In modern history, sport is embedded in the major trends of modernity itself, industrialization, urbanization, and nationalism
Histories of sport reveal that modern cultures conceptualize physical activity differently than traditional societies. Modern sport tends toward the secular rather than the sacred. A focus on equality, both in the conditions of competition and in opportunities to compete, consumes modern sport. Modern sport replicates modern social structures in other ways as well, manifesting the peculiar modern manias for specialization, bureaucratization, rationalization, and quantification in unique ways. In modern history, sport is embedded in the major trends of modernity itself, industrialization, urbanization, and nationalism. Most significantly, at least from modern perspectives, 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 steady rhythms of traditional life. The idea of sport as a social utility certainly has roots in older traditions, as Greek and Roman concepts about athletics as training for citizenship testify. However in the modern period the idea of sport as a useful tool grew to grand historic dimensions.
In early modern Europe, sports served the emerging centralized monarchies by symbolizing power and cultivating popular support. Monarchs commandeered the older sporting practices of the aristocracy in order to celebrate regal prowess and wealth. To gain popular support as they moved to usurp the power of the nobility and clergy, European monarchs transformed popular peasant pastimes into political rights to win over the masses. At the same time sport became a central element in the education of European elites. The Renaissance witnessed the excavation of classical notions of sound minds in sound bodies. Renaissance thinkers insisted that a complete education developed physical as well as intellectual faculties. Utilitarian notions of sport also developed in unexpected places. Early twenty-first-century scholarship has revealed that Protestant reformers, far from the sport-hating puritans of stereotype, in fact endorsed a variety of athletic endeavors as long as they were undertaken to make people better workers, better citizens, better soldiers, and better Christians.
Purposeful sport that served specific social ends was firmly established in Western societies in the early modern period. During the same epoch, the sports of non-Western cultures moved rapidly toward extinction. The ‘Columbian Exchange’ in sport was initially a one-way street. Indigenous sports, such as the elaborate ritual of the Mesoamerican ball game, were destroyed by Western conquest. Modern sports developed almost exclusively in Western cultures. Western cultures sometimes appropriated pastimes such as lacrosse, a game with heritages in both Europe and the Americas, but they relentlessly modernized them. A survey of sports including the largest global athletic event, the modern Olympic Games, reveals that, with one exception, all developed from Western sources. That one exception, judo, was invented by pro Western innovators in Japan who sought to modernize their own nation through the introduction of Western-style sports. The global sporting culture that has emerged since the mid-1800s is a product of the West.
The rise of the modern nation-state, beginning in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century, fueled rapid growth of the idea of sport as a useful social tool. In sport many nationalists thought that they had discovered an elemental force for making the French Revolution’s three criteria for modern nationhood—liberty, equality, fraternity—into social realities. Through modern sport they proclaimed the end of the old sporting order of ancient regimes and the rise of new national pastimes, from cricket to prize fighting to varieties of football to baseball. Sport also became a testing ground for modern notions of equality. Class, ethnicity, race, and gender boundaries increasingly came under attack on playing fields in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was, however, the third element of the French Revolution’s prescription for modern nationalism where sport found the most fertile loam. More than any other modern institution with the exception of war, sport provides the necessary conditions for the blossoming of fraternity, the patriotic bonds that bind citizen to citizen. Sport and physical education as agents of fraternal bonding 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 arose. The Turners were devoted explicitly to promoting physical fitness and implicitly to creating a nation of soldier-athletes to win independence for the fatherland. The movement married exercise to 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. The inherent Germaneness of the physical education system, however, ultimately prevented global diffusion of the Turners.
At the same time, in the heartland of the industrial revolution, modern competitive sports developed in Great Britain, its colonies, and its former colonies. National games such as cricket, soccer football, and rugby football emerged. Promoters sold these games as the fraternal foundation of Greater 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. Through these games, and the massive literature that grew to support them such as the classic English sporting novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), Anglo-American cultures crafted the idea that participation in sport taught modern peoples the basic tenets of citizenship. In Anglo-American ideology sport promoted moral virtue, balanced individual and communal needs, and fostered fair competition in every social endeavor. Sports, as Anglo-American promoters ceaselessly preached, were essential tools in the construction of modern nationhood.
While the gymnastic exercises of German Turners failed to find a receptive global audience, Anglo-American sports soon became a worldwide phenomenon. As the world’s major imperial power, Great Britain’s games spread throughout the world. 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 midwifed by the baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French Anglophile who fervently believed in Anglo-American sporting ideology, modern Western sport moved toward global hegemony. During the twentieth century, the Olympic Games and the World Cup soccer tournament—a 1930 spin-off from the Olympics—became the world’s most popular spectacles. Soccer football, originally a British pastime, became ‘the world’s game,’ spreading from the West to the rest of the world through emulation and diffusion rather than at imperial gunpoint. Non-Western cultures clearly chose to adopt this European import.
Encased in 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 Anglo-American faith that sport was a crucial element for fueling patriotism rather than athletic pacifism. As sport became the common language of global culture, it represented a dialect that forged national rather than global identities and was spoken with equal fluency by dictatorships as well as democracies. Sport represented an essential bonding agent in the ‘imagined communities’ of many modern nations. Initially national sporting cultures embraced men but discouraged or excluded women from serving as patriotic athletes or fans. As ideas of gender equity altered social relations in modern nations, the homo-social boundaries of sport came under assault. By the end of the nineteenth century, women had begun to participate as both spectators and players in increasing numbers. The emergence of women in sport was frequently equated to women’s emancipation and suffrage.
Sporting conflicts over ideas about gender reveal that in the early twenty-first century sport remained a powerful site for debating social concepts and practices. Insights into human societies develop at the intersection of sport with the myriad other facets of culture, from politics to religion to gender to economic interchange. In the history of ideas, sport represents a popular common pursuit for many societies at many times that can reveal much about the dynamic complexities of human cultures.