Play Ball! How Sports Will Change in the 21st Century: A Sports-Minded Futurist Reveals How Politics, Celebrity, and Other Forces Have Undermined Organized Athletics and What the Playing Field Will Look like in the Coming Decades

By Gunston, Robin | The Futurist, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Play Ball! How Sports Will Change in the 21st Century: A Sports-Minded Futurist Reveals How Politics, Celebrity, and Other Forces Have Undermined Organized Athletics and What the Playing Field Will Look like in the Coming Decades


Gunston, Robin, The Futurist


Welcome to the twenty-first century's wide world of sports--a rapid-paced world where technology is as much a part of the game as muscle, where sports celebrity rivals religious worship, and where winning at all costs is the name of the game. To understand how sports will evolve during the coming decade, let's take a look backward and examine the ongoing tensions among sports, technology, celebrity, and politics. Those elements and how they mix in years to come will greatly influence the nature of sports and sportsmanship for future generations.

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The Council of Europe defined sport as "all forms of physical activity, which, through casual or organized participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships, or obtaining results in competition at all levels." This is a good test to put to any new future of sport.

The ancient Olympic Games, which commenced in Olympia, Greece, in 776 B.C., are often hailed as the true historical roots of competitive sports, especially of amateurism. Among the aspects central to the Games' success (for competitors as well as onlookers) were the thrill of victory, the opportunity to commune with the gods, the chance to view and participate in the spectacle of the Games themselves, the opportunities for meeting and trading with people, and the feeling of participating in the cultural, educational, and aesthetic ideals of one's own culture.

The Games at Olympia (only one of four in ancient Greece) were part of the whole development system of a democratic nation seeking to balance its education system around knowledge, culture, religion, and physical agility. Competitors in these events were well known, often political figures or military leaders who competed as much for raising awareness of their fitness for other more important tasks as for the glory it personally brought them.

Religious influences have always been associated with much of early sports' development. Each of the Panhellenic games was dedicated to a god or goddess with its accompanying, usually sexually driven rituals. In the early nineteenth century, it was often established churches that instigated organized events in a community or in its schools, especially as shortening working hours gave people more time to indulge in leisure activities other than churchgoing.

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In addition to religion, the type of work performed at various points in history has also influenced sports. Until modern times, armies and navies needed men with high degrees of fitness and strength, and military training manuals record the playing of team games as well as regimented physical exercise as core principles for building up muscle and morale--and for reinforcing hierarchies and establishing order.

Sports have also been used to separate social classes. Some sports, such as tennis and horse racing, began centuries ago as the exclusive pursuits of nobles and kings. Polo continues to be associated mainly with wealth and royalty, and only those with considerable wealth can indulge in such popular new sports as motor racing, despite the sport's incredible popularity.

Another strong influence on the shape of modern sports is the ongoing conflict between amateurs and professionals. Amateur team sports started to surface in an organized way in the nineteenth century, often following their introduction at English public schools and universities or their counterparts in British colonies, including India, South Africa, and Australia.

Professionalism remains a dirty word in some modern sports. In ancient times, villages might pay for their champion to attend a Games for the glory it might bring them. In Victorian English society, however, it was considered unsporting to pay a gentleman to participate in a sport--though it was deemed acceptable to provide financial incentive for someone from a lower social class to play for one's club. …

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