These sports: where do they come from?

Spectator sports they are called, presumably because they are designed for watching by spectators. Soccer, cricket, boxing, tennis, rugby and athletics were nursed, improved and nurtured in hundreds of independent (public) schools in Victorian Britain. Some, like boxing and athletics, had existed in the time of the original Greek Olympics, but they would have become forgotten relics of the past if it had not been for ‘sportin’ instincts’ of young people from the British Isles.

   The sports were of course amateur. They produced competitiveness between the schools. They encouraged the setting up of physical training colleges such as Loughboro and Anstey, where teenagers who had excelled at school sports could train to be PE teachers with a degree or diploma.

   The complicated game of cricket had been played on village greens in England since the thirteenth century, and became universally popular within the British Empire. Every able bodied man and not a few girls played cricket from India and Ceylon to the British Bahamas. It is a sport that survived the end of Empìre and has flourished. Its governing body until 1969 was the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), founded at Lord’s in 1787. It was the MCC that made the rules which are intelligible to so few. Overarm bowling was allowed for the first time in 1864.

   England and Australia were the leading cricket countries until 1945, but their intense rivalry reached a peak in 1932-3 when ‘bodyline’ bowling became the rage. This meant bowling at high speed AT the batsman, not the wickets. The cricket ball is an intensely hard little missile which, if it strikes a person in the wrong place, can damage them for life. The distinction between amateurs (unpaid, doing it for the joy of sport) and professionals (paid to do it) in English county cricket was maintained until 1962, when things became vulgar.

   The rules governing soccer, which has become the world’s most popular spectator sport, were laid down at Cambridge in 1843. Football was played in games between villages in rural England in the 14th century. The Football Association (FA) was founded in the UK in 1863. By 1949 40,000 clubs had joined it. The FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) appeared in France in 1904.

  Very soon football or soccer became professional, and the money side to things took off. Soccer players like the young Stanley Matthews had been paid a salary of £9 per week. Suddenly leading players were delighted to collect a weekly pay packet of hundreds of pounds (1964). In the newly-built stadiums there were now crowds of paying spectators numbering up to 90,000! Football Pools (betting on results) spread in the 1890s. Littlewoods’ Pools paid a prize of £75,000 to the Nicholson family in the 1960s. They managed to spend it all, became penniless, and Mr. Nicholson died in a car crash in his new Jaguar. Soccer by now had spread across the world, an almost entirely working class sport, though, perversely, it is played at Eton.

   The nobs in England were playing rugby or ‘rugger’, encouraged at their private schools, such as Rugby, where the game started in the 19th century; a player picked up the ball and ran with it – during a soccer game! A statue commemorating this founding manoeuvre now decorates the entrance at Rugby School. The game spread rapidly throughout the Empire, reached the USA via Canada; in the States they got the ball size reduced and the rules drastically altered so that they quickly became as unintelligible as cricket’s. The name of the new game, which has never been as popular as Baseball, is American Football. In Australia the players also changed certain rules and traditions, and it became Australian Football. But there is no doubt that rugby was the original. Baseball, by the way, was also English, a game known as ‘Rounders’ –  much played at girls’ schools in the 1930s. Baseball in its modern form was first played in the States in 1845. It is a huge money-spinner, totally professional. A really promising youngster can pay his way through college by playing baseball for it.

The world’s first International Tennis Championship was played at the All-England Croquet Club at Wimbledon in 1877. Tennis was seen by only a privileged few until the coming of television, which made tennis (and also horse-racing) mass spectator sports. Polo by the way was invented in Mongolia and Afghanistan, where it was popular because the ‘ball’ was usually the head of a tribal chieftan who had failed: in British India the Maharajas intoduced the sport of ‘Polo on wheels’, which was full polo but played on bicycles.

 Motor racing became hugely popular all over Europe, and eventually in the United States too. The appeal for spectators was that their heroes got killed quite regularly, but survivors, such Fangio and Stirling Moss lived to tell the tale and earned millions. Motor racing itself was most useful for the manufacturers, who were able to improve engines, suspension, tyres, steering and brakes directly from their experience on the track. Mike Hawthorn, who died in an accident away from the track, used to say that racing drivers were more like test pilots for famous marques like the Italian Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati, the early British Bentley (winner of three or four Le Mans in the 20s) the BRM, Aston Martin and Lotus, German Mercedes and Auto Union, and the wonderful French racing factory Renault.

   Cycling first became a massively-watched sport in France: the Tour de France was watched on the spot by half the nation in 1903, and cycling rapidly became the most popular French spectator sport, though the Gauls also excelled and excel in rugby football, along with Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Roumania, New Zealand (the famous ‘All-Blacks’), South Africa and others. Spain, which has always provided the very best of soccer players, has never managed to enter the big-time in rugby, though there are rugger clubs right across the map.

   Basketball, now played everywhere and not necessarily by eight-foot giants, is the only sport to originate in the USA. It was created in 1891, becoming instantly popular in high school and college.

 Lacrosse, a beautiful high-speed game played with a fixed net on a long stick, was first played between young braves in Canadian Indian tribes. No-one can explain why lacrosse, now a truly international sport played by extremely fit male and female athletes, has never been included among Olympic sports, when chess, for example, which could and can be played by couch-potatoes – is. And why, may one ask, is chess treated as a sport, when it is obviously no more than a test of intellect?

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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