Sports stories reveal that modern cultures conceptualize physical activity differently from traditional societies. Modern sport tends towards the secular rather than the sacred. The emphasis on equality, both in competitive conditions and in competitive opportunities, consumes modern sport. Modern sport reproduces modern social structures in other ways as well, manifesting particular modern manias of specialization, bureaucratization, rationalization and quantification in unique ways. In modern history, sport is rooted in the major trends of modernity itself, industrialization, urbanization and nationalism.
Most important, at least from a modern perspective, has been a new conceptualization of sport as a useful tool for solving social problems that has replaced an understanding of sport as part of the regular rhythms of traditional life. The idea of sport as a social utility certainly has its roots in older traditions, as evidenced by the Greek and Roman concepts of athletics as training for citizenship. However, in modern times the idea of sport as a useful tool has taken on great historical dimensions.
In early modern Europe, sport served the emerging centralized monarchies by symbolizing power and cultivating popular support. The monarchs requisitioned the ancient sporting practices of the aristocracy in order to celebrate royal prowess and wealth. To gain popular support as they attempted to usurp power from the nobility and clergy, European monarchs turned popular peasant hobbies into political rights to win over the masses. At the same time, sport has become a central element in the training of European elites.
The Renaissance witnessed the excavation of classical notions of healthy minds into healthy bodies. Renaissance thinkers insisted that a complete education developed the physical and intellectual faculties. Utility notions of sport have also developed in unexpected places. Early 21st century scholarship revealed that Protestant reformers, far from the puritans of the stereotypical hating sport, in fact supported a variety of athletic endeavors as long as they were undertaken to make people better workers, better citizens. , better soldiers and better Christians.
The determined sport which served specific social purposes was firmly established in Western societies in the early modern period. During the same time, the sports of non-Western cultures quickly moved towards extinction. The “Columbian Exchange” in sports was initially a one-way street. Indigenous sports, such as the elaborate Mesoamerican ball game ritual, were destroyed by the Western conquest. Modern sports have developed almost exclusively in Western cultures. Western cultures have sometimes appropriated hobbies like lacrosse, a game with both European and American legacies, but they have constantly modernized them. A survey of sports, including the world’s largest sporting event, the modern Olympics, reveals that, with one exception, all of them developed from Western sources. This exception, judo, was invented by pro-Western innovators in Japan who sought to modernize their own nation by introducing Western-style sports. The global sports culture that has emerged since the mid-1800s is a product of the West.
The rise of the modern nation-state, which began in Europe and North America in the 18th century, fueled a rapid growth in the idea of sport as a useful social tool. In sport, many nationalists believed they had discovered an elementary force in turning the three criteria of the French Revolution for the modern nation – freedom, equality, fraternity – into social realities. Through modern sport they proclaimed the end of the ancient sporting order of old regimes and the rise of new national hobbies, from cricket to prize fights to varieties of football to baseball. They recognized that when the modern masses had the freedom to choose their hobbies, they turned to sports. Sport has also become a testing ground for modern notions of equality. Class, ethnicity, race and gender boundaries were increasingly attacked on the playing fields in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It was, however, the third element of the French Revolution’s prescription for modern nationalism where sport found the most fertile ground. More than any other modern institution with the exception of war, sport offers the conditions necessary for the development of fraternity, patriotic bonds which unite citizen to citizen. Sport and physical education as fraternal liaison agents first developed during the 1700s and 1800s in the English-speaking world and in Germany.
In Germany, which was occupied by France and not yet unified as a modern state, a powerful national movement known as the Turners was born. The Turners were explicitly dedicated to promoting fitness and implicitly creating a nation of athlete-soldiers to gain homeland independence. The movement combined exercise with patriotism. Turners formed the core of the German revolution against French hegemony and fought for a unified German nation. The Turner movement spread to German communities in Europe and the Americas, and sparked imitations in Denmark and Sweden. However, the inherent Germanity of the physical education system ultimately prevented the global spread of the Turner.
At the same time, at the heart of the industrial revolution, modern competitive sports are developing in Britain, its colonies and former colonies. National games such as cricket, football and rugby have appeared. The promoters sold these games as the fraternal foundation of British identity. Resistance to British national games from sections of the English-speaking world sparked the modernization of Gaelic football and hurling in Ireland and the invention of baseball and American football in the United States. Thanks to these games and the massive literature that has grown to support them, such as the classic English sports novel, Tom Brown’s school days (1857), Anglo-American cultures coined the idea that participation in sport taught modern peoples the basic principles of citizenship. In Anglo-American ideology, sport promoted moral virtue, balanced individual and collective needs, and fostered fair competition in every social enterprise. Sport, as Anglo-American promoters endlessly preached, was an essential tool in building a modern nation.
While the German Turners’ gymnastics drills failed to find a receptive global audience, Anglo-American sports quickly became a global phenomenon. As the great imperial power of the world, Britain’s games have spread across the globe. As a rising imperial power, the sports of the United States also spread. With the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, an event hosted by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French Anglophile who firmly believed in Anglo-American sports ideology, modern Western sport is moving towards global hegemony. During the twentieth century, the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, a spin-off from the 1930 Olympics, became the most popular spectacles in the world. Football football, originally a British pastime, has become “the game of the world”, spreading from the West to the rest of the world by emulation and diffusion rather than under imperial threat. Non-Western cultures have clearly chosen to embrace this European import.
Surrounded by rhetorical claims that sport promoted peaceful internationalism, the global spread of sport during the world’s bloodiest century (the 1900s) revealed that most of the world’s cultures had converted to the faith. Anglo-American that sport was a crucial element in fueling patriotism rather than athletic pacifism. As sport has become the common language of global culture, it has represented a dialect that has forged national rather than global identities and has been spoken with equal ease by dictatorships and democracies.
Sport was a vital link in the “imaginary communities” of many modern nations. Initially, national sports cultures embraced men, but discouraged or excluded women from serving as athletes or patriotic fans. As ideas of gender equity altered social relations in modern nations, the homosocial boundaries of sport came under attack. At the end of the 19th century, women began to participate as spectators and players in increasing numbers. The emergence of women in sport has often been equated with the emancipation and suffrage of women. When American swimmer Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to conquer the English Channel in 1926, beating the times of all the men who had ever sailed these waters, her achievement was hailed as a triumph that rivaled the acquisition of the right to women’s vote.
Despite the exploits of Ederle and other women, male performance has remained normative in modern sport. Female athletes were often valued as much for their attractiveness as for their athletic prowess, a trend in consumer culture since the early 20th century that perhaps explains the early 21st century global fascination with tennis player Anna Kournikova. Fans in many countries both applauded and ogled as the Olympians fueled the fraternal furnaces of athletic nationalism. In cultures where women athletes have raised direct gender challenges, as in some modern Islamic states, champions like Algerian runner Hassiba Boulmerka have elicited violent reactions.
Sports conflicts over ideas about gender reveal that at the start of the 21st century, sport remains a powerful site for debating social concepts and practices. Knowledge about human societies grows at the intersection of sport and the myriad of other facets of culture, from politics and religion to gender and economic exchange. In the history of ideas, sport has been a popular common quest for many societies on many occasions, which can reveal a great deal about the dynamic complexities of human cultures.
(The author is a lecturer in physical education. He can be contacted at [email protected])
Box: Knowledge about human societies grows at the intersection of sport and the myriad of other facets of culture, from politics and religion to gender and economic exchanges.