The Development of Modern Sports

Allen Guttmann. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

Although the descriptions and the paradigmatic explanations of the difference varied, the ‘grand theorists’ of sociology—Comte, Marx, Toennies, Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, and Elias—all shared the conviction that there is a fundamental difference between modern society and the earlier forms of social organization from which modern society evolved. Premodern and modern sports exemplify that difference more clearly than most institutions. Among the ‘grand theorists,’ Elias is the only one to have written extensively on sports (Elias and Dunning, 1986). He—like Marx (Wohl, 1973) and Weber (Guttmann, 1978)—has inspired a number of historical analyses of the development of modern sports (Dunning, 1973; Dunning and Rojek, 1992; Dunning and Sheard, 1979; Eichberg, 1978; Guttmann, 1986; Stokvis, 1979).

Historians disagree about the origins of modern sports. Their assertions about time and place depend in large measure upon which of the formal-structural characteristics of modern sports they emphasize. Some, influenced by the ‘figurational sociology’ of Elias (1969), have stressed the relative absence, in modern sports, of interpersonal violence on and off the field of play (Dunning, 1973; Dunning and Sheard, 1979). A strong case can be made, from this perspective, for Renaissance Italy and France as the birthplace of modern sports (Krüger and McClelland, 1984). Other scholars, influenced by Weber’s analysis of the ‘disenchantment of the world’ and the dominance of ‘instrumental rationality’ (1920, 1922), have stressed such formal-structural characteristics as secularism, equality, rationalization, specialization, bureaucratization, quantification, and the quest for records (Guttmann 1978, 1988). Seen from this perspective, eighteenth-century England is the birthplace of modern sports (Kloeren, 1935; Krockow, 1972; Mandell, 1976, 1984; Schöffler, 1935). Both interpretations of the origins of modern sports deserve to be taken seriously, but a more persuasive case can be made for the second.

Renaissance Sports

The transition from medieval to Renaissance sports is a textbook instance of ‘the civilizing process’ (Elias, 1969). Medieval sports tended to be quite violent; the sports of the Renaissance tended not to be. At the top of the social hierarchy as at the bottom, there was a shift in emphasis from ‘force to finesse’ (Mehl, 1993: 21). The twelfth-century tournament, which was the aristocracy’s favorite sport, was a loosely organized and poorly regulated mêlée that took place in open fields and meadowland. It claimed an extraordinary toll in dead and wounded knights. Folk football, the medieval peasantry’s holiday pastime, was similarly violent. It was described by Sir Thomas Elyot—from the perspective of a Renaissance gentleman—as ‘beastly fury, and extreme violence’ (Guttmann, 1986: 49). Twentieth-century students of Elias characterize the British version of folk football as ‘savage brawls’ engendering ‘excitement akin to that aroused in battle’ (Dunning and Sheard, 1979: 25). Like the medieval tournament, the peasant’s sport usually took place in the countryside.

In the course of approximately three hundred years, these two sports were transformed into strictly regulated contests closer to theatrical performances than to pitched battles. In France, where the literary myths of Tudor England exerted a powerful influence on the tournament, the bloody combats of the medieval mêlée evolved into highly conventionalized dramatic reenactments of the adventures of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, with ingeniously designed pageant cars and with gorgeous stage sets for lords and ladies impersonating Lancelot and Tristram, Gawain and Percival, Guinevere and Morgan le Fay. By the late Renaissance, ‘ring tournaments’ were popular and the clash of sword against armor had become the tinkle of a lance as it speared a brass ring. The French were the leaders, but the English and the Germans soon followed (Ariès and Margolin, 1982; Fleckenstein, 1985). By the sixteenth century, the English tournament was ‘a highlight of Elizabethan courtly life, but it was a spectacle and a pageant, not a … realistic preparation for war’ (Vale, 1977: 11).

In Italy, the peasant’s rough version of football was reshaped into the Florentine gentleman’s calcio, an urban game played in the Piazza di Sante Croce. A contemporary print depicts the church and its square, the surrounding buildings, the rectangular playing field and the stands, the low fence that surrounded the field, and the pikemen whose threatening presence indicated the limits of ‘the civilizing process’ (Heywood, 1904: facing p. 170).

