sports, physical contests pursued for the goals and challenges they entail. Sports are part of every culture past and present, but each culture has its own definition of sports. The most useful definitions are those that clarify the relationship of sports to play, games, and contests. “Play,” wrote the German theorist Carl Diem, “is purposeless activity, for its own sake, the opposite of work.” Humans work because they have to; they play because they want to. Play is autotelic—that is, it has its own goals. It is voluntary and uncoerced.
From the British Isles, modern sports (and the amateur rule) were diffused throughout the world. Sports that originally began elsewhere, such as tennis (which comes from Renaissance France), were modernized and exported as if they too were raw materials imported for British industry to transform and then export as finished goods.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British expelled the French from Canada and from India and extended British rule over much of Africa. To the ends of the earth, cricket followed the Union Jack, which explains the game’s current popularity in Australia, South Asia, and the West Indies. Rugby football flourishes in other postcolonial cultures, such as New Zealand and South Africa, where the British once ruled. It was, however, association football’s destiny to become the world’s most widely played modern sport.
Cricket and rugby seemed to require British rule in order to take root. Football needed only the presence of British economic and cultural influence. In Buenos Aires, for instance, British residents founded clubs for cricket and a dozen other sports, but it was the Buenos Aires Football Club, founded June 20, 1867, that kindled Argentine passions. In almost every instance, the first to adopt football were the cosmopolitan sons of local elites, many of whom had been sent to British schools by their Anglophile parents. Seeking status as well as diversion, middle-class employees of British firms followed the upper-class lead. From the gamut of games played by the upper and middle classes, the industrial workers of Europe and Latin America, like the indigenous population of Africa, appropriated football as their own.
By the late 19th century, the United States had begun to rival Great Britain as an industrial power and as an inventor of modern sports. Enthusiasts of baseball denied its origins in British children’s games such as cat and rounders and concocted the myth of Abner Doubleday, who allegedly invented the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. A more plausible date for the transformation of cat and rounders into baseball is 1845, when a New York bank clerk named Alexander Cartwright formulated the rules of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. Even before the Civil War, the game had been taken over by urban workers such as the volunteer firemen who organized the New York Mutuals in 1857. By the time the National League was created in 1876, the game had spread from coast to coast. (It was not until the 1950s, however, that Major League Baseball planted its first franchises on the West Coast.)
Basketball, invented in 1891 by James Naismith, and volleyball, invented four years later by William Morgan, are both quintessentially modern sports. Both were scientifically designed to fulfill a perceived need for indoor games during harsh New England winters.
Football (soccer) is the world’s most popular ball game, but, wherever American economic and culture influence has been dominant, the attraction to baseball, basketball, and volleyball has tended to exceed that to football. Baseball, for example, boomed in Cuba, where Nemesio Guilló introduced the game to his countrymen in 1863, and in Japan, where Horace Wilson, an American educator, taught it to his Japanese students in 1873. Since basketball and volleyball were both invented under the auspices of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), it seemed reasonable for YMCA workers to take the games to China, Japan, and the Philippines, where the games took root early in the 20th century. It was, however, only in the post-World War II world that U.S. influence generally overwhelmed British; only then did basketball and volleyball become globally popular.
American gridiron football, which now enjoys enclaves of enthusiasm in Great Britain and on the European continent, traces its origins to 1874, when a rugby team from Montreal’s McGill University traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to challenge a team of Harvard University students. Adopted by American students, rugby evolved into gridiron football, and in that form it became the leading intercollegiate game. Although the National Football League was established in 1920 (at $100 a franchise), the professional game was a relatively minor affair until after World War II, when football joined baseball and basketball to form the “trinity” of American sports. (Ice hockey, imported from Canada, runs a poor fourth in the race for fans of team sports.)
In the dramatic global diffusion of modern sports, the French have also played a significant role. They left it to an Englishman, Walter Wingfield, to modernize the game of tennis, which originated in Renaissance France, but the French took the lead, early in the 19th century, in the development of the bicycle and in the popularization of cycling races. The first Paris–Rouen race took place in 1869; the Tour de France was inaugurated in 1903. The huge success of the latter inspired the Giro d’Italia (1909) and a number of other long-distance races.
The French also left their mark on sports in another way. In 1894, at a conference held at the Sorbonne in Paris, Pierre de Coubertin selected the first members of a Comité International Olympique (International Olympic Committee; IOC) and arranged for the first Olympic Games of the modern era to be held in Athens in 1896. In 1904 Robert Guérin led a group of football (soccer) enthusiasts in forming the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which England’s insular Football Association was at first too arrogant to join. The English name of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (1912; since 2001 known as the International Association of Athletics Federations; IAAF) suggests that the British were more cooperative in track-and-field sports than in football, but the IAAF’s founder was a Swedish industrialist, Sigfrid Edström.
Japan, one of the few non-Western nations where traditional sports still rival modern ones in popularity, is also one of the few non-Western nations to contribute significantly to the repertory of modern sports. Judo, invented in 1882 by Kanō Jigorō in an effort to combine Western and Asian traditions, attracted European adherents early in the 20th century. In 1964 judo became an Olympic sport.
From 1952, when the Soviet Union emerged from its self-imposed sports isolation, to 1991, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist, the communist societies of eastern Europe dominated the Olympic Games. In 1988, for instance, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), with a population of some 16 million, outscored the United States, 15 times its size. While anabolic steroids and other banned substances contributed to the East Germans’ triumph, credit must also be given to their relentless application of scientific methods in the search for the ultimate sports performance. The collapse of communism undermined state-sponsored elite sports in eastern Europe, but not before the nations of western Europe had begun to emulate their athletic adversaries by sponsoring scientific research, subsidizing elite athletes, and constructing vast training centres.
In the 20th century, sports underwent social as well as spatial diffusion. After a long and frequently bitter struggle, African Americans, Australian Aboriginal people, “Cape Coloureds” (in South Africa), and other excluded racial and ethnic groups won the right to participate in sports. After a long and somewhat less-bitter struggle, women also won the right to compete in sports—such as rugby—that had been considered quintessentially masculine.
While the British Isles may be considered the homeland of modern sports, modern physical education can be traced back to German and Scandinavian developments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Men such as Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths in Germany and Per Henrik Ling in Sweden elaborated systems of gymnastic exercise that were eventually adopted by school systems in Britain, the United States, and Japan. These noncompetitive alternatives to modern sports also flourished in eastern Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among repressed ethnic peoples such as the Poles and Czechs, gymnastics became almost a way of life. For them, gymnastic festivals were grand occasions at which tens of thousands of disciplined men and women demonstrated nationalistic fervour.
Gymnastic fervour was not, however, much in evidence among the world’s schoolchildren and college students as they encountered gymnastics in required physical-education classes. Calisthenic exercises designed to improve health and fitness were dull and dreary compared with the excitement of modern sports. Long before the end of the 20th century, even German educators had abandoned Leibeserziehung (“physical education”) in favour of Sportunterricht (“instruction in sports”). For young and for old, for better and for worse, sports are the world’s passion.