Nationalism and Sports

Nationalism and Sports

The Nazi Olympics

The 1936 Olympics were the first Games to be televised, although only to 160,000 people in and around Berlin. They became a stage for the incitement of nationalism and ritualistic struggle of one nation against another.

In August 1936, The Times editorialized on the “failure” of the British team and the relative success of other countries: only three years after the Berlin Games Britain and Germany were at war again. “Heroic” performance and achievement in sport has fueled the notion that individual merit is more important than national affiliation. The case of the black American athlete Jesse Owens, seen as the perfect counterbalance to Nazi propaganda, argues against this.

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Depression Era and Sports

The Depression left an uneven pattern of poverty and prosperity. Like the rest of the service sector and the mass entertainment industry, spectator sports expanded during the Depression, as those who could afford it grasped the alternative vision of fun and the “good life” that sport provided. In Britain it was the “golden age” of soccer and cricket attendances, and in the United States baseball, football and basketball were flourishing businesses.

Professional football was still organized for the working class rather than by them. Like baseball and other sports, soccer (Association football) provided working-class men and boys with the fantasy of escape from hardship and poverty. By the 1930s it was played almost exclusively by men with working-class origins. Soccer was also used by entrepreneurs to cultivate legalized gambling, institutionalized in the football pools.

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Alternatives to Conventional Sports

While the west was going through its gorgeous epoch of gambling, drinking, and gun-play, a series of athletic crazes were sweeping through the states of the East. Baseball developed from its humble beginnings in the days before the Civil War to its recognized status as America’s national game. The rapid spread of croquet caused the startled editors of The Nation to describe it as the swiftest epidemic the country had ever experienced.

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The Nazi Olympics

The Nazi Olympics

The 1936 Olympics were the first Games to be televised, although only to 160,000 people in and around Berlin. They became a stage for the incitement of nationalism and ritualistic struggle of one nation against another.

In August 1936, The Times editorialized on the “failure” of the British team and the relative success of other countries: only three years after the Berlin Games Britain and Germany were at war again. “Heroic” performance and achievement in sport has fueled the notion that individual merit is more important than national affiliation. The case of the black American athlete Jesse Owens, seen as the perfect counterbalance to Nazi propaganda, argues against this.

The conspicuous success of a black athlete dealt a serious blow to Hitler’s philosophy of the natural supremacy of the Aryan race. Outside Nazi Germany, Owens’ victories were celebrated as evidence that sport provided a setting for equality of opportunity and an avenue for social mobility. Owens was heralded as symbolic proof of the openness of American culture, in which ability, not color, was the sole criterion for success.

The Nazi Olympics

For many people the 1936 Berlin Olympics are regarded, mistakenly, as the first example of the serious intrusion of politics into sports. The Olympic Games of the modem era have consistently offered a platform for national political gesturing in various guises. The Nazi doctrines enshrined in the 1936 Games merely presented an extreme version of the Eurocentric roots of most modem sports.

Despite international concem about the Games, the official British Olympic Association report on Berlin suggested that there was only one real incident to mar the Games: the withdrawal of the whole Peruvian team following a dispute in the soccer tournament.

The writers of the report concluded that the Berlin Olympiad “Was surely one of the greatest sports festivals of all time, having made its magnificent contribution towards a fitter youth and more peaceful international relations.” The diplomatic language of the British report and the optimism of these sentiments presented a familiar paradox: idealist sentiments were being expressed that sport could rise above politics, at a time when sport was undeniably politicized.

International conflict expressed in sport was not limited to the quadrennial Olympic Games. The soccer matches played between England and Germany in 1935 and 1938 became propaganda events for both sides; the British ambassador to Berlin saw England’s victory in 1938 as a triumph for British prestige, not least, apparentýy, because the England team gave the Nazi salute before the game began.

The 1932-33 cricket tour of Australia by the British national team, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) produced its own diplomatic controversy: the so-called “bodyline” series seemed to challenge the essence of the game of cricket. During the Test Match series, the MCC team adopted a particular bowling strategy – one that threatened physical injury – to minimize the effectiveness of the Australian batsman Donald Bradman.

The series was almost halted when the strategy was labeled “unsportsmanlike” by the governing body of cricket in Australia, the Australian Board of Control. The MCC captain, Douglas Jardine, and one of the bowlers, Harold Larwood, were castigated for “dangerous” bowling. After diplomatic talks between the two countries, the tour continued but with “undiminished bitterness” and the conflict between the ideals of fair play and the search for effective tactics remained unresolved.