In conducting the Renaissance tournament and the game of calcio, a great deal of attention was paid to the participants’ social status and appearance. The Great Tournament Roll of Westminister commemorates a tournament staged by Henry VIII in 1511 to celebrate the birth of his son by Catherine of Aragon. Thirty of the Roll’s 36 pictures illustrate the entry and exit processions of the splendidly colorful knights and their grandly caparisoned mounts; just three of the pictures are devoted to the jousts between Henry and his opponents (Anglo, 1968). Heraldic devices certified the aristocratic lineage of every participant. The proper presentation of a game of calcio required a similar awareness of social status and appearance. In his Discorso sopra il Giuoco del Calcio Fiorentino (1580), Giovanni de’ Bardi specified that the contestants should be ‘gentlemen, from eighteen years of age to forty-five, beautiful and vigorous, of gallant bearing and good report.’ The gentlemen players should wear ‘goodly raiment and seemly, well fitting and handsome’ (Heywood, 1904: 166-7; Mommsen, 1941).

The fascination with geometrical space that one observes in the game of calcio was even more obvious in the Renaissance fencer’s art. Treatises on the sport emphasized the aesthetic appeal of the fencer’s elegant movements. Camillo Agrippa’s Trattato di Scientia d’Arme (1533) and Girard Thibault’s L’Académie de l’e-spée (1627) were, for instance, illustrated by numerous diagrams of the appropriate positions to take before, during and after a match (Eichberg, 1977, 1978). For his copperplate print The Fencing Hall (1608), Willem Swanenburgh arranged his fencers around a complicated geometrical pattern drawn in the middle of a tiled floor.

To be fully effective, demonstrations of proper appearance require spectators to appreciate them. The relationship between Renaissance contest and spectacle is nicely encapsulated in the era’s most influential conduct book, Baldesar Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528). How should the courtier behave when at play? He should ‘strive to be as elegant and handsome in the exercise of arms as he is adroit, and to feed his spectators’ eyes with all those things that he thinks may give him added grace.’ He should ‘attract the eyes of the spectators even as the lodestone attracts iron’ (Castiglione (trans. Singleton), 1959: 99-100).

Not all Renaissance sports were characterized by the shift from force to finesse, by the focus on appearance and decorum. French peasants continued for generations to struggle for possession of a football ‘like dogs battling for a bone’ (Bouet, 1968: 257) and the humbler citizens of Venice fought with their fists to seize or defend the bridges that spanned the city’s canals and linked its neighborhoods (Davidsohn, 1927: vol. 4: 284-6; Gori, 1993; Körbs, 1938: 13-15). None the less, the sports of the aristocrat—if not those of the commoner—were submitted to the dictates of instrumental rationality. They were more carefully regulated, far more standardized, more frequently marked by technical innovation, and much more ‘civilized’ than medieval sports had been.

Whether or not the transition ‘from force to finesse’ allows us to conclude that modern sports began in the Renaissance (Krüger and McClelland, 1984) depends on one’s conception of modern sports. If the crucial difference is pervasive quantification and the quest for records made possible by quantification, then the origins of modern sports can be traced back no farther than the early eighteenth century. There were, of course, instances of the quantification of results even in antiquity, in Roman chariot races if not at the Olympic Games. Rühl has, moreoever, uncovered some long-forgotten evidence of quantification in medieval sports; the victors at tournaments were determined by the number of points accumulated over the course of a series of jousts (Rühl, 1986, 1993). Calcio players scored points and Renaissance archery matches, which were immensely popular among the nascent bourgeoisie, also required an element of quantification. None of these instances of quantification remotely resembles the modern passion for precise measurement and statistical permutations.

And none of these instances prompted the use of quantified results as a way to set a sports record, which can, in fact, be defined as the best recorded quantified achievement. (The use of the term in this sense dates from the late nineteenth century.) McClelland notes correctly that Renaissance humanists urged the emulation of antiquity, but the mere emulation of ancient athletic feats fails to warrant the claim that ‘the quest for records [was] already present, unnoticed in its embryonal state’ (Krüger and McClelland, 1984: 11). Without systematic quantification and the comparison of quantified results, there was simply no way to establish sports records. This fact must be emphasized. Like the Greeks whom they admired, Renaissance theorists tended to conceptualize the world in static geometric forms in accordance with ‘a metaphysics of finite-ness’; modern sports, on the contrary, ‘are associated … with the theory of progress’ (Ullmann, 1971: 336). Beyond every sports record lies, potentially, another record.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

A great deal of the difference between Renaissance and modern sports is suggested by two German terms, ‘Maß’ and ‘Messen,’ both translated by the English word ‘measure.’ The first term refers to a sense of balance or proportion; the second to numerical measurements. The two terms differ as geometry differs from arithmetic. ‘Maß’ was demonstrated by the fancy equestrian ballets popular during the late Renaissance, in which French or Italian horsemen guided their mounts through a series of pirouettes and other dance steps. In fact, the ‘geometric character’ of equestrian ballet was inspired by and derived from the movements of the pavane and other grave and stately dances (Eichberg, 1978: 33). (The Olympic sport of dressage is a relic of this kind of exercise, but dressage has been modernized ‘by the introduction of a point system’; Eichberg, 1980: 362). ‘Messen,’ in contrast, was strikingly observable in the English passion for horse races, for which the stopwatch was used as early as 1731.

