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  • Sport and the British World, 1900–1930: Amateurism and National Identity in Australasia and Beyond by Erik Nielsen
  • Wray Vamplew
Nielsen, Erik. Sport and the British World, 1900–1930: Amateurism and National Identity in Australasia and Beyond. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. xii+ 257. $85.50 hb.

Whereas sport historians think they have much to offer on globalization, race, and ethnicity, and particularly on identity, mainstream historians, when they bother at all, often see sport history as a source of interesting examples but contributing little to the central debates. Hence, in his introduction, Erik Nielsen bemoans the lack of reference to sport in the ongoing historical discussions on nationalism and transnationalism. Yet, paradoxically, his book has been published as part of the British Scholar Society’s series on Britain and the World, surely acceptance by mainstream historians that sport is a suitable subject for study in that area of history. And clearly so with this scholarly work, based on archival research, full of nuance and complexity in which the author elucidates on the theme of sport as a constituent of nationalism, particularly in Australia, using the concept of amateurism as an analytical device.

In the early 1970s, Bill Mandle, the pioneer of sports history in Australia, claimed that cricket, by uniting the several colonies in an Australian team to play—and often beat—an England eleven, helped pave the way for political federation. This view, as Nielsen outlines, has been challenged by several historians. Nielsen goes further and postulates that sport enabled Australians simultaneously both to challenge and to reinforce imperial norms: it allowed Australian nationalism to coexist with the idea of still being British.

In this context, he explores the reception that the concept of amateurism received in Australia when it arrived as part of the cultural baggage of imperial settlers. He shows that Australia developed a localized understanding of amateurism to fit its own circumstances, as was probably the case in many other countries. The idea of keeping a sport exclusive to amateur participants was evolved by sporting officialdom in nineteenth-century Britain as a way of isolating their middle-class players from the social contamination of working-class [End Page 273] participants. In Australia, the concept had less class connotation (though this was not absent) and was associated more with payment for playing sport. The standard interpretation by sports historians is that Australia adhered firmly to its amateur principles and, even in a changing world, was slow to accept the notion of a paid athlete. In his 2001 essay “Diminishing Contrasts and Increasing Varieties: Globalisation Theory and ‘Reading’ Amateurism in Australian Sport,” published in the journal Sporting Traditions, Murray Phillips suggested that this has been too sweeping a generalization, and here Nielsen fleshes this out in detail, showing differences between sports and between states. It is clear that many officials in Australian sport subscribed to a different version of amateurism that was less beholden to the purity of sport as codified by their British counterparts, particularly in relation as to whom could compete. Many were willing to reinstate as amateurs men who had played as professionals in other sports or, even more sacrilegious to English officials, had competed with (or against) paid players, an act sufficient to contaminate their amateurism in English eyes and, to be fair, some Australian ones as well. Nielsen also suggests that track and field officials in New South Wales, in contrast to those in Queensland, were willing to accept indigenous Australians as amateur participants. He implies that this too would not have been tolerated in Britain but supplies no supporting evidence.

Earlier studies have shown that there was no uniform definition of amateurism across sports in Britain. It varied according to the attitude of the officials in the particular sport. Those in track and field, on which this book concentrates, had an uncompromising mind set. The reaction of Australian officials was to develop relationships (informal rather than formal) with officials outside the Amateur Athletic Association, though it did them little good, as neither they nor their British counterparts could influence the regulatory code.

Although the focus of the book is Australia, Nielsen also looks at the amateur situation in...


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pp. 273-274
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