Magazine article The Spectator

One Thousand Years of Magnitude

Magazine article The Spectator

One Thousand Years of Magnitude

Article excerpt

IT has been my custom in this annually doubled space to summarise the past sporting year. However, this being a year of four-digit change, such an exercise seems pusillanimous. So I had better sum up the entire sporting millennium.

In AD 1000 sport was play, informal and unstructured; sport was also the hunting and killing of animals, and it was preparation for warfare. So it continued for an awfully long time.

Various games and diversions grew up, more or less locally: leaping, wrestling, shin-kicking, coursing, jousting. Some games were complex and emphatically designed for grown-ups. Often they were associated with festivals.

Violent combat was always a favourite: boxing, cudgelling matches and so on. But, with these delights, rules increasingly became a requirement. Sport needed a structure of fair play; it was the only way to make a decent gambling medium for the wealthy. Cricket, boxing and racing were organised for the sake of the punters.

What followed was a hijacking of sport by educationists. Sport became a matter for the young, not as a diversion but as a preparation for life, an encouragement of the 'manly virtues' (team spirit and non-- masturbation) required to control empires. Sports became codified and organised and revered.

But sport incidentally became something to watch as well as something to do. Leisure became a part of an industrial societv; and professional sport arose to serve it. The English invented and codified sport; the French internationalised it, forming all sorts of international federations and, also, the Olympic Games. The first Games were held in 1896, and early Olympics continued, often as sideshows to World Fairs, in memorable disorganisation and chaos.

Meanwhile. W.G. Grace invented the notion of the professional sportsman as a superstar. He created sport as a mass concern dominated by the cult of personality. He also invented shamateurism - posing as a gentleman but happily taking the money. For him, sport was not a preparation for life, it was life.

Jack Johnson scandalised America as the first black boxing heavyweight world champion, with a terrifying taste for white women. The establishment got him in the end, however. Suzanne Lenglen won Wimbledon six times between 1919 and 1925; a revolution all by herself - corsetless, wearing abbreviated frocks and flowing silk bandanas - she was an athletic assertion of the new possibilities available to women.

Sport became an expression of nationalism. Donald Bradman, redefining cricket, also redefined Australia with his extraordinary brilliance. In 1932, he was countered by a tactic called bodyline. This was considered unfair and, with the massive diplomatic row that followed, it became clear that sport was also now an aspect of politics.

Hitler staged the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a showcase for German nationalism, but Jesse Owens, the black American, won four gold medals and spoiled it. Joe Louis became another black boxing champion, but he won respect and affection because of his studied modesty of bearing.

After the second world war England learned about the new order of things in their traumatic defeat by the Hungarian football team, while new possibilities of human endeavour were set by Roger Bannister when he ran the mile in less than four minutes.

Television increasingly made live sport available to the world. Muhammad Ali became the first global superstar, but he did so in a manner that set sport in the centre of public debate. …

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