1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Athletic Sports

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ATHLETIC SPORTS. Various sports were cultivated many hundred years before the Christian era by the Egyptians and several Asiatic races, from whom the early Greeks undoubtedly adopted the elements of their athletic exercises (see Athlete), which reached their highest development in the Olympic games, and other periodical meetings of the kind (see Games, Classical). The original Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain were an athletic race, and the earliest monuments of Teutonic literature abound in records of athletic prowess. After the Norman conquest of England the nobles devoted themselves to the chase and to the joust, while the people had their games of ball, running at the quintain, fencing with club and buckler, wrestling and other pastimes on green and river. The chroniclers of the succeeding centuries are for the most part silent concerning the sports of the folk, except such as were regarded as a training for war, as archery, while they love to record the prowess of the kings and their courts. Thus it is told of Henry V. that he “was so swift a runner that he and two of his lords, without bow or other engine, would take a wild buck in a large park.” Several romances of the middle ages, quoted by Strutt (Sports and Pastimes of the People of England), chronicle the fact that young men of good family were taught to run, leap, wrestle and joust. In spite of the general silence of the historians concerning the sports of the people, it is evident that they were indulged in very largely, since several English sovereigns found it necessary to curtail, and even prohibit, certain popular pastimes, on the ground that they seduced the people from the practice of archery. Thus Edward III. prohibited weight-putting by statute. Nevertheless a variety of this exercise, “casting of the barre,” continued to be a popular pastime, and was afterwards one of the favourite sports of Henry VIII., who attained great proficiency at it. The prowess of the same monarch at throwing the hammer is a matter of history, and his reign seems to have been at a time of general athletic revival. We even find his secretary, Richard Pace, advising the sons of noblemen to practise their sports and “leave study and learning to the children of meaner people,” and Sir William Forest, in his Poesye of Princeelye Practice, thus admonishes his high-born readers:—


“In featis of maistries bestowe some diligence.
Too ryde, runne, lepe, or caste by violence
Stone, barre or plummett, or such other thinge,
It not refuseth any prince or kynge.”


Mr Montague Shearman, to whose volume on Athletics in the Badminton series the reader is referred, notes that Sir Thomas Elyot, who wrote at about the same period, deprecated too much study and flogging for schoolboys, saying: “A discrete master may with as much or more ease both to himself and his scholler lead him to play at tennis or shoote.” Elyot recommends the perusal of Galen’s De sanitate tuenda, and suggests as suitable athletic exercises within doors “deambulations, labouryng with poyses made of ledde, lifting and throwing the heavy stone or barre, playing at tennis,” and dwells upon “rennyng” as a “good exercise and laudable solace.” It is probable that the disciples of the “new learning,” who had become prominent in Sir Thomas’s time, endeavoured to combat the influence of athletic exercises, their point of view being exemplified by the dictum of Roger Ascham, who, in his Toxophilus, declares that “running, leaping and quoiting be too vile for scholars.”

In the 16th century the great football match played annually at Chester was abolished in favour of a series of foot-races, which took place in the presence of the mayor. A list of the common sports of that time is contained in some verses by Randel Holme, a minstrel of the North country, and makes mention of throwing the sledge, jumping, “wrastling,” stool-ball (cricket), running, pitching the bar, shooting, playing loggets, “nine holes or ten pins,” “football by the shinnes,” leap-frog, morris, shove-groat, leaping the bonfire, stow-ball (golf), and many other outdoor and indoor sports, some of them now obsolete. Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan poets abound in allusions to sport, which formed an important feature in school life and at every fair. The Stuart kings were warm encouragers of sport, the Basilikon Doron of James I., written for his son, containing a recommendation to the young prince to practise “running, leaping, wrestling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch, or tennise, archerie, palle-malle, and such like other fair and pleasant field games.”