An older generation of German historians (Kloeren, 1935; Schöffler, 1935) emphasized the English origins of modern sports, but more recent German scholarship has called attention to the transition from ‘Maß’ to ‘Messen’ that occurred in German schools like the one established by C.G. Salzmann at Schnepfenthal in 1784 (Bernett, 1971; Eichberg, 1974a, 1974b). At these elite academies, boys were encouraged to run, leap, throw, swim and climb. Their achievements were carefully recorded. As Salzmann wrote of J.C.F. GutsMuths, who taught with him at Schnepfenthal, ‘Herr GutsMuths keeps faithful records of these exercises and that allows him to judge to the fraction of an inch what each pupil’s strength can achieve and how much it increases from week to week’ (Bernett, 1971: 75). While there is no doubt that educators like Salzmann and GutsMuths were enchanted by the possibilities of measurement, they were humanistically inclined and not particularly interested in competition. Looking at ice-skaters, G.U.A. Vieth observed, ‘Beginners are enticed by races on the ice, but competition is not a good thing; the effort to skate faster destroys all the beauty of the activity’ (Eichberg, 1974b: 27). In the long run, men like Salzmann, GutsMuths and Vieth contributed little to the development of modern sports.

The next generation of German physical educators actually retarded that development. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and the Turnbewegung (‘gymnastics movement’) that he inspired represented a romantic ‘return to nature’ that was quite hostile to the notion of quantified achievement (Jahn, 1884-5). Citing some of the symbols of modern sports, Harro Hagen, twentieth-century spokesman for the Turnbewegung, urged the renunciation of ‘concrete stadium, cinder track, tape-measure, stopwatch, manicured lawn, and track shoes. … In their place comes the simple meadow, free nature’ (Eichberg, 1973: 120). Hagen’s views were typical. ‘It is no accident,’ wrote Edmund Neuendorff, national leader of the Deutsche Turnerschaft (German Gymnastics Association), that modern sports ‘originated in England, a land without music or metaphysics’ (Neuendorff, 1934: vol. 4: 474).

Neuendorff was right about the origins of modern sports (if not about the nullity of English music and metaphysics). Most of the formal-structural characteristics of modern sports (Dunning, 1973; Guttmann, 1978) can be identified in eighteenth-century England (where there was a striking concern for quantification and for records; Kloeren, 1935). Whether or not the English enthusiasm for sports was driven by a mania for gambling, which is what many foreign observers thought, is debatable.

The rationalization of sports took many forms. As the passion for sports spread throughout English society, rules were codified. James Broughton, the century’s most famous pugilist, established the rules of his combat sport in 1743 and introduced the use of the glove (for gentlemen amateurs) in 1747 (Brailsford, 1988). The written rules for cricket also date from this period when, for instance, the dimensions of the bat and the pitch were specified and niceties like the leg-before-wicket dismissal were mentioned. The first complete set of cricket rules appeared in 1744, which was also the first year from which we have records of a fully scored match.

Rules are useless without a means to enforce them. Two of the most important organizations in the history of modern sports were the Jockey Club (1752) and the Marylebone Cricket Club (1787). Both organizations were initially dominated by members of the aristocracy whose ambitions were national rather than local. To bring order into the sport of thoroughbred racing, James Weatherby, who was the Jockey Club’s secretary, treasurer, solicitor and stakeholder, began in 1769 to publish the Racing Calendar (Birley, 1993: 136). Neither organization was able to achieve complete control of its sport until well into the next century, but a start was made, which is more than can be said of boxing (Brailsford, 1988; Brookes, 1978; Vamplew, 1976).

