Why was England in the sporting vanguard?

Why did England invent so many games and show such an appetite for them as players,   spectators  and administrators  that modern  sport became possible? 

Industrialisation  undoubtedly  provided  the  opportunity  for  modern spectator sports by  moving England early from a predominantly rural to a predominantly  urban  society. Large agglomerations of people provide the  audience  for  sport.  The growing  wealth  of  the  country  from industrialisation provided the money to support professional sport. But that  does  not explain why it happened in England when it did  not  in occur in  other non-Anglo-Saxon industrialising nations,  which  either showed  less interest in sport  or adopted and followed English  sports rather  than  making  their own indigenous  sports  serious   spectator sports.    There had to be something special in the  English  character and society which provided the impetus to take the opportunity when  it was offered.

The  answer I suspect is that the English  have always been a  sporting people,  whether  it  be  pre-modern games  of  football  and  cricket, archery,  dog fighting and so on. The love of the chase remains to this day in  fox hunting.  Athletic pursuits were widely admired before  the modern  era,  especially by the educated Englishman brought up  on  the classics  with  their frequent descriptions of physical  prowess.  Long before the  much Wenlock “Olympic Games”,   Robert Dover of    Chipping Camden  in  Gloucestershire  held his “Cotswold Olimpick Games”  –  the games  were first held in 1612 – which included sledgehammer  throwing, horse racing and wrestling.   

But the fact the English have always had an abnormal love of sport begs the question of why. It is probably simply an expression of the general English love of liberty and the practical realisation of that love in a society which until recent times has not oppressed the English man  and woman  with  much  state intrusion into  their  lives.  (Sadly,  recent governments,  most notably that of Blair,  have seriously  changed  the traditional  free nature of English society).   Over the centuries  the English became habituated to the idea that the individual counts,  that a free-born Englishman,  however humble, had a dignity and worth simply as an individual.

This  mentality is important because participation in a sport  requires freedom  from oppressive elite who frown upon public  gatherings   and societies with  a dominant  ideology which considers the ordinary   man as  next  to  nothing at best and a threat to public  order  at  worst.  English  society   has  not been free of such  qualities   but  it  has probably suffered much less severely from them than any other nation. 

As  for why England has been so successful in exporting its sports,  it cannot  simply be the consequence of the British Empire and   Britain’s economic  and political dominance.  Sports are demonstrably not  easily transferrable from one society and another.  Other European nations had empires  and their colonies did not take up French sports.  The  United States  for  all  their economic and  cultural  dominance  have  failed largely  to export their two most important native sports, baseball and American  football.   Basketball  and  ice  hockey  have  enjoyed  more popularity   but  nothing  approaching  the  popularity  of   football.

Australian  Rules football,  wildly popular  in Australia,  remains  an essentially domestic pursuit.  Ditto  Gaelic games such as hurling   in Ireland.  Cricket and football gained a hold abroad  and maintained  it because  they  are  inherently good and satisfying  games,  the  former immensely  technical to play yet simple in its basic idea,  the  latter the  simplest  and cheapest  game to play – two sweaters  down  on  the ground for a goal and a ball and you have a game.

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