An extraordinary variety of sports has been popular in Great Britain with high and low for the past five centuries, no other country comparing with it in this respect. Nor have Ireland and Scotland lagged behind England in athletic prowess. Indeed, so far as history and legend record, Ireland boasts of by far the most ancient organized sports known, the Tailtin Games, or Lugnasad, traditionally established by Lugaid of the Long Arm, one of the gods of Dia and Ana, in honour of his foster-mother Tailti, some three thousand years ago. For many centuries these games, and others like them, were kept up in Ireland, and though the almost constant wars which harried the country finally destroyed their organization, yet the Irish have always been, and still are, a very important factor in British athletics, as well as in America and the colonies.

The Scottish people have, like the Irish, ever delighted in feats of strength and skill, especially the Celtic highlanders, the character of whose country and mode of life have, however, prevented organized athletics from attaining the same prominence as in England. Nevertheless, the celebrated Highland games held at Braemar, Bridge of Allan, Luss, Aboyne and other places have served to bring into prominence many athletes of the first class, although the records, on account of the roughness of the grounds, have not generally vied with those made farther south.

The Briton does not lose his love of sport upon leaving his native soil, and the development of athletics in the United States and the British colonies has kept step with that of the mother-land. Upon the continent of Europe sports have occupied a more or less prominent place in the life of the nations, but their development has been but an echo of that in Great Britain. A great advance, however, has been made since the institution of the modern Olympic games.

About the year 1812 the Royal Military College at Sandhurst inaugurated regular athletic sports, but the example was not followed until about 1840, when Rugby, Eton, Harrow, Shrewsbury and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich came to the front, the “Crick Run” at Rugby having been started in 1837. At the two great English universities there were no organized sports of any kind until 1850, when Exeter College, Oxford, held a meeting; this example has been followed, one after the other, by the other colleges of both institutions. The first contest between Oxford and Cambridge occurred at Oxford in 1864, the programme consisting of eight events, of which four were won by each side. The same year saw the first contest of the Civil Servants, still an annual event.

In 1866 the Amateur Athletic Club was formed in London for “gentlemen amateurs,” most of its members being old university men. Its first championship meeting, held in that year, was the beginning of a series afterwards continued to the present day by the Amateur Athletic Association, founded in 1880, which has jurisdiction over British athletic sports. The most important individual English athletic organization is the London Athletic Club, which antedated the Amateur Athletic Club, and whose meetings have always been the most important events except the championships.

In America a revival of interest in athletic sports took place about the year 1870. Ten years later was formed the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America, which, in 1888, became the Amateur Athletic Union. This body controls athletics throughout the United States, and is allied with the Canadian Amateur Athletic Association. It is supreme in matters of amateur status, records and licensing of meetings, and has control over the following branches of sport: basket-ball, billiards, boxing, fencing (in connexion with the Amateur Fencers’ League of America), gymnastics, hand-ball (fives), running, jumping, walking, weight-putting (hammer, shot, discus, weights), hurdle-racing, lacrosse, pole-vaulting, swimming, tugs-of-war and wrestling. The Amateur Athletic Union has eight sectional groups, and is allied with the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (founded 1876) and the Western Intercollegiate Association. The first American intercollegiate athletic meeting took place at Saratoga in 1873, only three universities competing, though the next year there were eight and in 1875 thirteen. Professional athletes in America are confined almost entirely to base-ball, boxing, bicycling, wrestling and physical training.

The Canadian athletic championships are held independently of the American. Annual championship meetings are also held in South Africa, New Zealand and the different states of Australia. For the Australasian championships New Zealand joins with Australia.

The organization of university sports in America differs from that at Oxford and Cambridge, where there is no official control on the part of the university authorities, and where a man is eligible to represent his college or university while in residence. In nearly all American universities and colleges athletic and other sports are under the general control of faculty committees, to which the undergraduate athletic committees are subordinate, and which have the power to forbid the participation of any student who has not attained a certain standard of scholarship. For some years prior to 1906 no student of an American university was allowed to represent his university in any sport for longer than four years. Early in that year, however, many of the most important institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Pennsylvania, entered upon a new agreement, that only students who have been in residence one year should play in ’varsity teams in any branch of athletics and that no student should play longer than three years. This, together with many other reformatory changes, was directly due to a widespread outcry against the growing roughness of play exhibited in American football, basket-ball, hockey and other sports, the too evident desire to win at all hazards, the extraordinary luxury of the training equipment, and the enormous gate-receipts of many of the large institutions—the Yale Athletic Association held a surplus of about $100,000 (£20,000) in December 1905, after deducting immense amounts for expenses. The new rule against the participation of freshmen in ’varsity sports was to discourage the practice of offering material advantages of different kinds to promising athletes, generally those at preparatory schools, to induce them to become students at certain universities.