Whatever the intentions of the Jockey Club, eighteenth-century transportation was inadequate to ‘nationalize’ horse races, most of which remained purely local affairs for farm animals ridden by their owners. In 1836, Lord George Bentinck introduced the horse-drawn van to carry thoroughbreds from venue to venue. Four years later, railroads began to transport them (as well as the tens of thousands of spectators eager to spend ‘a day at the races’) (Vamplew, 1979). William Clarke’s cricket team, the All-England Eleven, took to the rails in 1846 (Brookes, 1978: 101; Sissons, 1988: 10-11). Steamboats did for international competition what the railroad did for national. Thanks to the introduction of regularly scheduled transatlantic steamers in 1841, teams of touring English cricketers were able to depart for North America in 1859 and Australia in 1862 (Brailsford, 1991).

The revolutions in transportation and communication that are a staple of every historical account of the nineteenth century accelerated the formation of national sports organizations. England’s incipiently bureaucratic Football Association (1863) was among the first. It was quickly followed by the Rugby Football Union (1871) and by national organizations for swimming (1874), boxing (1880), track and field (1880), rowing (1882) and cycling (1884). In the United States, the 22-club National Association of Base Ball Players was formed in 1859, only 15 years after Alexander Cartwright established the rules of the game (Seymour, 1960; Goldstein, 1989). By 1876, the United States was technologically advanced enough for a group of businessmen to form an eight-team National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. A coast-to-coast rail network made it a simple matter for teams as distant as the Chicago White Sox and the New York Highlanders to compete on a regular basis. The invention of the telegraph made it possible for news of the results to be flashed from city to city. Technological innovations like the linotype and photogravure enabled newspapers to publicize these results within hours of the end of the contest.

Technological advances also transformed the implements with which the game was played. Every modern sport, from skiing to rollerskating, experienced this transformation. Cycling is a perfect example of this process. The sport began in 1817, when Karl Freiherr von Drais, an eccentric German nobleman, invented a simple two-wheeled device propelled by alternate thrusts of the foot against the ground. By mid-century, propulsion came by means of pedals attached to the axel of a large front wheel. In 1880, the Tangent and Coventry Tricycle Company introduced the chain drive. A year later, Erneste Michaux built a factory to mass produce bicycles for a booming market. John Boyd Dunlop invented a pneumatic tire in 1888 and the brothers Michelin outdid him, in 1891, with one that was tubeless and easily detachable. By this time, the dangerously unstable ‘high wheeler’ was replaced by the ‘safety bike,’ which had two wheels of equal size (McGurn, 1987; Vigarello, 1988: 15-18).

Rowing was similarly transformed by rapid nineteenth-century invention. The clumsy oaken boats in which London’s eighteenth-century ferrymen competed for Thomas Doggett’s Coat and Badge (1715) became the lightweight modern scull. ‘A typical boat in 1820 … was thirty-five feet long, weighed 700 pounds, and … seated ten rowers. … In contrast, a typical shell in 1865, made of paper-thin Spanish cedar with a single plank to a side, was forty feet long, weighed only 35 pounds, and … seated one rower’ (Johns, 1983: 25-6). The iron outrigger, invented by Henry Clasper in 1845, and the sliding seat were important innovations. They efficiently transformed the oarsman’s muscular efforts into a forward motion unthinkable in Doggett’s time (Halladay, 1991; Wigglesworth, 1992).

The difference between the ferryman’s awkward boat and the oarsman’s streamlined scull is symbolic of the specialization that is another fundamental characteristic of modern sports. Folk football included ‘elements of what later became highly specialized games’ such as soccer, rugby, field hockey and American football (Dunning, 1973). Within the American version of the game, there was further specialization in that the players were distributed among eleven offensive and eleven defensive positions (to which, in the twentieth century, were added still other playing positions occupied by members of the ‘specials’ teams). Other sports revealed other kinds of specialization. The rules of golf do not stipulate offensive and defensive players, but every golfer relies on a variety of specialized clubs designed for a variety of different situations and conditions.

Among the specialized roles of modern sports is that of the sports physiologist. As preparation for sports participation became increasingly scientific, physiologists began to study athletes’ bodies in order to explain their superior performances. By the end of the century, they were able to use the results of their study to guide athletes to still better performances (Hoberman, 1992). Journalists began to refer to athletes as ‘perfected machines’ (upon which coaches and trainers were expected to work in the spirit of mechanical engineers). Discussions of strategy and tactics resembled the time and motion studies of Fredrick Winslow Taylor.

