Friday, August 03, 2012

The Victorians didn't just invent sport - they finished it

In The New Yorker this week:
Twenty-six sports will be played in London this summer, with medals awarded in three hundred and two events. The majority of those medals will be given in sports that originated, in their modern form, in Britain: archery, athletics (track and field), boxing, badminton, field hockey, football (soccer), rowing, sailing, swimming, water polo, table tennis, and tennis. Britain is also the birthplace of curling, cross-country, cricket, croquet, golf, squash, and rugby—which is scheduled to become an Olympic sport in 2016. No other country comes close. Three Olympic sports originated in the United States: basketball, volleyball, and the triathlon, which was invented in 1974. Two originated in Germany: handball and gymnastics.

This causes me to once again reflect on the fact that most of the world's sports were invented or codified by British people in a quite brief period of the 19th century. And since then, what? Nothing that's had even the slightest effect on the dial of public enthusiasm. It's a staggering achievement. Nobody ever invented anything as completely as the Victorians invented sport.

And given all this evidence, how come we dare to characterise them as people unfamiliar with the concept of fun? Didn't they actually invent it?


  1. Admittedly I'm biased (just completed a master's in nineteenth-century literature), but the popular image of the Victorians is often just plain wrong. They weren't all constantly po-faced:

  2. Sport, sport, masculine sport,
    Equips a young man for society.

    Fun: not so much.