in England for centuries and that there are many published references to it (in Jane Austen’s  Mansfield Park, for example). It is not mentioned, however, in General Doubleday’s autobiography.

It is as if newspaper sports editors followed the injunction of a mythical predecessor who gave orders to ‘Print the legend…’, a quotation that turns out to be merely a misquotation from a minor character in John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance. The real history of modern sport turns out to be far more interesting than the myths. It is, from start to finish, highly political and it has the charm that, unlike most history, it can be divided quite sharply and dramatically into different periods. It is a history of British (and primarily English) sport. Britain was at the centre of a global trade network, an increasingly important empire, and was by a clear margin the first place where the conditions for the development of what came to be called sport existed, so it also becomes a large slice of the history of world sport.

Popular historians such as Arthur Bryant portrayed the period after Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 as one of rapid decline for ‘Olde’ or ‘Merrie’ England, and its rural way of life and culture. This is also a common image in literature: as the 19th century proceeds, Virginia Woolf’s eponymous Orlando – already 300 years old – feels the world becoming colder and greyer. In fact, the country became one of the first with a predominantly urban population, largely a ‘proletariat’ squeezed into narrow urban spaces and lacking the time, space and cultural continuity for traditional sports and games. Over time, 44 ‘high days and holidays’ were reduced to four ‘bank’ holidays.

The politics of this social change came to a head in Derby during the 1840s. It had grown rapidly, from being one of the smaller county towns to having a population of over 50,000 as the headquarters of the Midland Railway, including its principal construction factories. The traditional ‘football’ match between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s had not declined, but had grown with the town. It is estimated that up to a thousand people played on each side. In earlier times such a ‘game’ might have been called a festival of Misrule; in later times it would have been called hooliganism and the newly enfranchised middle classes on the borough council determined to rid themselves of it. They succeeded, but its legacy was to make the name of the town a lasting by-word for bitter rivalry not merely in English, but also in several other languages. In Milan the game between the two principal professional clubs in the city is known as il derbissimo.

In 1845 at the same time as this political struggle was going on in Derby, just fifty miles away in the Warwickshire town of Rugby, William Arnold, one of the sons of the late headmaster of Rugby School, was one of a committee of three boys charged with drawing up the rules of the school’s particular form of ‘football’. The rules were printed in a tiny book, two inches by two, which was to be carried in the pockets of captains of teams now limited to 20 members. Contrary to what many people (including the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre De Coubertin) later believed William’s father Thomas had not been in the least enthusiastic about games, but had formed a compromise with the boys that they could play their games provided they took a form that was orderly and organised and constrained by a concept of ‘gentlemanly conduct’.

The idea of ‘organised games’ as part of education (and of life) spread rapidly. An important part of this was Thomas Hughes’ best-selling novel of 1857, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. And there were headmasters with a more obvious enthusiasm than Arnold. Most notable among these was Edward Thring, headmaster of Uppingham around the same time. He founded the Headmasters’ Conference in 1869, devised his own football rules, and did more to establish the idea of the ‘public school’ as a place of games than anyone else. Rugby, like derby, became a common noun. Harriet Taylor’s prophecy in 1851 that, given the power of machines, men were now abandoning ‘ violent bodily exercises, noisy merriment and intemperance’ was to prove gloriously wrong. Games, killed off in Derby, had simultaneously risen like the phoenix in Rugby as the consequence of an obscure educational compromise which proved to be far more important than anyone could have imagined

The representatives of 11 sporting organisations met up at the Freeman’s Tavern in Great Queen Street in London on 26 October 1863. Their objective was to codify a set of rules for those who favoured a form of football with the minimum of handling and a restriction on several kinds of assault. Their efforts were based on the rules used on the park called Parker’s Piece in Cambridge since 1848. It seems unlikely that it crossed their minds that they were instituting a game which would go on to become a global phenomenon and an obsession for billions of people; ‘the Association Code’ or ‘soccer’ for short – or just plain ‘football’.

Some of them may have imagined that they would have imitators, as the enthusiasts for other games and other forms of football felt obliged to set up their own forms of association. The conditions were now ripe for the development of national sporting competitions with codified rules: railways, sophisticated equipment for perfecting grounds, the telegraph and newspapers. For enthusiasts of other games it was imitate and organise or die. By 1895 virtually the whole of modern sport had come into existence. Wimbledon Tennis, the Football League, two versions of rugby football, the official version of county cricket and dozens of others had established themselves. The international dimension arose immediately with cricket test matches, international rugby and football matches and an international meeting in 1895 which agreed to hold a modern version of the Olympic Games every four years. This was an extraordinary period of enduring creativity in sport and it is difficult to think of historical analogies for such a phenomenon; perhaps the English stage between 1590 and 1620 is the closest.