At the present day athletic sports are usually understood to consist of those events recognized in the championship programmes of the different countries. Those in the competitions between Oxford and Cambridge are the 100 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards, 1-mile and 3-mile runs; 120 yards hurdle-race; high and long jumps; throwing the hammer; and putting the weight (shot). To the above list the English A.A.A. adds the 4-mile and 10-mile runs; the 2-mile and 7-mile walking races; the 2-mile steeplechase; and the pole-vault. The American intercollegiate programme is identical with that of the Oxford-Cambridge meeting, except that a 2-mile run takes the place of the 3-mile, and the pole-vault is added. The American A.A.U. programme includes the 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards, 1-mile and 5-mile runs; 120 yards high-hurdle race; 220 yards low-hurdle race; high and broad (long) jumps; throwing the hammer; throwing 56-℔ weight; putting 16-℔ shot; throwing the discus; and pole-vault. Of these the running contests are called “track athletics,” and the rest “field” events.

International athletic contests of any importance have, with the exception of the modern Olympic games, invariably taken place between Britons, Americans and Canadians, the continental European countries having as yet produced few track or field athletes of the first class, although the interest in sports in general has greatly increased in Europe during the last ten years. In 1844 George Seward, an American professional runner, visited England and competed with success against the best athletes there; and in 1863 Louis Bennett, called “Deerfoot,” a full-blooded Seneca Indian, repeated Seward’s triumphs, establishing running records up to 12 miles. In 1878 the Canadian, C. C. McIvor, champion sprinter of America, went to England, but failed to beat his British professional rivals. In 1881 L. E. Myers of New York and E. E. Merrill of Boston competed successfully in England, Myers winning every short-distance championship except the 100-yards, and Merrill all the walking championships save the 7-miles. The same year W. C. Davies of England won the 5-mile championship of America, but, like several other British runners who have had success in America, he competed under the colours of an American club. In 1882 the famous English runner, W. G. George, ran against Myers in America in races of 1 mile, ¾ mile and ½ mile, winning over the first two distances. In 1884 Myers again went to England and made new British records over 500, 600, 800 and 1000 yards, and world’s records over ½ mile and 1200 yards. The next year he won both the British ¼-mile and ½-mile championships. The same year a team of Irish athletes, among them W. J. M. Barry, won several Canadian championships. In 1888 a team of the Manhattan Athletic Club, New York, competed in England with fair success, and during the same season an Irish team from the Gaelic Athletic Association visited America without much success. In 1890 a team from the Salford Harriers was invited to America by the Manhattan Athletic Club, but the evidently commercial character of the enterprise caused its failure. One of the Harriers, E. W. Parry, won the American steeplechase championship. The next year saw another visit to Europe of the Manhattan athletes, who had fair success in England and won every event at Paris. In 1895 the London Athletic Club team competed in New York against the New York Athletic Club, but lost every one of the eleven events, several new records being established. During the previous summer (1894) occurred the first of the international matches between British and American universities which still retain their place as the most interesting athletic event. In that contest, which took place at Queen’s Club, London, Oxford beat Yale by 5½ to 3½ events. The next summer Cambridge, as the champion English university, visited America and was beaten by Yale (3 to 8). In 1899 both British universities competed at Queen’s Club against the combined athletes of Harvard and Yale, who were beaten by the odd event. The return match took place between the same universities at New York in the summer of 1901, the Americans winning 6 to 3 events. In 1904 Harvard and Yale beat Oxford and Cambridge at Queen’s Club by the same score.

