December 13, 2008 2:00 am

Win some, lose some

In 1850, William Penny Brookes, a doctor in the English village of Much Wenlock, staged a sort of Olympics for the locals. Before long, the Wenlock Olympian Games became an annual competition. Among the events, writes Julian Norridge in his fantastically erudite account of how the British invented modern sport, was "an old ladies race for a pound of tea".

The Wenlock games combined the main Victorian sporting ingredients: an educated muscular Christian, a British folk tradition, a love of all games, however silly, and finally, expansion abroad. The first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896 four months after Dr Brookes died aged 86, were inspired partly by Wenlock.

This book tackles the question not of how the Victorians spread games around the world - they clearly had the best trade routes - but why they invented these games.

Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? is a heroic endeavour, written in smooth prose with beautiful old illustrations. Yet it is more a fluent reference book than a narrative history. Norridge's rare points of analysis are convincing but, in a very British way, he prefers fact.

He shows that most sports had pre-British origins. Many civilisations boxed, ran or kicked balls around. "Most societies had played some form of stickand-ball game," Norridge notes, but only the Brits codified cricket, baseball and hockey.

Britain had an unusually strong folk sporting tradition. The Scandinavians, by contrast, had skied for millennia while rarely bothering to race each other. But medieval English monarchs were forever having to ban sports - even bowls - because the participants drank, broke windows and got distracted from archery practice.

From the 18th century, as society got richer, gambling developed. Sports such as cricket and running were initially events to bet on. Rival gentlemen wagered on races between their "running footmen". Because boxing was banned, crowds of up to 30,000 people trekked to secret boxing matches, often carrying "fishing rods, shotguns or other such props to disguise their true purpose".

Eighteenth-century sports were rough affairs. Boxers routinely got killed; even in a sailing race a competitor might pull out a cutlass. Immediately after a swimming race in the Thames in 1791, "the winner drank himself to death".

Enter the Victorians. The emerging middle classes wouldn't tolerate such disorder. But they did take games seriously. After Thomas Arnold became headmaster of Rugby School in 1828, public schools came up with the cult of "muscular Christianity". Norridge explains: "The idea grew that disciplined team sports developed 'character' and instilled courage, teamwork, selflessness and toughness, the very qualities needed to administer the Empire."

Educated types such as Dr Brookes spread the word to the unwashed, who learned to see sport as an upper-class, aspirational product. Perhaps ominously for future British sport, winning was never the main point.

Meanwhile the Victorians had also invented trains, and many athletes were also sent abroad to run the world. For the first time, sportsmen raised in one place could regularly play against sportsmen raised in another. So common rules were required. The Victorians, used to making laws for their subjects, now set about codifying sports.

It turned out that the world, without knowing it, had been waiting for team games played with balls. Everything from football to polo swept the planet. Before the Victorian era was over, foreigners were beating Britons at their own games. By 1908, the US team returning in triumph from the London Olympics "paraded a 'British lion' on a chain".

Yet as Norridge's book testifies, Britons are ceasing to obsess over their inevitable loss of sporting supremacy - they now prefer to revel in their miracle of creation.

Simon Kuper is a sports writer for the FT

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