Sports, World War I

views updated


Although sports and military preparedness have been intertwined throughout human history, armed combat between 1914 and 1919 made federally financed sports and athletics central components of morale and military preparedness for the first time in American history. American soldiers had participated in various sports and athletic contests between the Civil War and World War I, but no formal policy existed and few commanders were interested in promoting an athletic component as an antidote to saber exercises, revolver practice, line skirmishes, and mounted drills. By the turn of the twentieth century, a new generation of officers maintained that physical training should precede all specifically military activities—an idea incorporated in the mandatory physical training regimen instituted by Lieutenant H. J. Koehler of West Point. Prior to World War I, surveys reported that between one-third and one-half of all military recruits were physically unfit; military leaders and physical educators waged prewar preparedness crusades that linked the strenuous life to military readiness, patriotism, manliness, morals, honor, ethnic assimilation, and national physical vitality.

In 1916 the military turned to sports as an antidote to the drinking and soliciting of prostitutes with which enlisted men tended to fill their leisure time. General John J. Pershing summoned the assistance of public and private organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the Knights of Columbus, the Playground and Recreation Association of America, and the American Library Association to assist the Commission on Training Camp Activities in developing healthy living and social arrangements for the 75 percent of troops who spent time in the thirty-two training camps at ports of entry, aviation camps, training camps, combat zones, convalescent camps, and leave areas. Physical educator James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891, served as the YMCA's sex education instructor, lecturing enlisted men on the evils of venereal disease.

The war experience heightened interest in the dominant American sports of baseball, football, and boxing, which were covered in the pages of the weekly armed forces paper, the Stars and Stripes. World War I strengthened the bond between the military and football when Army-Navy football games (begun in 1890) became a grand showcase and patriotic tradition. Football's popularity derived from the numerous enlisted men who had been collegiate players and coaches, and college and intercamp teams played each other in major stadiums. Boxing became a popular respite from military drilling at the training camps and proved to be an effective educational tool for hand-to-hand combat. Professional boxers taught the fundamentals and most states repealed their prohibitions against boxing, which became a major commercial success during the 1920s and after.

After the war, policymakers frightened by the threat of Bolshevism in postwar Europe, were unwilling to bring troops home immediately and used organized sports to occupy them. The YMCA organized an ambitious series of competitions that led to the American Expeditionary Forces championship, which flowed into a wider crusade to convert Europeans to American athletic and sporting sensibilities. The U.S. Army, working with the YMCA, invited the military officials of twenty-nine nations, colonies, and dependencies to participate in Inter-Allied Games, led by the American Expeditionary Forces. Held at the newly built Pershing Stadium near Paris, the stadium was consecrated with the words "may the cherished bonds of friendship between France and America, forged anew on the common field of battle, be tempered and made enduring on the friendly field of sport." Watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators, the games were promoted by and covered extensively in the U.S. and Allied-friendly European press. Nearly 1,500 athletes representing eighteen Allied nations or dominions participated. Never before had so much information about a sports event reached so many publications in so many countries.

The wartime sporting experience heightened the national awareness of fitness and organized athletics, fostering the sports boom of the 1920s. Burgeoning physical education programs linked fitness and athleticism to patriotic virtue and inspired millions to participate. The war experience brought sports into the elementary, high school, and college curriculums. Between 1919 and 1921, seventeen states passed physical education legislation; by 1930, thirty-six had done so. In sum, the World War I trinity of sports, the military, and national preparedness validated the various strands of early twentieth-century Progressivism in a way none of its various activists and spokespeople could have envisioned.


Allen, Edward Frank. Keeping Our Fighters Fit for War and After. New York: Century, 1918.

Gorn, Elliott, and Goldstein, Warren. A Brief History of American Sports. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Lewis, Guy. "World War I and the Emergence of Sport for the Masses." In Maryland Historian 2 (1973): 109–22.

Pope, S. W. Patriotic Games: Sporting Traditions in the American Imagination, 1876–1926. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Wakefield, Wanda E. Playing to Win: Sports and the American Military, 1898–1945. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Whyte, Major G., et al. The Inter-Allied Games, Paris, 22nd June to 6th July 1919. Paris, 1919.

S. W. Pope

See also:Sports, World War II.