Time and space were measured with increasing precision and they were both reconceptualized. The duration of the game of folk football was determined, more often than not, by the time it took to establish a winner. While this remains true in many modern sports, like tennis and golf, modern team games typically last for a predetermined number of minutes. Nineteenth-century players could interrupt the flow of time with a ‘time out,’ but there was an inexorable clock that stopped the game even if it was a scoreless tie. (Among team games, cricket, baseball, and volleyball are temporal exceptions; soccer, rugby, American and Australian rules football, basketball, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse and team handball are the rule.) The spatial parallel to the set time within which a contest must come to a conclusion is the set distance which is to be traversed in the shortest possible time (which, by the end of the nineteenth century, was frequently measured to the hundredth of a second).

Many premodern sports occurred in a space of their own, which was often considered sacred. Antiquity’s Olympic Games and the sacrificial ballgames of the Aztec and Mayan cultures are two examples of this. Other sports, like the footraces that took place on the occasion of a medieval fair, took place wherever a suitable ground was to be found. Modern sports are almost invariably played in a specially designated and designed space that is poorly adapted to any other activity. In some cases, the site is either a natural one, as in surfing, or one that has been constructed in imitation of nature, as in golf. In most cases, however, the modern ‘field’ of play is a geometrically designed artefact.

The Football Association determined that soccer be played on a rectangular ground. The vertical goalpost bar was added in 1875, the sidelines seven years later. During the late nineteenth century, the Scots architect Archibald Leitch constructed the familiar doubledecker grandstands at Ibrox, Hampden, Stamford Bridge, Villa Park, Old Trafford, and other sites. Terraces were in place before 1900. Executive boxes were a twentieth-century addition (Bale, 1993, 1994). Nineteenth-century baseball, which was a more complexly quantified game than the various codes of football, was less modern than soccer in that the ‘parks’ in which the game was played were an odd mix of premodern and modern ludic spaces. The four bases were symmetrically situated and the field of play was bounded to the right and left by a pair of symmetrical foul lines radiating from home plate, but there was no outer boundary and the ‘outfield’ of each ball park had its own unique configuration.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, hundreds of ball houses were constructed for the elaborate indoor raquet games that were the precursors of modern tennis, but most premodern sports were played outdoors. The nineteenth century saw a proliferation of buildings specifically designed for swimming, bowling, ice skating, roller skating and other sports (Eichberg, 1988). Indeed, basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891 in order to provide members of the Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA with an indoors game that could be played despite New England’s inclement winter weather (Guttmann, 1988: 70-4; Peterson, 1990).

Abstraction is still another aspect of rationalization. Many objects underwent what Vigarello (1988) terms ‘déréalisation.’ Mimetic archery targets that looked like animals were transformed into abstract fields formed by concentric circles. In track-and-field sports, hedges became hurdles, streams became shallow rectangular pools of water, the hammer became a ball and chain. The steed upon which the Renaissance acrobat performed equestrian stunts became the nineteenth-century gymnast’s wooden ‘horse.’ Innovations of this sort allowed the standardization required for equality of opportunity.

Rationalization also altered the means by which champions were selected. While it is still the custom to declare a boxer ‘champion of the world’ on the basis of a challenge bout, it is typical of modern team sports to determine championships by a fixed number of contests that take place in the course of a ‘knock-out’ or ‘round-robin’ tournament or in the course of an entire season of play. In the early years of baseball, teams like the New York Mutuals challenged teams like the Brooklyn Atlantics to a friendly match. After a summer of play, a team might claim to be the best in the nation, but there was no satisfactory way to test the claim. The solution was to create a league in which every team plays every other team a set number of times each season. To arrange for each of eight baseball teams to play each of seven other teams twenty-two times a summer over an area as large as the entire northeast quarter of the United States required a considerable facility with numbers. Today, after the increase in the number of teams and the expansion of baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey leagues across the entire American continent, a computer is required to schedule the times and places of the contests.

The mathematics necessary simply to schedule a season or to arrange for the World Cup are of no interest to the average sports fan, but the statistics of the game have an unbreakable hold on the modern fan’s imagination. Cricket, with the number of runs scored and the number of wickets taken, is a good example of this; baseball is a still better one. The spatial separation of the players on the field and the specialization of their roles facilitated the accumulation of accurate individual and team statistics. The numerical aspects of the game—three strikes, four balls, three outs, four bases, nine innings, 154 games—provided the opportunity for infinitely varied arithmetical calculations. Nineteenth-century newspapers responded eagerly to the passion for statistical data and quickly introduced ‘box scores’ of individual games and a won-lost matrix indicating the position of each team on any given day of the season (Seymour, 1960).

