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the invention of modern sports and gymnastics (1789–1870)
the era of institutionalization (1870–1890)
diffusion, democratization, and adoption (1870–1914)

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europe developed into a fulcrum of invention in the arenas of sports and gymnastics where, over the course of a few decades, a new relationship to physical exercise took shape and spread, eventually reaching every nation and social stratum. The term sport itself did not enter into use in France and Germany until the mid-nineteenth century, despite the existence of games such as tennis, among others, as far back as the Middle Ages. Continental Europe invented other models for the development of bodily excellence in the form of gymnastics, and Europeans viewed sports as mere amusements; in England, by contrast, they represented a form of educational practice that took place through competitive spectacles.

the invention of modern sports and gymnastics (1789–1870)

Modern sports first emerged in England from two sources, one professional and linked to the lower classes, the other amateur and bourgeois. During this same period gymnastics, an alternative form of physical activity espousing a different set of values, was being developed in Continental Europe as a response to increasing nationalist pressures and a fear of degeneracy.

British sports

In eighteenth-century England wealthy landowners developed a pastime culture that increasingly valued physical exercise and competition between players, for example, hunting with dogs. The need to further codify these activities soon followed, aided by parliamentarianism, which altered mind-sets by inscribing the use of rules and arbitration upon English moral consciousness. The first rules for golf date from 1744 in Scotland, cricket in 1727, and a basic seven-rule boxing game began in 1743. These "gentlemen farmers," however, also adopted the habit of opposing one another via surrogates, using their fastest and strongest employees on the field or in the ring. These gatherings enjoyed great success with the people, even more so because the rural areas in England already had long-standing traditions of competitive games. Distance races, boxing matches, drunk boxing, animal fights (involving dogs, bears, cocks, etc.), and horse races were all part of daily English rural life and festivals. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the combination of this popular culture and principles of codification resulted in the development of previously unheard-of events in which impassioned crowds gathered to bet on winners, fueling a steady increase in the ranks of bookmakers serving masses of spectators numbering as high as twenty thousand people.

In the early nineteenth century the high stakes involved drove those rural players with the most talent to sell themselves to the highest bidders, constituting a market that for the first time ever allowed professional boxers, swimmers, and runners to make a living off their sporting activity. Victorian society's downplaying of violence, attested to for example in the banning of animal fights in 1835 and 1849, played into the public's taste for the spectacle of sporting events where proxy confrontations were still possible.

The consequences of this desire for more spectacle included the invention of the "handicap" for preserving the suspense at the finish line, and in 1845 (one hundred years after its invention) the use of chronometry. Event organizers strove for originality to attract audiences, including the first "world championship" boxing match between black and white fighters in 1810, which took place in front of twenty-five thousand spectators, and the promise made by one pool superintendent to showcase a record-breaking breath-holding event. Eventually, some of these professional teams were organized into federal groups such as the National Swimming Society, which was founded in 1837 by a London-based wine merchant. In a few years regional branches of the society were created, and this institution also established an annual event calendar, organized local and national championship swimming tournaments, and assumed responsibility for the record keeping of individual performance.

Just as these popular and spectacle-driven professional sports were in the process of development, however, a second orientation emerged in the public schools between 1820 and 1850. These prestigious establishments, including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Rugby School, and Eton College, brought together under one roof the children of the aristocracy, the rural gentry, and the urban bourgeoisie, all of whom shared the same beliefs in progress, capitalism, and the Protestant ethic. This rapprochement of the upper social strata gave birth to an ethos that laid the groundwork for amateur sports to emerge.

In the public schools physical exercise previously had been based on gymnastics, whereas after school the students engaged in competitive sports that were tolerated more than encouraged by school officials, who never managed to prohibit them completely. Beginning in the 1820s, however, these games gained in status and eventually became primary elements in the British elite educational system. For example, the director of Rugby School, Thomas Arnold, decided to regulate its football matches: rules concerning duration, refereeing, the codification of "hacking" (stopping the man who has the ball), and the management of the matches by the students themselves all ensued. The goal was to use games played in the open air to produce "muscular Christians," meaning individuals capable of controlling their passions (disciplinary, sexual) through henceforth institutionalized activities and, even further, to produce men of initiative at a moment in history when England remained the world's most important economic and colonial power.

With the Rugby model in mind, the other educational establishments each followed suit with its own particular sport, including swimming at Eton and rowing at Oxford and Cambridge, the latter two having competed against each other every year since 1829. These developments were greatly favored by the expansion of the rail network from 1850 on, which helped multiply the number of encounters between university teams.

