sport, development of

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sport, development of. Organized competitive sport with codified rules, governing bodies, league or knock-out competitions, and restrictions on space and time is a product of the Victorian era. The classic case of the remaking of a traditional collective test of strength and ingenuity into a recognizable modern sport is that of football. In the form inherited by the early Victorians, football was usually a calendar custom, often associated with Shrove Tuesday or Easter, played between neighbouring villages or parts of towns, with no restrictions on number of players, few on duration of game, and custom rather than codified rules dictating what was permissible. Rules were imposed through the playing of football of various kinds at the public schools, from which it was disseminated as part of an evangelical culture of muscular Christianity in a drive to reform the urban working class. Rugby and association football emerged from this background as most of the traditional football games were suppressed or atrophied, though a few survived, as at Ashbourne or Workington. But as football became a popular sport it developed a momentum of its own, and dominant clubs evolved, especially at first in northern industrial towns, attracting paying spectators, crystallizing local loyalties and identities, and (paradoxically) leading managements increasingly drawn from local business rather than the churches into employing professionals drawn from elsewhere. In football, by the 1880s, they came especially from Scotland, and in rugby a little later from Wales. Association football came to terms with professionalism, while it was the rock on which rugby split, with the emergence of the Northern Union in 1895, allowing payment for absence from work, opening the way to the full professionalism of what became known as rugby league. The formation of the Football League in 1888 set the seal on the new world of association football as a spectator sport, with routine five-figure attendances, and football soon became a great British cultural export. Football had been reclaimed by the industrial working class in its revised form, without the trappings of muscular Christianity, and as a focus for the communal loyalties of the manufacturing towns, although a stratified system of lesser clubs and leagues was emerging by the turn of the century, with emphasis on participation as well as spectatorship. Restrictions on dividends ensured that even when football clubs were run as businesses their main role was to maximize enjoyment and interest rather than profits.

This remaking of sport took on different guises for different games. cricket had been codified earlier, though rule changes continued, and a distinctive Saturday-afternoon form emerged in the late 19th cent. to suit the needs of industrial populations, although Sheffield working men were capable of taking days off in mid-week to watch Yorkshire. Prize-fighting gave way to boxing on a similar principle to the transformation of football, though on a one-to-one level and with a wider gulf between amateur and professional. New games were invented in mid-Victorian times, with lawn tennis (originally sphairistike) and croquet designed to facilitate the polite mingling of the sexes in expansive suburban garden settings, the milieu for Betjeman's Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. rowing and athletics saw particularly bitter conflicts between amateur and professional ethics, exacerbated by the amateurs' fear of professionals' competitive advantages arising from their work, especially as watermen on the Thames. Cricket resolved the amateur/professional problem partly through the division of labour, with bowling the duty of professionals and batting the prerogative of amateurs, though the distinction was never complete. Certain kinds of blood sports were driven underground by early Victorian legislation against cruelty to animals, although fox-hunting never went the way of cock-fighting or bull-baiting, and the proletarian enjoyment of coarse fishing survived and prospered alongside the artificially exclusive world of fly-fishing. This raises the question of what constitutes a sport, and activities such as billiards or darts posed problems for the Victorians in this regard, as, in a more intellectual dimension, did chess. Problems of social context, and of the physical versus the cerebral, raised their heads here. The role of women in sport was also problematic, as ideas about proper ladylike behaviour and the proper form of the female body conflicted with developing cults of health and energy at the turn of the century. The morality of sport was also difficult in relation to gambling, especially but not exclusively in the context of horse-racing, which became a commercialized spectator sport in the later 19th cent. while continuing to be regulated, at least nominally, by the aristocratic Jockey Club. So the development of sport was raising large issues at the turn of the century in forms which were to prove enduring as the commercialization of sport proceeded in the 20th cent., and as big business interests penetrated sport to an increasing extent. The tensions between the Olympic ideal, sport for its own sake, and participation in a spirit of fairness being the dominant motive on the one hand, and professionalism, spectatorship, and the acceptance of gambling on the other, have roots which can be traced back over a century or more to the formative years of sport as we know it.

John K. Walton