The Twentieth Century

Throughout the twentieth century, modern sports have experienced an acceleration of change without a fundamental shift in direction. The measurement of times and distances has become increasingly precise. Hand-held stopwatches have been replaced by digital clocks, and tape-measures by electronic scanners. At the Olympic Games celebrated in Munich (1972), swimmers were timed to the thousandth of a second in a pool where lanes differed in length by no more than half a centimeter. In team games, the quantification of achievement has progressed to the point where multifactor regression formulae can be used to calculate the ‘productivity’ of each player. The quantification of modern sports is an ideal basis for computer games based on statistical probabilities. At Microsoft’s research center, computer programmers have developed an electronic baseball game that will have three hundred different statistical categories (Katz, 1995).

The rationalization of facilities and equipment has also continued. Nineteenth-century runners were content to race on cinder tracks, the first of which was constructed in London in 1867, but their descendants compete on scientifically designed artificial surfaces. The ‘containerization’ of ludic space has gone so far that baseball games, once played on summer’s grassy fields, can now take place in late October in immense domed stadia constructed at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars (Bale, 1993; Eichberg, 1988). Although the craft that won the first America’s Cup, in 1851, was constructed to race rather than to carry commercial cargoes, it seems almost as archaic as a Greek trireme when it is compared to the computer-modelled boats that now compete for the trophy. It is, in fact, difficult to think of a modern sport whose equipment has not been changed by the introduction of new materials and new designs.

Technological innovation has continued to produce new sports. Bicycles were followed by automobiles and airplanes, which meant, inevitably, races to see which automobile was the fastest, which airplane was able to fly faster, higher or farther. Whether one looks at a phenomenon as complicated as the Indianapolis 500 or at an object as simple as the vaulter’s fiberglass pole, the importance of technology is obvious.

Athletes are now ‘engineered’ as intensely as their facilities and equipment. The scientific study of the human body and its movements is rightly thought to be an essential part of the quest for the most efficient athletic performance (Hoberman, 1992). Trial and error have been replaced by systematic study. German scientists led the way in the scientific selection and training of potential champions. To gain admission to East Germany’s Sportschulen, where elite athletes were produced en masse, children submitted to ten days of tests that determined, among other things, the ratio of red blood cells to white. (The higher the percentage of red cells, the greater the potential for aerobic sports.) Once accepted, the children were trained by a centralized sports bureaucracy determined to enhance their nation’s prestige by winning international competitions, garnering Olympic medals and setting sports records. When scientific evidence proved that anabolic steroids improved performances in all sports requiring bursts of strength, the bureaucrats introduced a secret, compulsory, carefully monitored and highly successful program to administer anabolic steroids to East Germany’s male and female athletes.

Germans were not the only ones to utilize modern science in the quest for athletic supremacy. To rationalize human movement, computer experts like Gideon Ariel, an Israeli-born American, pioneered the use of simulations to model the optimal way to hit a golf ball, to ski, to run the 400 meter hurdles (Moore, 1977). The US Olympic Committee, which officially condemned the use of banned drugs, allegedly tolerated and even encouraged their use (Voy, 1991).

As the plague of illicit drugs indicates, modern sports are a thoroughly international phenomenon. If the railroad, the telegraph and the daily newspaper symbolize the nineteenth-century nationalization of modern sports, the Boeing 747 and the SONY television set can be taken as technological (and economic) symbols of the globalization of sports in the twentieth century. To organize regular international competition (as opposed to occasional challenges), international sports bureaucracies were formed. As early as 1894, steamships, the Atlantic cable and a cosmopolitan spirit enabled Pierre de Coubertin to found the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and plan successfully for the first Olympic Games of the modern era. By then, international industrial-commercial fairs, like London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, were common (and two of the first three modern Olympics took place, to their detriment, as constituent parts of a world fair).

The IOC was hardly a modern bureaucratic organization. Coubertin named the first members and the committee has, ever since, elected its own members. For decades, the IOC was composed mainly of titled aristocrats whose accomplishments as horsemen and marksmen exceeded their competence as sports administrators. None the less, the principle of regularly occurring international competition was established.

In the course of the twentieth century, similar organizations were established for dozens of other modern sports. The most important of them were those created to govern Association football (soccer), swimming and diving, and track and field: the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (1904), the Fédération Internationale de Natation (1908) and the International Amateur Athletic Federation (1912). The French, who led the way in global acceptance of the metric system, were also leaders in the establishment of the International Olympic Committee and the various international sports federations. England’s insular and arrogant Football Association rejected membership in FIFA when the soccer federation was founded and withdrew twice when FIFA took positions unpopular in Great Britain.