After graduating, students interested in continuing to play their favorite sports formed the first sporting clubs. The product of the favored classes and exclusively masculine, these players considered themselves the ambassadors of a way of life that drove them to advocate aggressively in favor of the idea of sports as an activity for amateurs that relied on limited violence, eventually leading to the establishment of rules and institutional structures intended to guide the final development of sports as a whole. In 1863 the rules of the Football Association were instituted for these purposes, and the first England Cup Tournament was held the following year. In early 1869 officials from several swimming clubs gathered in London to codify laws for the foundation of the Metropolitan Swimming Association, which was created later that year. By 1870, therefore, two great approaches to sports in Great Britain, one professional and the other amateur, coexisted and contributed equally through their activities and their conflicts to the creation of a sporting culture on a nationwide scale that was virtually unknown in the rest of Europe.

European gymnastics

From the end of the eighteenth century to the second half of the nineteenth, a significant portion of Europe, notably Germany, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, witnessed the appearance of exercise institutions such as fencing rooms, baths, and private gymnasiums, often started by former soldiers and educators seeking a profitable transition to civilian life. Formal schools of gymnastics and physical exercise also arose during this time, and their owners did not hesitate to publicize their methods in multiple languages and across national borders. For example, the Swiss Clias could be found in France, England, the Netherlands, and Denmark, while the French Triat opened a renowned venue in Brussels.

These gymnasiums existed exclusively in urban settings and catered to an essentially bourgeois, educated adult clientele who were highly receptive to Rousseauian ideas and placed their beliefs in the recommendations of hygienists who began to emphasize the role of regular physical activity taken in controlled doses. A generalized anxiety concerning racial degeneracy believed to be occurring via numerous epidemics did the rest.

Although some of these gymnasiums and exercise facilities were specialized for female clients (Clias in Switzerland, Laisné in France), for the most part they were reserved exclusively for men. This network reached its apogee in the 1860s, at which point a new form of gymnastics with more nationalist and educational aims, rather than being activity- and hygiene-based, began to emerge. Thus in the first half of the nineteenth century there arose a series of competing systems that in the minds of many reflected the national identity of each nation and its unique memory of the Napoleonic Wars, such as in Germany, Sweden, France, and Denmark.

In general terms these gymnastics were based on collective forms of exercise, with or without equipment, that valued discipline, the cult of the group, respect for the leader, and the integration of the individual into the group. According to national differences, they reflected the influence of either state institutions, including the army (the case for example with the Amoros method in France) and the schools, or private institutions.

For example, the principles championed by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778–1852) in the German states can be understood only as reactions to the Napoleonic invasions. Heavily influenced by the thought of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and his hatred of the French, Jahn systematized a patriotic gymnastics in the service of the deutsche Volkstum (German community) with increasingly racist overtones. Anyone who "loves, praises, excuses or cohorts with foreigners" was barred from entry into the gymnastic society. The term gymnastics itself was replaced by the more German word Turnen, and Turner soon became synonymous with being skilled in the values of a unified Germany. Various symbols including dress, hairstyle, and other devices came to reinforce this ideology, which was in direct opposition to British sports. Despite the fears, and the prohibitions, generated by this project of unification, Turnen spread to all the great cities of Germany in the form of societies, in particular after the Revolution of 1848–1849, at which point the model was exported to other European countries including Switzerland (with Adolf Spiess), Austria-Hungary (with the Von Stephany brothers), Italy (with Rodolfo Obermann), and Greece (with Georgios Pagon). In Belgium the followers of Carl Euler ran up against the practices of the Swedish method, which was the product of the work of one of Jahn's contemporaries, Per Henrik Ling (1776–1839), who advocated within Sweden itself a conception less anchored in nationalism and more influenced by the desire to improve the health of his compatriots. This approach stemmed from his own past, insofar as he had a wounded arm that regained its mobility only through gymnastic activity. In 1813, in Stockholm, Ling had founded the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute, the first training facility for gymnastics teachers in Europe. Furthermore, Ling, followed by his son Lijalmar, formalized his system based on scientific principles, and in the middle of the nineteenth century their students exported the Swedish method to the rest of northern Europe and England, and its influence spread elsewhere in Europe as well.

the era of institutionalization (1870–1890)

Beginning in the 1870s, physical activity generally came to be viewed more and more as a way to promote health and improve individual performance in the professional, military, and scholarly domestic spheres. Furthermore, what passed for sports in England and for gymnastics in the rest of Europe could not be directly compared. Though both reflected similar trends toward rationalization and institutionalization, the development of the former reflected the English social structure, leading to the eventual imposition of the amateur ethic upon the practices of professionals, whereas in Germany or France sports reflected the sociopolitical consequences of the battles of Sadowa (1866) and Sedan (1870), which had marked Prussian supremacy and led to the unification of Germany.