Outside Great Britain and America the most important athletic events are undoubtedly the revived Olympic games. They were instituted by delegates from the different nations who met in Paris on the 16th of June 1894, principally at the instigation of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the result being the formation of an International Olympic Games Committee with Baron de Coubertin at its head, which resolved that games should be held every fourth year in a different country. The first modern Olympiad took place at Athens, 6th to 12th April 1896, in the ancient stadium, which was rebuilt through the liberality of a Greek merchant and seated about 45,000 people. The programme of events included the usual field and track sports, gymnastics, wrestling, pole-climbing, lawn tennis, fencing, rifle and revolver shooting, weight-lifting, swimming, the Marathon race and bicycle racing. Among the contestants were representatives of nearly every European nation, besides Americans and Australians. Great Britain took little direct interest in the occasion and was inadequately represented, but the United States sent five men from Boston and four from Princeton University, who, though none of them held American championships, succeeded in winning every event for which they were entered. The Marathon race of 42 kilometres (26 miles), commemorative of the famous run of the Greek messenger to Athens with the news of the victory of Marathon, was won by a Greek peasant. The second Olympiad was held in Paris in June 1900. Again Great Britain was poorly represented, but American athletes won eighteen of the twenty-four championship events. The third Olympiad was held at St Louis in the summer of 1904 in connexion with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, its success being due in great measure to James E. Sullivan, the physical director of the Exposition, and Caspar Whitney, the president of the American Olympic Games Committee. The games were much more numerous than at the previous Olympiads, including sports of all kinds, handicaps, inter-club competitions, and contests for aborigines. In the track and field competitions the American athletes won every championship except weight-throwing (56 ℔) and lifting the bar. The sports of the savages, among whom were American Indians, Africans of several tribes, Moros, Patagonians, Syrians, Ainus and Filipinos, were disappointing; their efforts in throwing the javelin, shooting with bow and arrow, weight-lifting, running and jumping, proving to be feeble compared with those of white races. The Americanized Indians made the best showing.

The Greeks, however, were not altogether satisfied with the cosmopolitan character of the revival of these celebrated games of their ancestors, and resolved to give the revival a more definitely Hellenic stamp by intercalating an additional series, to take place at Athens, in the middle of the quadrennial period. Their action was justified by the success which attended the first of this additional series at Athens in 1906. This success may have been partly due to the personal interest taken in the games by the king and royal family of Greece, and to the presence of King Edward VII., Queen Alexandra, and the prince and princess of Wales; but to whatever cause it should be assigned it was generally acknowledged that neither in France nor in America had the games acquired the same prestige as those held on the classical soil of Greece. In 1906 the governments of Germany, France and the United States made considerable grants of money to defray the expenses of the competitors from those countries. These games aroused much more interest in England than the earlier ones in the series, but though upwards of fifty British competitors took part in the contests, they were by no means representative in all cases of the best British athletics. The American representatives were slightly less numerous, but they were more successful. It was noteworthy that no British or Americans took part in the rowing races in the Bay of Phalerum, nor in the tennis, football or shooting competitions. The Marathon race, by far the most important event in the games, was won in 1906 by a British athlete, M. D. Sherring, a Canadian by birth. The Americans won a total of 75 prizes, the British 39, and the Swedes and Greeks each 28.

The games of the 4th Olympiad (1908) were held in London in connexion with the Franco-British Exhibition of that year. An immense sensation was caused by the finish for the Marathon race from Windsor Castle to the stadium in the Exhibition grounds in London. The first competitor to arrive was the Italian, Dorando Pietri, whose condition of physical collapse was such that, appearing to be on the point of death, he had to be assisted over the last few yards of the course. He was therefore disqualified, and J. Hayes, an American, was adjudged the winner; a special prize was presented to the Italian by Queen Alexandra. In the whole series of contests the United Kingdom made 38 wins, the Americans 22, and the Swedes 7. In the Olympic games proper, British athletes, including two wins by colonials from Canada and Africa, scored 25 successes, and the Americans 18. In the track events 8 wins fell to the British, including two Colonials, and 6 to American athletes; but the latter gained complete supremacy in the field events, of which they won 9, while British competitors secured only two of minor importance.

For records, &c., see the annual Sporting and Athletic Register; for the Olympic games see Theodore Andrea Cook’s volume, published in connexion with the Olympiad of 1908.