The prerequisite for FIFA and every other international sports federation was the nineteenth-century diffusion of modern sports from England to the entire world (Bottenburg, 1994; Guttmann, 1994). Wherever British military men, colonial adminstrators, missionaries, educators, settlers, or entrepreneurs went, they carried with them their enthusiasm for cricket, soccer, rugby and the entire gamut of modern sports. Where the British exercised political control, as they did in India and through most of Africa, they tended to impose their games upon the people whom they ruled. Where the British were merely a dominant economic presence, which was the case in South America, their sports tended to be spread by the process of emulation; the sons of the local elite wanted to play British games just as they wanted to wear British clothes and speak English with a proper British accent. In areas where the United States rather than the United Kingdom exercised hegemonic influence, baseball rather than soccer became the most common sport. In the late nineteenth century, this was the case in Japan, in Central America and in Cuba. After the Second World War, American political and economic hegemony led to the rapid global diffusion of basketball even where British sports had been supreme. On the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, young men who once wanted to become a second Learie Constantine now imitate Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal (Mandle and Mandle, 1988).

In fact, they may actually become the next stars of the National Basketball Association. Premodern sports are almost invariably characterized by stringent rules of inclusion and exclusion based on differences in age, gender, race, ethnicity and social class. Participation in antiquity’s Olympic Games, for instance, was initially limited to free (rather than enslaved) ethnically Greek males. Entry into a medieval tournament required proof of noble status. Nineteenth-century sports were more egalitarian, but there were exclusionary rules or customs barring African Americans from Major League baseball, preventing manual workers from participating in a number of amateur sports, and ‘protecting’ girls and women from sports that were thought to endanger their reproductive organs or to jeopardize their femininity. It is impossible to say whether these barriers were dismantled as a result of the general democratization of society or as a consequence of the desire to field the best team and to determine the absolutely best performance, but the logic of modern sports dictates equality of opportunity as a guarantee that victories are achieved and not simply ascribed. On the basis of royal dogma, Amenophis II of Egypt was proclaimed the greatest athlete of all time (Decker, 1987); Jesse Owens won races and set records to prove his superiority.

Unlike the more or less unplanned spread of sports in the nineteenth century, the global diffusion of late-twentieth-century sports has frequently been driven by multinational corporations (Bale and Maguire, 1993; Guttmann, 1994; Maguire, 1991, 1993). Nineteenth-century entrepreneurs like Albert Goodwill Spaulding were keen to export sports equipment, and twentieth-century sporting goods manufacturers, like Rossignol and Nike, compete fiercely on the international market; but the most dramatic development has been the promotion of sports spectacles and the advertisement of sports equipment via satellite television.

In 1977, when the right to telecast cricket tests went to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation rather than to Kerry Packer’s Channel 9, Packer, with financial support from Benson & Hedges, organized and successfully marketed an alternative: the one-day cricket matches of World Series Cricket (Cashman, 1984: 159-67). The imbrication of sports leagues, equipment manufacturers, television networks and marketing organizations is immensely complicated. ‘TWI [Trans World Sport], the company involved in selling the NFL [National Football League] highlights package to European broadcasters, is, in fact, a sister company of the IMG [International Marketing Group], the NFL’s marketing agent for Europe’ (Maguire, 1991: 321). Trans World Sport has no monopoly. NFL games can also be seen on Scanset in Scandinavia, on Tele 5 in Germany and Austria, on Canal Plus in France and Belgium, and on other stations the length and breadth of the continent. Television rights to the Olympic Games, which are seen by billions of viewers (and potential customers), now cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

How Did Modern Sports Emerge?

Since it is obvious that the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and many other sports events have become highly commercialized, globally marketed spectacles, it is hardly surprising that Marxist historians and sociologists have attempted to explain modern sports as an inevitable consequence of capitalist development (Brohm, 1976; Rigauer, 1969; Rittner, 1976; Vinnai, 1970; Wohl, 1973). They point out, quite correctly, that England was the first nation to develop mature industrial capitalism and that England was also the birthplace of modern sports. Their functionalist argument posits a necessary relationship between these two facts. The first led inevitably to the second because industrial capitalism requires a labor force that is physically healthy, manually dexterous, submissive to the temporal and spatial requirements of assembly-line work, and politically docile. The muscular exertion and the skills associated with sports participation are alleged to contribute to the workers’ health and manual dexterity; the need to accept the rules of the game socializes factory hands to routinized work; and the entertainment afforded by sports spectacles diverts the exploited workforce from political action. Modern sports are, therefore, an instrument to preserve the class structure of capitalist society.

