Sometime during the last thirty years there has been a huge seismic shift in the concept of sport. Certainly, growing up in England in the 70’s, the focus of sport was entirely masculine and limited to Saturdays. In general newspaper coverage was merely a couple of pages at the back of the broadsheets and you could tell the season by what was being featured, soccer and rugby in winter, cricket in summer and Wimbledon in June. Journalists writing sports reports for The Times were allowed a maximum of 250 words per event, and that even applied to the 1966 World Cup! There were very few celebrities, and certainly no hype, except on those rare occasions when there was a scandal.
Nowadays sport creates icons where once such glitz and glamour were the reserve of royalty or movie stars. Why this need to put sportspeople on a pedestal? Is it their superhuman agility and ambition which inspires those who are less able? Is it because we gain a sense of taking part by celebrating their achievement? Or perhaps there is a need to understand the basis of their talent?
The Sport’s writer, Mihir Bose, offers the theory that, “with increasing lack of trust in politicians, men of science and letters, and even church leaders, sports stars have filled the vacuum. Sport has also become a rare source of trusted news in an intensely sceptical world; a sporting result is a fact about which there can be no argument. And sport can also be understood by all, regardless of language or culture or intellect.”
Modern sport likes to show it has morality at its core, that it abides by a given set of rules. But this concept of modern sport has its roots in the nineteenth century and was arguably inspired by a work of fiction. Thomas Hughes semi-autobiographical novel about his days at RugbySchool in the early 1800’s – Tom Brown’s Schooldays – was written as a means to ‘preach’ about the virtues and vices of public school education. The tale begins with a game of rugby…..and ends in a game of cricket.
“I’m beginning to understand the game scientifically. What a noble game it is, too!”
“Isn’t it? But it’s more than a game. It’s an institution,” said Tom.
“Yes,” said Arthur – “the birthright of British boys old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men.”
“The discipline and reliance on one another which it teaches is so valuable, I think,” went on the master, “it ought to be such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn’t play that he may win, but that his side may.”
“That’s very true,” said Tom, “and that’s why football and cricket, now one comes to think of it, are such much better games than fives or hare-and-hounds, or any others where the object is to come in first or to win for oneself, and not that one’s side may win.”
“And then the captain of the eleven!” said the master; “what a post is his in our School-world! Almost as hard as the Doctor’s — requiring skill and gentleness and firmness, and I know not what other rare qualities.”
Hughes portrayed the school’s headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold, as a selfless man who deemed sports an essential aspect of a ‘gentleman’s education’. The book became extremely influential, selling half a million copies by the end of the century, and it was responsible for Pierre de Coubertin’s ideology for reviving the Olympic Games.
One of the reasons de Coubertin first visited England in 1883 was to study Thomas Arnold’s teaching methods, he passionately believed the system of education Arnold applied at Rugby was responsible for Britain’s industrial and imperial achievements of the 19th century. Thomas Arnold, the leader and classic model of English educators, gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. However Pierre de Coubertin’s viewpoint was decided by Tom Brown’s fictional world.
Hughes admired Arnold and wanted his book to illustrate the practical dimensions of ‘muscular Christianity’ in Victorian education. The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. But however convinced he was by the physical benefits of sports de Coubertin was critical of its class distinctions. He wanted all sports for all people. While he did not believe in paying athletes he thought that they should be provided with money if they came from a social background which meant they could not fund themselves. He publicly denounced English rowing contests, arguing that its specific exclusion of working-class athletes was wrong. And Thomas Hughes would most likely have agreed with this attitude because after attending OxfordUniversity (where he played first class cricket) he became a prominent social reformer. One of the important institutions he founded was the Working Men’s College in London and he helped establish some of the earliest trade unions.
Thomas Hughes, Thomas Arnold and Pierre de Coubertin all shared the belief that the kind of ‘back-bone’ cultivated by sports not only developed the physical stamina to defeat an opponent but also formed the moral courage and will-power to fight evil. But for these eminent Victorians there was never any question that sport could be taken up as a career. They would probably find it reprehensible that sport, as opposed to moral duty, has come to dominate the media in the twenty-first century. And earning money from sport, well that would be immoral.