In England, the conflict-ridden coexistence of amateur practices alongside professional ones spurred unprecedented growth in sporting culture itself, particularly in the great urban centers. The competition between these two ethics drove those responsible for directing the development of the biggest sports to increasingly delineate the conditions surrounding the matches in a more precise manner. The number of articles of rules for the same sporting activity increased by a factor of two or three between 1870 and 1890, leading to the need for negotiation because the same rules were not always followed across different regions and universities. Consensus at times proved impossible, as witnessed for example in the creation in 1871 of the Rugby Football Association, whose officials did not share the positions of the English Football Association, founded in 1863. Disagreements concerning the definition of what constitutes an amateur, given the inadequacy of a code based primarily on class considerations, also produced significant tensions within institutions. In 1869 the Metropolitan Swimming Association (MSA) laid out its twenty-three-point "Laws of Amateur Swimming," immediately provoking harsh reactions from professionals thereby excluded from their chosen field as well as numerous amateurs who rejected the imperialism of directors based in London. Competitor institutions soon appeared, including the Professional Swimming Association for the former and the Amateur Swimming Union for the latter, before the MSA prevailed under the guise of a new name, the Swimming Association of Great Britain (1873), and then as the Amateur Swimming Association (instead of Union), starting in 1886.

Such restructuring reinforced the process of regulation that was already taking place, and the university ethic of the gentlemen amateur finally managed to dominate in the 1880s. The authorities responsible for regulating swimming, cycling, and other sports in that decade were bound together by these strong ties. Not all federations, however, were as closed off as the highly elitist members of the Marylebone Cricket Club, the Amateur Rowing Association, and the Lawn Tennis Association. After the Football Association formally recognized professional players in 1885, football became the most incontestably popular sport in the country. The number of clubs multiplied and spread further into the worker population. In a country in which three-fourths of the population lived in cities by the end of the century, urban youths increasingly played football. In 1874 there was only one football club in Birmingham—by 1880 there were 150, and Liverpool alone counted 200 in 1890.

London, then the world's largest city, also became England's and Europe's main hotspot for sports. Tens of thousands of spectators crowded around sporting fields and on the banks of the Thames to watch football, cricket, and rowing matches. A specialized press evolved, reinforcing the element of spectacle even more, and sport-specific venues were built on this success. Although for football modest fields were laid out wherever space near a factory was available, the first large stadiums, such as Scotland's Hampden Park (begun in 1893), also appeared during this period. Nearly one thousand golf courses were built in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1912 England possessed eight hundred baths, six hundred of which were in fact swimming pools where meets were held, and seemingly every fancy hotel had its tennis court. In this way, over the course of just three decades, a network of dedicated sporting installations was erected that Continent-dwellers would soon regard with envy.

This English phase of the institutionalization and codification of sports could be found in the rest of Europe with respect to gymnastics but with notable variations based on national traditions. The origin of this process, however, was very different on the Continent because it was directly linked to the rise of German influence in the 1860s. Gymnastics became even more a tool for military preparation and civic education than before, with the support of the political authorities of the Continental Great Powers, and closely tied to the schools and armies.

In Germany, the Turnen societies were combined into a national federation (the Deutsche Turnerschaft) in 1868. Although the powerful largely impeded the movement's formal politicization, it was evident nonetheless in its military aspirations and found conditions highly favorable to its expansion in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the end of the nineteenth century these societies counted more than a million members among their ranks.

Denmark created the Danish Shooting Federation (De Danske Skytteforeninger) in 1861 to counter this rise in German influence, but the movement's greatest development no doubt occurred in France. When the Third Republic emerged out of the ashes of defeat at Sedan and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, gymnastics came to be organized along patriotic and "revanchist" lines that were very different from both private gymnastics and the nascent sporting activities. In 1873 these societies came together to form a movement for national federation, which resulted in the formation of the Union of Gymnastic Societies (Union des Sociétés de Gymnastique de France). This union enjoyed close relations with the political elite and the French Masons. From 251 societies in 1882, at the moment when nationalism increased its appeal (for example, with the creation of the Patriot League, or Ligue des Patriotes), the number of member gymnastic societies, including groups devoted to shooting and military preparation, exceeded fifty-four hundred just prior to World War I, with the number of individual members growing to half a million.