Throughout World War ll, cricket at the highest level was encouraged by the British govemment to boost national morale, although international contacts – as in most other sports – ceased until the return of peace. Similarly, professional football continued, although subject to restrictions on traveling and on the size of the crowds, and occasionally endangered by air raids. In all sports, teams were weakened by players entering the armed forces, but spectator enthusiasm was undiminished.

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Alternatives to Conventional Sports

Alternatives to Conventional Sports

While the west was going through its gorgeous epoch of gambling, drinking, and gun-play, a series of athletic crazes were sweeping through the states of the East. Baseball developed from its humble beginnings in the days before the Civil War to its recognized status as America’s national game. The rapid spread of croquet caused the startled editors of The Nation to describe it as the swiftest and most infectious epidemic the country had ever experienced.

Lawn tennis was introduced to polite society by enthusiasts who had seen it played in England, and the old sport of archery was revived as still another fashionable lawn game. Roller-skating attained a popularity which extended to all parts of the country. What the sewingmachine is to our industrial wants and the telegraph to our commercial pursuits, one devotee wrote rapturously, this new system of exercise had become to society’s physical and social wants.

Track and field events were also promoted with the widespread organization of amateur athletic clubs; gymnastic games were sponsored both by the German Turnverein and the Y.M.C.A.; and in the colleges a spectacular sports phenomenon loomed over the horizon with the development of intercollegiate football. Society welcomed polo as an importation from abroad, took up the English sport of coaching. And finally a craze for bicycling arose to supersede all other outdoor activities as city streets and country roads became crowded with nattily dressed cyclists out on their club runs.

Going further west, skating was even more popular. The Olympian Club Roller Skating Rink in San Francisco advertised five thousand pairs of skates and 69,000 square feet of hardmaple floor. It was holding races, roller-skating polo, and “tall hat and high collar” parties.

Young and old skated — men, women, and children. For a time no other sport seemed able to match its popularity. A writer in Harper’s Weekly cited a gravestone inscription: Our Jane has climbed the golden stair And passed the jasper gates; Henceforth she will have wings to wear, Instead of roller skates.

But it remained for bicycling to become the most spectacular craze of all. While it had had a brief vogue in the 1860’s (the first velocipedes — the French “dandy horses” — were known as early as the opening of the century), it was the introduction about 1876 of the high-wheeled bicycles, supplanting the old wooden boneshakers, that first made it a popular sport. Within half a dozen years of the first manufacture of the new wheels, there were some twenty thousand confirmed cyclists in the country; in 1886 the total had swelled to some fifty thousand, and a year later it was over a hundred thousand. Clubs were organized in almost every town and city throughout the land, and to bring together organizations of like interest and promote cycling as a sport, they banded together, in 1881, to form the League of American Wheelmen.

There was still opposition, on both moral and biological grounds, to women competing in vigorous sports. Sports heroines such as the Americans Mildred “Babe” Diedrikson and “the world’s fastest woman”, Helen Stevens, who disavowed conventional images of femininity, were exploited and ridiculed by the press, who treated them as freaks.

Female athletes began to match the attainments of their male counterparts, yet sought to preserve the feminine qualities of their style. There was however, no stigma attached to women’s participation in the Workers’ Sports Association, which maintained a philosophy of democracy and openly encouraged female athletes.

By 1930 Workers’ Sports Associations were flourishing in most parts of Europe and many areas of North and South America and Asia, with a total membership of over four million. Opposed to both national and sexual chauvinism and to elitism in sport, the Workers’ Sports Movement was a massive internationalist working-class organization.
In 1932 it organized the second Workers’ Olympics, which took place in Vienna with over 100,000 competitors from 26 countries.

The third Workers’ Olympics was scheduled to take place in Barcelona in 1936, in opposition to the Nazi Olympics in Berlin, but the Spanish Civil War began on the morning of the opening ceremony. When they returned home, however, many worker athletes were banned from their national associations, whereas those who took part in the Nazi Olympics were hailed as national heroes.

Next Page: The Nazi Olympics

Depression Era and Sports

Depression Era and Sports

In the autumn of 1929 came the catastrophe which so few had anticipated but which in retrospect seems inevitable–prices broke on the New York Stock Exchange, dragging down with them in their fall, first the economy of the United States itself, subsequently that of Europe and the rest of the world. Financial losses of such magnitude had never before been known in the history of capitalist society, and the ensuing depression was also unprecedented in scope.