One response to this rather simplistic functionalist argument is to ask if modern sports do what Marxist historians and sociologists say they do. While moderate non-competitive exercise does improve a person’s health, the intense competitiveness of modern sports causes countless major and minor injuries. Boxers suffer brain damage, gymnasts injure their backs, runners ruin their knees, and ballgames take their toll in broken arms and legs. The argument about manual dexterity is even less persuasive. The sport most closely associated with the working class is soccer (Association football), a game which minimizes the use of the hand and maximizes pedal dexterity (which is not especially prized by factory owners). The argument that sports participation socializes athletes to accept rules and regulations is much more plausible, especially when the insights of Gramsci and Foucault are added to those of Marx (Gruneau, 1983; Hargreaves, 1986; Rail and Harvey, 1995), but one must also acknowledge that games can encourage tactical inventiveness and a spirit of aggressive independence as well as an awareness of the arbitrary nature of the rules and a desire cleverly to evade them. The belief that modern sports induce political apathy may be valid in many cases, but there is also a great deal of evidence for the association of modern sports and movements for national independence (Guttmann, 1994: 171-88).

In addition to these specific objections, there are hard questions to be asked of Marxists who assert a causal relationship between capitalism and the development of modern sports. If these sports are an instrument used by capitalists to exploit proletarians, how is it that dozens of empirical studies have demonstrated that sports participation is almost always positively correlated with income and education (that is, the alleged exploiters are more likely to participate in sports than those whom they are said to exploit; Guttmann, 1981)? If modern sports are the product of capitalist development, why did they attain their most paradigmatic form in the German Democratic Republic, an avowedly anti-capitalist society? It is doubtful that there is a good answer to either question.

What, then, is the relationship between capitalism and modern sports? The clue to the relationship can be found when one looks to the formal-structural characteristics of sports rather than to their alleged social functions. The historical simultaneity of capitalist development and the emergence of modern sports may be explained by the role of Weberian instrumental rationality in both phenomena. Rather than seeing one as a function of the other, we can see both, in their shared formal-structural characteristics, as a consequence of what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead identified as the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century (1925). That century’s mathematical discoveries were popularized in the eighteenth century, at which time we can observe the beginnings of our modern obsession with quantification in sports. The emergence of modern sports represents the slow development of an empirical, experimental, mathematical Weltanschauung. England’s early leadership has less to do with Adam Smith than with Sir Isaac Newton and the founders of the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science.

The philosopher Hans Lenk has suggested this interpretation of the origins of modern sports: ‘Achievement sports, that is, sports whose achievements are extended beyond the here and now through measured comparisons, are closely connected to the scientific-experimental attitudes of the modern West’ (1972: 144). The historian Henning Eichberg noted the same connection (1973: 135-7). The plausibility of this hypothesis about origins is heightened by the fact that Romanticism, with its pervasive anti-scientific bias, encouraged the survival of premodern sports like hunting and fishing and hindered the emergence of modern sports. The strongest twentieth-century opposition to modern sports came from Romantics like the men who led the German Turnbewegung, men who were hostile to modernity in all its many forms (Guttmann, 1994: 141-5). Today, modern sports are a global phenomenon, but they are weakest in the Islamic world, where religious fundamentalism and a suspicion of modern science are strongest.


Have we entered a ‘postmodern’ era whose sports are characterized less by instrumental rationality and more by spontaneity and playfulness? French theorists like Ehrenburg (1991) have suggested this and have coined terms like ‘les sports californiens’ to categorize skateboarding, windsurfing, hang-gliding, and similar vertiginous activities whose thrills are ‘sometimes compared with the pleasure that is derived from orgasm or drugs’ (Midol and Broyer, 1995: 209). Such sports are unquestionably a part of today’s ludic landscape, but, as Jarvie and Maguire have indicated, the announcement of ‘postmodernity’ seems premature (1994). Modern sports have existed side by side with traditional sports like Spanish bullfighting and Japanese sumo wrestling. They now share the global sports arena with ‘les sports californiens,’ but, as Bromberger has shown in his study of French and Italian soccer (1995), there is no sign as yet that modern sports have lost their almost magical ability to excite and enthrall.