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History Of Athletics In Britain


Statue of Discobulus, from Villa Adriani, near Tivoli, Italy, now in the British Museum. Image is copyright free

Athletics has a long association with warfare. The running, jumping and throwing events that we know as athletics were often seen as training for combat in ancient Greece. Plato, who around 380 BC set up a school aiming to combine intellectual and physical excellence, was enthusiastic about sport as preparation for war. This feeling has continued into modern times. Arther Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington said that "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton". George Orwell, said that sport was "war minus the shooting". But if athletics has been linked by some to an elemental battle for survival, it has been seen by others as serving to lift people above that struggle. This was true in ancient Greece, where Euripides for one poked fun at the association between war and sport: "What fool thinks of sport when plunged in the thick of battle?" (quoted in The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey). Writer on ancient sport Nigel Spivey says: "Fundamentally athletics served to commune, channel and contain violence. In this respect Greek athletics may be claimed to share the ultimately cathartic or 'purging' purpose of Greek tragic drama" ( The Ancient Olympics P28). So instead of a preparation for war, sport has also been seen as a way of avoiding war.


Into modern times this strange contradiction around sport has continued. Modern athletics in Britain dates to the 1860s when a group of university men set out to make athletics a respectable pursuit. This group wished to disassociate themselves from professional "pedestrians" who competed on the basis of traditional eighteenth century races between the servants of gentlemen. The Amateur Athletics Club, formed in 1865, was above the vulgarity of competing to win the necessities of life. Club rules drafted in 1867 even called for "artisans" to be excluded from competition, and there was certainly no question of being rewarded financially for winning. Significantly amateur athletics, and the amateur ideal in sport generally, came into being soon after the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin's work was viewed by many as debunking the old categories of life in favour of a harsh ethos of survival of the fittest, and many traditionally minded people did not like this. If Darwin was saying that winning was everything, then gentlemen athletes were saying that they would find solace in sport where taking part was more important than winning. This reaction can be seen in other sports of the time. Late nineteenth century administrators of rugby cooked up the myth that their game was created when William Webb Ellis picked up a football at Rugby School and ran with it. In the opinion of W.J Baker this creation myth was actually a reaction against Darwinism. "To memorialise W.W. Ellis was... to perpetuate an act of creationism reassuring to an age that found a Carlyean 'great man' theory of history more to its taste than Darwinian evolution" (quoted in Sport In Britain, A Social History ed Tony Mason P308). This aristocratic view of sport was to have a world wide influence. Pierre Coubertin visited Britain in the 1890s and was deeply impressed by the amateur sporting ethos he encountered. He used this as the basis for his Olympic movement. Even in 1969, Coubertin's successor, Avery Brundage was linking amateur athletics to a religious world view. Addressing the 68th session of the International Olympic Committee Brundage said: "The felicitious phrase 'religion of sport' used by Coubertin... was well chosen for the chivalrous amateur code of fair play, and good sportsmanship embraces the highest moral laws. It is a humanitarian religion" (quoted in Sport in Britain, A Social History P283). The subsequent history of athletics is one of a long struggle between the amateur vision of those nineteenth century Oxbridge men and economic realities.