The non-issue was amateurism. Very few of the middle-class men who set up any of these organisations disagreed that professionalism (which already existed in cricket and horse racing inter alia) should be anything other than marginalised and ring-fenced.

Sherlock Holmes talked of ‘amateur sport, which is the best and soundest thing in England’. Conan Doyle put these words into his mouth in a story called, ‘The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter’, published in Strand magazine in 1904. The love of organised games and their virtue of ‘sportsmanship’ was  a middle-class orthodoxy; it was not shared by everybody – Kipling referred to modern games in terms of ‘muddied oafs’ and ‘flannelled fools’, but it was shared by most. The FA Cup Final, the Wimbledon tennis championships, the Lord’s test, the rugby internationals, all had placed themselves at the heart of middle-class culture. It was all part of ‘the amateur hegemony’, which severely limited professionalism and essentially forbade commercialism in sports and games. Of course, amateurism was a complex concept and a broad church and was interpreted very differently in different sports (much more strictly in rugby union, for example, than in cricket) let alone what it became in the hands of the French and the Americans.

The system lasted a surprisingly long time; the sport of the 1950s was essentially of the same shape as that Holmes had admired half a century before. It had survived two world wars and much social and political upheaval. In some ways it had survived because of those things, but it was now doomed.

In 1961 the Football League, reacting to demands from the Professional Footballers Association led by former player and future broadcaster Jimmy Hill, abolished the maximum wage in football. One of the most important factors in the decision was a significant trickle of England’s top players to foreign clubs, which had started with the short-lived move of England international Neil Franklin to Colombia in 1950, which had inspired opprobrium from the press and the football hierarchy. Within the decade, cricket had abolished the category of ‘amateur’ and the Wimbledon tennis championships were deemed ‘open’. The long erosion of the amateur system can be said to have ended in 1995, when the International Rugby Board voted to accept professionalism, having defined itself as an amateur sport for exactly a century since its schism with the Northern Rugby Union (later the Rugby League).

In researching my book on Amateurism in Sport I interviewed a number of people who had competed as both amateurs and professionals during this period. These are stories which tell of the collapse of a system of belief: rugby players and coaches who reflect at a Twickenham international match that there are hundreds of people making money out of the event, but that they, at the heart of it all, are not; British competitors in many sports who line up between an American and a Russian at an Olympic event and are fully aware that their opponents are full-time athletes whereas they are not; athletes who are presented with a cheque as appearance money and don’t know what to do with it. What ultimately made change inevitable was television. Every development in its technology – colour, satellite, high definition – massively increased the value of sport, turning it from a financially low-turnover activity where hundreds  of competitors could be watched by thousands in their local audience to a global phenomenon where a handful of competitors could be watched by the whole world without cultural or linguistic barriers.

The word ‘sport’ used to denote a rather vague mixture of hunting, gambling and informal, largely masculine, competition. It (and its plural) now largely refer to what used to be called ‘organised games’. Over two centuries those games have morphed from local traditions, to an adjunct to education, to national and international virtuous practices, and to a massive global entertainment business. All periods have left their legacies in the culture of sport and thus in the principles invoked by those involved. In an indefinite number of bars throughout the world people complain that ‘sport is big business now’ or ‘it’s all about money’. But sporting institutions are only businesses in the sense that universities are: they have to be concerned with money, but profit-seeking is almost invariably subject to success-seeking and they cannot diversify. (Actually, though profits may be hard to come by in sport, there have been serious capital gains to be made: when the Glazer family first bought shares in Manchester United in 2003 the club was valued at about £350 million. The price paid when they sold off a quarter of the club 20 years later was approximately £1.25 billion.)

The contemporary politics of sport is a complex struggle over values and the appropriate institutions of governance. There is a lot of money involved, but the expectations – and some of the rule books – still contain Doctor Arnold’s criterion of ‘gentlemanly conduct’ or its successor ‘sportsmanship’. The American ‘major league’ model of centrally organised, ‘franchised’ competition offers coherence and sustainability for sport as commercial entertainment. Most European alternatives are based on the idea of sport as a primarily social activity rooted in civil society and in local communities. Almost all the political issues generated by modern sport can be understood in terms of these contradictions and alternative models. Should there be a ‘European Premier League’ in football? Should there be promotion and relegation in rugby union? How should short versions of cricket relate to longer ones? Behind any of these issues lies the generality that ‘sport’ contains different values and principles from the diverse phases of its development. It is a commonplace to say that if you want to understand a human practice you have to understand its history, but nowhere is this more true than in the field of sport.


Lincoln Allison