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  • Sports History in France and Britain:National Agendas and European Perspectives
  • Paul Dietschy† and Richard Holt†

How can the birth of modern sport been seen as a part of a wider process of historical change? This problem is particularly acute when looking at Europe, where so much of modern sport first developed. Why is there no major work of historical synthesis on the development of sport in Europe after more than thirty years of research? To begin to answer this question, the striking differences in topics, themes, and methods that have shaped the writing of sports history require examination. There are now substantial and serious literatures dealing with the different histories of sports in Europe as opposed to the more unitary idea of "European sport" favored by the European Union. But the vast majority of this work has an overwhelmingly local, regional, or national agenda and focus. We know quite a lot about our own countries but very little about our neighbors. This "tunnel vision" in sports research makes the task of wider generalization at the European level especially difficult. [End Page 83]

This narrow focus on the nation is common to most areas of history, but it is particularly ironic in the case of sport. A quintessentially modern sport such as association football has the same rules and even the same regulatory body across the continent (UEFA). It has arguably been shaped by the same economic and social forces, but this is not reflected in its historiography. Given this tradition of national particularism, the common basis for the rise of modern sport, though familiar, bears brief repetition. This involves the transition from traditional to modern forms, which in turn are related to changing patterns of work, space, and time. "Folk" sports for peasants and artisans were replaced with "modern" sports, designed initially for the growing numbers of the urban middle classes who increasingly were employed in sedentary indoor office jobs. These codified team games and athletic forms spread quite quickly to industrial workers whose new social conditions created a demand for sporting activity and entertainment of limited duration available in confined spaces. From the cities modern sports—association football, rugby, tennis, hockey, athletics, cycle racing, and handball—spread quickly to smaller towns and into country areas, driving out traditional games and increasingly displacing the gymnastic forms of physical culture developed in Sweden and Germany in the nineteenth century. This emergent culture of mass sport was strengthened and exploited both by interwar Fascist and Communist regimes and in liberal democracies with strong traditions of voluntary association.

This approach offers a potential model for a trans-national study of sport in Europe. Why has this not happened? The intellectual project to link work and leisure in industrial society, which informed early sports history in Britain, promised just such an account. This interest in leisure had emerged from an increasingly anthropological view of "culture" as well as from the influence of "base/superstructure" forms of historical materialism fashionable in "social history" in the 1960s and 1970s.1 In the 1980s and 1990s this loosely "historical materialist" perspective withered under the impact of gender and postcolonial history and an increasing concern with language and identity.2 The nascent project to link work and leisure, which marked the halcyon days of social history, was abandoned, and the link between sport and labor was lost. These broadly "postmodernist" trends were especially striking in Anglophone scholarship. On the positive side they brought a new "cultural" dimension to "social" history. More negatively, the possibilities for wider generalization were undermined, although there are recent signs of a renewed interest in "leisure history" and the place of sport within it.3

With this in mind it is instructive to look at Britain and France: two European nations, which shared sporting contacts but remained profoundly different in many respects. How do these histories of sport differ and why? Which areas of research have been more fully developed and which neglected? How might this inform the project of writing a history of sport in Europe? In more than thirty years of academic work on sports history in Britain and France, the subject has evolved tremendously. The range of material is now...


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pp. 83-98
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