Gymnastics also met the needs of identity formation by becoming a tool for community cohesion and the reinforcement of nationalist sentiment. Though most evident in Germany and France, it also developed definitive forms in Italy through a national federation (the Federazione Ginnastica d'Italia), founded in 1869, even as the fractures between north and south were weakening the country. Less prevalent in Spain and Portugal, the gymnastic societies would play a similar role for the minority groups of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as they did in France, Germany, and Italy. They were particularly dense indeed among the Alsatians on the German Empire's western perimeter, as well as, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, among the Slovenes to the south, in the form of the Sokol movement, and among the Slavic communities for whom the movement increasingly represented a form of group expression. Of course at the moment in 1862 when the term sokol (falcon) was chosen in honor of the legendary Slovenian heroes, the group's ranks did not yet number more than a few hundred individuals. Twenty years later, under the agency of Miroslav Tyrš in particular, the first slet (festival) still attracted just 760 gymnasts, but this number grew to 2,473 by the second one in 1891, and eventually reached 12,000 people by the sixth one in 1912.

Unlike the athletes involved in most sports, gymnasts from most nations generally were drawn from the middle and lower classes composed of workers and farmers. Still, the sporting clubs themselves invariably functioned like mini-societies with systems for sanction, discipline, rewards, and punishments. Becoming a member often presupposed a form of cooptation involving specific rites of initiation, usually including a requirement for wearing membership insignias as well as other marks of distinction such as clothing (caps, outfits, and uniforms), badges, and the recitation of hymns. The similarities, however, end there. The sporting clubs were driven to organize their activities in order to increase performance and win. By the end of the nineteenth century the role of the coach had become distinguished from that of team captain, whereas the two could have been easily confused just a decade earlier. The horse-training model, often referred to in the 1850s, became less useful when the first physiological benchmarks came into use after 1890. The early development of a sporting culture in England no doubt explains at least some of the differences between the activities practiced there, as opposed to on the Continent. The former had become highly specialized into specific sports at a time when the latter were to remain largely polyvalent until 1914. The first training manuals appeared in England in the second half of the nineteenth century, whereas it would take another generation for this kind of literature to spread on the Continent.

For their part the gymnasts promoted forms of activity that were legitimate and compatible with the patriotic voluntarism from which they had emerged. Military ranks, salutes, chants, systematic sanctions, flags, and hymns all constituted a framework within which physical training could be conceived only in terms of morality in action. Unlike the sports clubs, the gymnastic societies focused less on individual achievement and more on socialization and belonging to a group. The sporting "championships" that appeared more or less throughout Europe in the 1880s were therefore quite different than gymnastic "festivals" and "competitions" where individual medals were rarely awarded, in favor of team effort, parades, and other forms of collective exhibition.

diffusion, democratization, and adoption (1870–1914)

As the British sporting model assumed its ultimate form, it also spread beyond its initial home and in two generations had conquered the European countries in which Britain had its greatest economic and cultural influences, or where the Industrial Revolution provided fertile ground. Indeed what sports were played in Continental Europe during these years initially reflected the presence of British nationals.

Englishmen founded both the Belgian Regatta Society (1851) and Belgium's first football club (in Antwerp, 1880). The northern and western regions of Germany, where commercial exchange with England was greatest, witnessed the birth of its first sports clubs. In France, the first football teams were formed in localities with the largest concentration of British émigrés, primarily in Le Havre (1872) and Paris (1877). Tennis developed in the seaside resorts of the Atlantic and North Sea, often on private estates or resorts where British vacationers were residing. In Spain, football was introduced by the Irish schools in Valladolid and Salamanca, although it was a Swiss who founded the famous Barcelona Football Club in 1899. Yet the first Swiss football championship was won by the Geneva team, composed entirely of English players. At other times it was visitors from a given country returning from a stay in England, who had been won over by sports, and who attempted to institute them upon their return. This process was evident in Italy, and even more so in Greece, where the organization of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 substantially accelerated it.

In most instances this first phase gave way to a process whereby foreign sports seeped into the local population's middle class, which was susceptible to British culture. The first teams without British players appeared between 1880 and 1900, at the same time as federations were created either for specific sporting activities (e.g., the Spanish Cycling Federation in 1889, the Federation of French Rowing Societies in 1893, the Italian Athletics Federation in 1898) or in the form of open-ended groups such as the Union of French Sporting and Athletic Societies (1889), the Union of Belgian Athletic Sports Societies (1895), the Danish Sports Federation (1896), and the Greek Union of Associations for Athletic Sports and Gymnastics (1897). All of these institutions defined and codified their activities according to English rules, including the strict imposition of the original amateur ethos.