In many ways the history of athletics in the twentieth century is a story of the amateur ideal giving way to competition so intense that it could justifiably be called war by other means. First athletes began to train as if they were preparing for the competition of their lives rather than a bit of jolly fun with the chaps. In the early 1900s excessive training to enhance performance was seen as unfair, as drug use is today. In 1912 Philip Noel wrote disapprovingly in The Granta of American training programmes: "The American athlete specialises in one or two events; before any race of great importance he devotes most of his energies and time to his training" (quoted in Sport In Bitain, A Social History P 52). Inevitably, to remain competitive British athletes began to train harder, but needed time, and money to do this. At first financial support was indirect. In 1958, for example, shot putter Noel Barker was paid his wages by the National Coal Board when he was competing in athletic events, which was worth ten weeks of wages. By 1964 the News of the World was providing sponsorship for the quarter miler Robbie Brightwell to attend a U.S. championship event in preparation for the Olympics. By the late 1960s and early 1970s commercial sponsorship meant that amateurism was increasingly a nonsense. Poor performance at the 1976 Olympics confirmed that British athletics would have to change if it was to remain competitive. By 1980, £160,000 was allocated to the British Olympic team, around £4000 per athlete (figures quoted in Sport in Britain, A Social History P 55). By 1985 Zola Budd received £90,000 to run against the American athlete Mary Slaney. Part of the move towards paying athletes to do well was a sense that they represented their country, and even the success of their political systems. Returning again to the analogy of war, athletics became an expression of nationalism. At the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, British athletes did not take part as a national team. By 1908 they were regularly doing so, and from 1912 participation in the Olympics was open only to members of national teams. In this sense athletics became closely involved with politics, the Olympic Games routinely acting as the focus of political demonstrations. 1968 saw black power demonstrations; 1972 the massacre of Israeli athletes; 1976 the withdrawal of African teams protesting at New Zealand sending a rugby team to South Africa. Then in 1980 came the withdrawal of the United States team in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher put intense pressure on the British team to withdraw in sympathy with the Americans, eventually without success. Medal tables in major games became measures of how successful communism or capitalism might be, and payment of athletes was seen as in the national interest, like buying more fighter planes. This was seemingly a long way from the original idea to take part and not worry about winning. Indeed, competition has now become so ferocious that many athletes used increasily sophisticated performance enhancing drugs. In the early twentieth century many people were uneasy about athletes manipulating their genetic makeup with extensive training. Today medical technology potentially allows quicker, easier and more far wide reaching ways to change a human body. We have got used to, and accept, changing our physical make up through rigorous training. We have not got used to changing our physical make up by other means. Disputes over drug taking have replaced the amateur/professional problem as sport's main conflict. It is possible, given the development of safe medical technology, that future historians will look back on today's attitude to drug taking in sport as we now look back on those who insisted on an amateur ideal.



Blackheath - once a gathering place for the Peasants Revolt, now a gathering place for runners in the London Marathon.

But while you could certainly tell a tale of rising competitiveness and professionalism in athletics, ironically it is also undeniable that athletics has increasingly become a matter of taking part rather than winning. There are some sports where the vast majority watch rather than take part - motor racing or horse racing for example. This is not the case with athletics, where mass events have become a familiar feature of the modern sporting scene. By the early 1980s running had become a popular pastime. I took part in the Sunday Times National Fun Run in Hyde Park in 1981. That same year the first London Marathon was held, a competition open to over 20,000 people. 1981 also saw the first Great North Run, the world's biggest half marathon. In 2009 over 40,000 people finished that event. For the vast majority these events, and many others like them, are more fun than competitive. Running along in the Dartford Half Marathon I once heard a rather large man say to his equally ungainly running companion: "You know there are guys up the front breaking their heart because they are third!" They laughed, as far as they were able after a good few miles of running.

The word "sport" derives from Middle English and French words, desport and disport, which refer to pleasant pastimes, entertainments or amusements without any apparently vital end. On the other hand "athletics" derives from the Greek verb "athlein", meaning to contend for a prize. Athletics is considered a sport, even if athletics and sport have completely different aims, one to relax, one to strive with every fibre to win. These two things, seemingly incompatible, are called by the same names. As Darwin pointed out, the idea of winning is not straight forward. One type of organism might be very successul, only to be a victim of that success when it over runs its food supply. Homer makes similar points about the contradictions of winning in Book XIII of the Illiad when he describes an athletics meeting. The games open with a chariot race in which the best competitor, through twists of fate, comes last. Darwin wrote about survival, and survival is essentially more about continuing than winning. There always has to be another race and another day. In this situation there can be no final sense of winners and losers. Winners and losers can easily swap places, as they do for Homer, and for Darwin. It is important to win, and be rewarded for it, and it is important to accept that sometimes winning isn't everything. Athletics is a desire for glittering prizes, and sport is an easy going recreation. These two things seem incompatible, but in the end athletics is a sport, just as there is a sport called athletics.