A brief history of spectator sports


Le Mans 1955: Pierre Levegh lies near his crashed car that killed over 80 spectators /documentingreality.com

Le Mans 1955: Pierre Levegh lies near his crashed car that killed over 80 spectators /documentingreality.com

Most (but not all) of the sports which are super-popular with the public today were invented, improved and regulated in the independent private schools of Victorian Britain; that is to say, what in England are still called ‘the public schools’, as opposed to state ones. The most popular of all – Soccer – was being played in early medieval England, and has always been an almost entirely working-class game.

However, cricket, rugby football, boxing, lawn tennis and athletics were amateur and encouraged (perhaps over-encouraged) in the public school ethos. Many if not all of the top British private schools considered success in sports as more important and significant than scholastic success – and leaders and authorities of the School were almost always chosen from the athletes.

Cricket was played in England from the early part of the thirteenth century, and spread as a natural process throughout the British Empire, especially India (which then included Pakistan), the Caribbean and Australasia. The sport was governed until 1970 by the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club), founded at Lord’s in London in 1787: the MCC took the responsibility for codifying the game, and first allowed over-arm bowling in 1864. The first international event did not take place until 1877, when the ‘Test Match’ was played between the English team (also known as the MCC) and Australia. These two countries were the leaders in cricket until 1945, reaching a peak in the early Thirties, when the practice of ‘bodyline bowling’ (the bowler aiming the batsman instead of the wickets) became universal (though never necessarily popular).

‘Amateurs’ (unpaid sportsmen) and ‘professionals’ (earning money at the game)  remained until 1962, after which all first-class cricket became wholly professional. The days of W.G. Grace and other great ‘amateur’ cricketers had vanished.

Not everybody knows that the essential rules of Association Football were laid down at Cambridge in 1843, but the Football Association (FA) was not founded in England until 20 years later. By 1940 there were forty thousand soccer clubs in it. FIFA was invented in France and means Fédération Internationale de Football Assocation – an appalling mixture of languages that has never been questioned or corrected. By the 1950s soccer was mostly professional, though players were not well paid, certainly not by today’s millionaire standards. Football crowds (spectators) reached the ten thousand mark by the 1880s, and at least one hundred and twenty thousand (depending on the size of the stadium) by the 20s. Betting on results (football pools) was rife by the 1890s. Length of the shorts worn by soccer players has varied greatly between the decades.

Soccer’s middle and upper-class rival was rugby football, an amateur game begun at Rugby School in 1823. The shape of the ball and the rules are entirely different from soccer. People considered rugby or rugger a ‘toff’s sport’ but it became enormously popular in working-class Wales. This game based on personal speed, size, strength, guts and kicking accuracy rapidly spread to other countries such as France, Scotland, Wales (of course), South Africa, New Zealand and many South American countries, notably Uruguay. But as a spectator sport rugger has never equalled soccer.

The North Americans invented their own version and called it American Football, and the Australians kept closer to the English rules but made the game more violent. England inevitably came up with a more working-class variant, calling it Rugby League, which was professional. The original game was then called Rugby Union to show the difference, and it had to wait a long time before becoming anything else but purely amateur.

The first World Tennis Championship was organized by the All England Croquet Club (my initials) at Wimbledon (London) in 1877. The game had developed from royal or real tennis which was so ancient it was a favourite of both Henry V and Henry VIII (when young) and many other European royalties. Tennis at Wimbledon, as well as everywhere else in the world, became enormously popular because of TV coverage. The same happened with horse-racing, known as ‘the sport of Kings’. Betting, naturally, had a lot to do with it.

Athletics and boxing have been around of course for thirty centuries or more, but the first ‘modern’ Olympic Games featuring these sports plus many more were organized in 1896. They have taken place every four years (more less, though wars have interrupted the process) ever since the Baron Coubertin’s original brainwave. One of the essential differences is that athletics used to be practised by men only, suitably undressed. This was not considered decent in the Victorian Age.

Motor-racing was tremendously popular with all classes almost as soon as the motor car was invented; in the 1930s it was dominated by Mercedes-Benz, Alfa-Romeo, Bugatti and Ferrari, though Bentley cars from Britain won Le Mans six times; later Jaguar cars dominated saloon car racing for many years in the 50s and early 60s. Today’s pure single-seat racing cars are miracles of engineering, and have remained remarkably safe considering they can reach nearly 300 mph on the straight.

Cycling also became popular in France, Italy and Spain between the Wars, and still excites millions on the telly. Sadly, professional cycling has produced the modern scourge, ‘exercise’ cyclists wholly dangerous to the public, dressed from head to foot like highly coloured wasps, the riders invariably worse-tempered than hornets, but equipped with highly colourful and always obscene vocabulary levelled at the motorists who try (usually) to avoid killing them.

Baseball was based by Americans on the British girls’ school sport ‘rounders’, and has become the Number One sport in the USA – professional since 1868. Basketball, the only international sport to have originated in the United States, was created in 1891. It was an instant success in high schools and colleges, and has remained so. It is also very popular in Spain, whose truly national pastime – bull fighting – has suffered a tremendous drop in popularity. Hunting animals on horseback used to be the number one sport among the highest classes in Europe, but has waned in popularity since governments began prohibiting it. There are many other true sports, including Swimming, Lacrosse, Archery etc., which have never become true spectator sports, in that the cursed television has never seriously taken them up.

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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