As you’re already reading this section, you might wonder whether you actually need to be introduced to sport, but this slim, pocket-sized publication, part of an OUP series that has covered everything from Mormonism to madness, offers more than mere history.
It begins by exploring why humans are interested in competitive games, and what purpose they serve: apart from simple enjoyment, historically they have been used among other things as a preparation for war, a substitute for war, religious ceremonies, and a rite of passage into adulthood.
And while it has become a cliché to criticise much of modern-day sport as dictated by big business, ‘twas ever thus, according to Mike Cronin; the term “athlete” derives a Greek word meaning “someone who competes for reward” and the substantial prizes on offer at the Games of Ancient Greece led to regular cheating.
Cronin’s view of sport’s moral deficiencies is either depressing or realistic, depending on your point of view.
He argues that while the Victorians did us a favour by codifying sports such as rugby and football, their high-flown views on amateurism and fair play were underpinned by snobbish attitudes to class, gender and sexuality.
He also questions whether it is right to expect sportsmen to act as role models for society, pointing out that Tiger Woods was vilified for behaviour that would have viewed with far more tolerance had he been a Hollywood actor.
At times Cronin’s prose is clotted – the history of sport is “a complex narrative of non-lineal changes that were constantly fractured by time and place”- and he can be somewhat preachy. Nor is he helped by the sprinkling of spelling mistakes, surprising in a university publication.
However, he has packed a lot of thought-provoking stuff into a small space, laced with telling facts. That the University of Alabama’s American football coach gets paid a million dollars more than Roy Hodgson tells us all that we need to know about supposedly amateur college sport in the U.S.
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