Sport is a national obsession. But it is photography that creates those defining moments of agony and ecstasy - and seems to put Utopia within our grasp, argues Val Williams
In 1989, Pascal Rondeau photographed a crash at the French Grand Prix. Elegant, powerful cars suddenly became fragments of flying metal and rubber, and another moment in sport had been captured for posterity.

It's not often that sports photography makes its way on to the walls of an art gallery. But a new exhibition, selected from the files of the London-based Allsport agency, has just opened at the Royal Photographic Society. Up to now the society has concentrated on showing the photographic "greats", from Don McCullin to Cecil Beaton. That this exhibition has been put together at all proves that our collective fascination for sport goes far beyond the passion of the individual enthusiast, and has become a mirror of our current obsessions and our sense of nationhood. When England failed to reach the final of the 1990 World Cup, the country went into mourning: it seemed as if a nation's honour was lost. With conflict and famine affecting the world's population, a footballer who took a swipe at a fan stayed on the front pages for weeks. Sport became showbusiness as showbusiness became soap opera.

The development of sport as a spectacle and photography as the recorder of action has been oddly simultaneous. At the turn of the century, Edward Muybridge was experimenting with photographs of movement, and his pictures of a man running feature in every history of photography. The American scientist/ photographer Harold Edgerton broke the bounds of photographic technology with his slow-motion study of a droplet hitting the surface of a dish of milk. The development of the miniature Leica camera in the late 1920s made it possible for photographers to leave their cumbersome plate cameras behind and become part of the action.

The importance of television as a transmitter of sport has enhanced the prospects of still photographers. Those who watched the programme the night before, with all its movement and action, value the still image as a memory, a visual reminder of the glory or ignomony of the game. The photograph becomes an icon of nostalgia.

The vast majority of people do not actually attend sporting events, but see them through the eyes of the media. And when we look at sports photography, we look not so much for a record of the event, but for emotions and relationships with which we can identify. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, we are an essential attendant presence, judging, commenting, bewailing or rejoicing. Sports photography is about moments of ecstasy, it pictures the body heroically, in victory or defeat. When Gary Prior caught Arantxa Sanchez Vicario crashing to the ground in the 1994 French Open, it was as if the tennis player was momentarily marooned in a blood red sea, cast adrift and desperate. And Billy Strickland's picture of Paul Gascoigne weeping after England's defeat in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup was, unwittingly or not, a public acknowledgement that real men do cry, and in public, too. The photographer David Cannon focused on Brian Clough terrified in defeat during his final days as manager of Nottingham Forest, and his picture conveyed calamity. Above the manager's box, the fans cover their eyes in sorrow and disbelief, and only the Lucozade logo reminds us that we are looking at a football match rather than a war zone.

The Allsport agency was set up in the late 1960s by Tony Duffy, then an enthusiastic amateur photographer. His historic photograph of the American athlete Bob Beamon, making a record-breaking long jump in 1968, was a major success, and since then Allsport has led the way in a rapidly expanding field. New digital technologies have meant that sports photographs can now be transmitted through the telephone wires as soon as they have been taken, and constant innovations in camera and film technology have taken the image of sport far beyond the black-and-white images that were produced in the 1960s.

Looking back, we can see how radically attitudes to sports photography have changed within the news media. Photographers of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as being limited by their film and equipment, looked beyond the image of the body to become engaged with wider social issues. A photograph taken for Picture Post magazine in the 1940s would look at sport as a part of everyday life; the magazine and its photographers were as interested in the stories behind the sport as in the sport itself. In one anonymous 1920s press photograph, two children from the East End slums stage an impromptu boxing match. Their arms are puny, their feet are bare and they look like old men. Around them stand angel-faced urchins whose lives were circumscribed by poverty. Small wonder that these children saw sport as an escape route from the street, or that it is their great-grandchildren who are so ruthless in their demands for the costly logos of Reebok and Nike.

For all the glamour of contemporary sports photography, the real heart of this exhibition lies in these older archive photographs, where the photographer, for all the limits of his equipment, had that larger and more humanistic vision of a world in which sport played a smaller and less glamorous role in our lives. Contemporary photographers have perhaps traded that vision for a riot of colour and action. Today's photographers do, however, transcend the flashy, narrative pictures demanded of them by newspaper and magazine editors. These photographs do more than simply tell the story of the goal, the crash, the breaking of the tape. Three photographs in the exhibition capture this best: Stephen Dunn's celebratory photograph of Magic Johnson leaping through the air in a baseball game, achieving a height one would not think humanly possible; Steve Powell's 1988 photograph of Flo-Jo as she races towards gold, every muscle rippling with effort, in the Seoul Olympics; and a moody study of the ice-dancers Torvill and Dean, caught just before the beginning of a competition, capturing a quizzical glance exchanged, an unspoken question asked.

Such images are reminders that despite the drugs, the hooligans and the bungs, sport is constantly reassuring. To propel the body through the air, to hit a ball hard, to feel part of a team gives even the most confirmed individualist a collective identity, and an escape from the pressing concerns of the world. Sport promotes a dream of equality, a notion of excellence and a sense of belonging. Photography, with its ability to capture a single moment, its virtuosity as a maker of fictions from the real world, is the natural purveyor of the idyll. By extracting the dramatic instant from a series of often quite mundane events, photography provides us with significant histories, packed with action, and makes spectators of us all.

n 'Sporting Eye' is at the Royal Photographic Society, Milsom Street, Bath (01225 462841) to 3 Sept

n 'Visions of Sport' is published by Kensington West Publications (pounds 14.95)