Story: Sport and society

Page 1. Old world origins

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Competitive sports such as running races, ball games and wrestling have long been a part of many societies, as a way of testing the physical qualities of individuals and bringing communities together.

However, the origins of most modern sports can be traced to British society during the 18th and 19th centuries. New Zealand was predominantly settled by the British at the same time as the ‘games revolution’ was occurring in Britain – a period of change which coincided with the industrial revolution, and saw sports and games become generally more organised and orderly.

Older British sports such as cricket, horse racing and rowing were quickly established and New Zealand was only slightly behind Britain in taking up newly organised sports such as rugby and tennis.

The American difference

The United States declared its independence from Britain in 1776, before organised sport became firmly established in Britain. As a result, American sporting culture produced its own unique games such as baseball, rather than cricket, and American football, rather than rugby or association football.

Origins of modern sport

In pre-industrial English society the nobility had the time and wealth for sports such as hunting, but the majority of people played sport only when work patterns allowed, such as after the busy harvest period, or on religious holidays.

Most games were local, and the rules seldom written down. Local varieties of football were staged in and around the village rather than on measured fields, and were marked by landmarks such as trees or churches.

From the 18th century industrial growth drew people from villages to towns for factory and other work. Common rules had to be developed if people were to play sport together. The new industries required regular working hours. Sport was therefore confined to certain times each week, especially Saturday afternoons.

A religious Puritanism and a ‘civilising process’, which encouraged a more orderly, sober and disciplined society, did not tolerate the wilder excesses of traditional sports. Local authorities, seeking to discipline their growing urban populations, suppressed uncontrolled folk football along with blood sports such as animal fighting.

Rules and competitions

Some sports, such as boxing, cricket, horse racing and rowing, became more organised from the early 18th century because they attracted support from a wealthy and influential elite who gambled large sums on the outcome of matches. Gambling required the creation of common rules to avoid disputes between both players and gamblers.

A foot in both camps

Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, is often credited with first formalising the game of rugby football. However, the first meeting to draw up rules for association football (soccer) was in 1848 at Trinity College, Cambridge University, and this meeting included a representative from Rugby School along with people from Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Shrewsbury. The rules then drawn up included the right to run with the ball in hand.

Organised sport also began to take hold within the elite British public boys’ schools, as headmasters realised that controlled leisure time outside the classroom could teach boys the values of cooperation and good behaviour, helpful in life beyond school. The public schools shaped traditional forms of football into predominantly handling games (rugby) and kicking games (soccer or football).

Class divisions

During the 19th century regular working hours, more disposable income, improved transport networks and a growing sporting press produced a following for sport among the urban working class.

Sport remained sharply divided along class or amateur and professional lines. The emerging distinction between those who played for pay (professionals) and those who played for pleasure (amateurs) kept working-class influence to a minimum.

Some sports, especially rowing and rugby, imposed strict definitions of amateurism that excluded many working-class participants who were unable to play without some form of payment. Other sports, cricket and football in particular, allowed professionalism in a way that was strictly controlled by amateur administrations.

How to cite this page:

Greg Ryan, 'Sport and society - Old world origins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sport-and-society/page-1 (accessed 22 January 2020)

Story by Greg Ryan, published 5 Sep 2013