There had always been business crises; economists had come to take them as normal and even to chart a certain regularity in their occurrence. But this one dwarfed all its predecessors: no previous depression had remotely approached it in length, in depth, and in the universality of impact. Small wonder that countless people were led to speculate whether the final collapse of capitalism itself, so long predicted by the Marxists, was not at last in sight.

The Depression left an uneven pattern of poverty and prosperity. Like the rest of the service sector and the mass entertainment industry, spectator sports expanded during the Depression, as those who could afford it grasped the alternative vision of fun and the “good life” that sport provided. In Britain it was the “golden age” of soccer and cricket attendances, and in the United States baseball, football and basketball were flourishing businesses.

Professional football was still organized for the working class rather than by them. Like baseball and other sports, soccer (Association football) provided working-class men and boys with the fantasy of escape from hardship and poverty. By the 1930s it was played almost exclusively by men with working-class origins. Soccer was also used by entrepreneurs to cultivate legalized gambling, institutionalized in the football pools.

By the mid-1930s more than sixteen times as many people gambled on football in Britain as watched it, attracted by the potential jackpot win. As early as 1931 there was one pools win of £345,000. By 1938 the annual turnover was close to £40 million.

Football aroused spectator interest from the start, and the Big Three of the eastern colleges — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — at first completely overshadowed all other teams. It was long before comparable elevens were in the field. The Thanksgiving Day games of these universities were consequently the great events of the fall season. Some four thousand spectators turned out for the first Princeton-Yale game in 1878; little more than a decade later, attendance was almost forty thousand.

Few adults found themselves able or willing to play football. Although teams made up of former college players were for a time quite active, the game was primarily for boys. But many were glad to watch so exciting a sport. Its dependence upon brute force satisfied atavistic instincts as could no other modern spectacle except the prize-fight. Baseball had become the national game because so many people played it as well as watched it.

Football was destined from the first to be primarily a spectator sport. The football pools’ jackpot was one of the dreamlike scenarios sport provided for working-class people in the 1930s. The poverty of the Depression induced people to look to sport to transport them from the ghetto: poor people under capitalism believed that sport, like other forms of popular culture, might change their rags to riches.

In the United States boxing became a route out of poverty for some blacks. Inspired by the supremacy of Joe Louis, world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, blacks began to dominate professional boxing, though prizewinners’ purses remained relatively small until after 1945.

The lawn tennis as played in the United States did not involve hard, overhand serves, back-court drives, or smashes at the net. Women players suffered only the slightest handicap in having to hold up the trains of their long, dragging skirts; they were not expected actually to run for the ball. It was patted gently back and forth over a high net stretched across any level space of lawn. Competition gradually led to changed methods of play, and with the organization of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (there were forty member clubs in 1883) and the institution of annual tournaments at Newport, men began to take the game more seriously. The active features of play that now characterize it were developed. A group of players whose names are still remembered emerged from the ranks — R. D. Sears, James Dwight, Robert D. Wrenn, William A. Larned, Dwight F. Davis… Finally in 1900 the establishment of the International Davis Cup matches definitely marked the transformation of tennis from a pastime to a sport.

Throughout Europe and in North America participation sports remained rigidly class-specific: skiing, climbing, tennis, sailing, yachting and motor-racing remained middle and upper-class sports. New working-class hobbies and recreations developed as a direct result of unemployment and enforced leisure. An open-air and fitness movement developed, symptomatic attempts to escape from the industrial environment. Working-class people took to cycling, camping, hiking and rambling.

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. And a post-war atmosphere, in which the instinct for pleasure is naturally intensified, provided fertile ground for the growth of these new forms of recreation. It is perhaps not so surprising after all that within a short quarter-century of the day when one English visitor declared that “to roll balls in a ten pin alley by gas-light or to drive a fast trotting horse in a light wagon along a very bad and dusty road, seems the Alpha and Omega of sport in the United States,” almost every one of our modern games was being played by a rapidly growing army of enthusiasts.

The expansion of women’s sport was still slow, but there was some relaxation of attitudes about women’s physical abilities and an increasing interest in, and demand for, opportunities to participate. Girls were playing sports in schools, thanks to the development of the women’s physical education professions in Europe and North America. In 1930 the Women’s League of Health and Beauty was founded in London with 16 members – by 1939 there were 166,000 members, centers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and representatives in Hong Kong, Denmark and the United States.

Next Page: Alternatives to Conventional Sports