A history of British sport
The British, it’s often said, have a particular genius for inventing sports and games. Considering how many of these sports and games turn out to have evolved elsewhere in the world too, this may or may not be true. However, we can be certain about one thing: the British invented modern sports in all their money-drenched and over-hyped glory. To put that another way, you can trace a direct line from Britons setting down recognised rules for horse racing, boxing and cricket through to football’s World Cup, the Indian Premier League and the modern Olympic Games.
“Although most countries have variations of folk tradition sports, which can range from hitting a ball with a bat through to mob forms of football through to maypole dancing – traditions that are very rooted in rural, agricultural lifestyles – Britain was the first place to develop what we would see today as codified, organised and commercialised sports,” says Tony Collins of De Montfort University in Leicester.
It’s a story that begins in earnest in the 18th century. “The reason why Britain developed these sports was it was the first nation to become an industrial, capitalist economy where people had disposable income,” comments Collins. “There was the wealth to generate both an interest in sports and also markets for sports.”
From the off then, money was central to sport’s growth. It’s no coincidence that this was also an era when, especially in a south-east growing prosperous as the centre of empire, the theatre grew in popularity and newspapers began to flourish. Beginning with the aristocracy, Britons were discovering the joys of leisure time.
This meant games played for high stakes and gambling. Cricket matches with prize money of 1,000 guineas weren’t unheard of. Predating today’s ‘in-game’ wagers, on-site bookies would even offer odds on individual batsman’s scores.
If this doesn’t tally with the familiar idea of stolid chaps playing up, playing up and playing the game, that’s because the idea of the noble amateur dates from the 19th century. This was a reinvention of sport linked to the growth of muscular Christianity and expressed in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), a novel set in Rugby School that pushed “the moral and the educative lessons that sport could teach”.
However, the idea of the amateur was always problematical. Cricketer WG Grace is reputed sometimes to have refused to walk when given out, perhaps in part because he was conscious that his generous ‘expenses’ made him better paid as an amateur than professional cricketers and that his role was to draw a crowd. As for why Grace hypocritically preferred expenses to a match fee, it’s because amateurs were gentlemen but professionals were lower class.
The 19th century was also an era when mass spectator sport began to take off. The 1895 split between rugby union and rugby league, for example, wasn’t, as it’s often portrayed, just about clubs such as Widnes and Warrington wanting to pay their players. It also came about because northern clubs wanted rule changes to make rugby more attractive to Saturday spectators who were increasingly deserting for association football – the Football League, at first made up of teams based in the north of England and the Midlands, was founded in 1888.
Fast forward to today and what Tony Collins calls the “arc of the amateur era” has most definitely ended. You could even argue that popular spectator sports, unashamedly professional and rich with the munificent sums paid by television, have returned to their 18th‑century roots. As for a figure such as Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, it doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable to see him as a spiritual successor to louche aristocrats looking for amusement.
And yet sport is never just about rich individuals. In Britain, as sport has become a national obsession, it’s also become tied up with national well-being and identity. Hungary’s 6-3 rout of England at Wembley in 1953 had as much of an impact on the national sporting psyche as the 1956 Suez Crisis did on British politics.
“It was a tremendous shock to the system because it seemed to place a question mark over British superiority,” says Collins. “It’s not an accident that a lot of those kinds of doubts came to the fore in the 1950s when there’s lots of soul-searching and discussion about the role of Britain as its empire starts to disintegrate.”
The dance between sport and the state of the nation continues. Leaving aside for a moment the problem of conflating English and British sport, what price a future historian contrasting England’s victory at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, when Clive Woodward’s strategy-fixated coaching methods seemed rooted in the management thinking of a then buoyant City of London, with the team’s dismal, undisciplined performance at the post-crash 2011 World Cup.