The ground was thus prepared for the reception given to English sports on the Continent by the increasing popularity of athletics and biking. Indeed the fashion for horse racing had already spread to the great European cities and tourist destinations by the mid-nineteenth century. Although events in this case remained reserved primarily for elites, they paved the way for the arrival of modern sports. Biking witnessed remarkable growth after 1880 in Italy (Italian Cyclists Union in 1885), Belgium, France (French Cyclists Union in 1881), and in Greece (Greek Cyclists Union in 1895), following a number of crucial technological innovations including the attachment of the chain to the rear wheel in 1880 and the rubber tire in 1888. Lodged between bourgeois pastime and popular sport, cycling, along with football, became one of the era's primary avenues for the democratization of sports itself. Several million bicycles had already been industrially produced before 1914. As early as 1890 several large races had begun, followed by the popular Tour de France in 1903, the Tour of Italy in 1909, and the Tour of Flanders in 1913.

The adoption and democratization of modern sports between 1870 and 1914 on the Continent, however, reflected a dual heritage. On the one hand the influence of traditional games continued in many regional and national cultures, in Belgium and Switzerland, for example, where the advent of some new sports led to the disappearance of some traditional ones. On the other hand, in Scandinavia, Germany, and France those faithful to gymnastics carried out vehement attacks against those deemed to have given in to the seductions of the British model. This opposition assumed forms at once social (bourgeois sports versus popular gymnastics), ideological (sports valuing individual performance over gymnastics promoting collective and public display), and nationalist (English sports versus national gymnastics).

Despite these sizable divergences, the English model clearly prevailed throughout most European countries between 1900 and 1914, although its total dissemination and adoption remained extremely incomplete. The democratization of sports in Europe was easiest with respect to certain activities such as football, cycling, and boxing; by contrast, others sports such as tennis, golf, and cricket remained largely the domain of elites by 1914. Track and field events and swimming were varyingly democratized depending on the different national cultures they encountered, a process accompanied furthermore by the birth of a workers' sports movement developed in opposition to the dominant models of sports and gymnastics. Beginning in 1893 Germany workers' federations for gymnastics, cycling, swimming, and track and field were created, counting nearly 350,000 people in their ranks by 1914. Other countries followed suit, leading to the creation in 1913 of the International Socialist Physical Education Association joining together five European nations: Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Italy.

Before 1914, both sports and gymnastics evinced the same reticence to allow the participation of women, yet throughout the nineteenth century, in England at least, many women swam, played tennis, accompanied their husbands on biking excursions, and, for the more intrepid among them at the beginning of the twentieth century, began to form hockey and even football teams. On the Continent a few exclusively female gymnastic societies existed after 1880, inspired by the Swiss and German examples of the initiatives taken by Phokion Heinrich Clias and Adolf Spiess, respectively. For the most part, however, these institutions were as a rule created by and for men in the nineteenth century. In a context of governmental and church-dominated conservatism, they contributed to the reinforcement of an ideal of bourgeois masculinity. Therefore those women who did engage in physical activity exposed themselves to indifference at best, and, at worst, approbation and renunciation, above all considering the fact that the symbols these activities espoused (in cycling technical progress and the wearing of trousers, the violence of team sports, the sweat and strain of racing) were simply too manifestly "masculine." The ideals related to sporting achievement and gymnastic accomplishment were very far indeed from the feminine stereotypes that dominated Europe at the time, though relatively more rapid advances could be seen in England and, to a lesser extent, in northern Europe, Germany, and France.

International competitions in Europe considerably stimulated an accelerated and broader circulation of physical models, practices, techniques, and technologies after 1890. The first such competition began in 1871 as a rugby match between England and Scotland. Sporting competitions served to mobilize nationalist sentiments, and infused the spectacle of sports with new vigor, but also tension. Besides the year 1904 (St. Louis, Missouri), all the Olympic Games before World War I took place in Europe (Athens in 1896 and 1906, Paris in 1900, London in 1908, and Stockholm in 1912). It was also in these capitols that the first world championships were held as well. By 1914 sports had become irrevocably politicized. Players' and spectators' love of sports now competed with combative nationalism.

See alsoBody; Cycling; Football (Soccer); Olympic Games; Popular and Elite Culture.


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