Saturday, September 25, 2004

Sport and History

One of my pet peeves is seeing wonderful history books end up solely on the "sports" shelves in bookshops because of their main subject matter. I refer not to the sports books such as "A History of Arsenal Football Club 1945-2000" that revel only in reporting victories over Spurs, or every change in bootroom boy. Instead, I mean books such as "Beyond a Boundary" by CLR James or the majestic "Ajax: The Dutch, The War" by Simon Kuper, which go far beyond the bounds of mere sporting achievements, and look at the impact that sporting culture has on history.

The book I am reading at the moment concerns the story of a Negro League baseball team in Washington during the Second World War - a team so successful that it was able to outdraw the major league team that played in the same stadium. But it is not a particularly heartening story in many places - the audience at the Negro League games was almost exclusively black. By focusing on the way the community reacted to the team, it gives a great insight into the problems of integration in the northern cities, and a welcome change from the focus upon the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Likewise, looking at football and the way it operated during the Second World War is of great value to understanding the political aims of the leaders, and the effects of war on the ordinary population. Whn you learn that on the day of the German invasion of Russia, 90,000 fans were in Berlin to watch the German league final, the war genuinely does take on a new dimension. And indeed, focusing on football, such a popular passion throughout Europe, casts a very interesting light on the attitudes of different countries to the war. Upon declaration of war, the English league programme closed down almost immediately - the Germans kept theirs going until they could physically not cope without the footballers on the front, for the Nazis had to convince the population that war was just a normal part of everyday life.

When we consider cultural history, we tend to think of anything except sport. The pub, but more regularly the theatre, music, books, newspapers - all of these get attention, but sport is frequently neglected. The performance of the English football team in major championships, however, has a huge effect on the national economy. On the day Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile, the largest rugby league crowd ever assembled watched the Challenge Cup Final replay - surely study there would throw light on to the history of northern towns? Or the effect on New York of two of its three major league baseball teams moving to California in the 1950s?

Indeed, the aforementioned "Beyond a Boundary" is considered by many who have read it as one of the best insights into the colonial condition. Of course, all the books to which I have referred here go far beyond the detail of sporting achievements and minutiae. But all good history books refer to incidents and themes which may at first glance appear beyond the initial subject matter of the study. And the popularity of sport since organising bodies first appeared means that it plays a hugely important part in the ordinary lives of many people. The Miracle on Ice, where the US Olympic ice hockey team, comprised of college kids, defeated the Big Red Machine of the Soviets, before the tournament seemingly invincible, act almost as a precursor to the end of the Cold War. Of course I am not being as facile or stupid as to suggest had the US team lost, the outcomes of history would be remarkably different. But context is important, and that this came at a time of great difficulty in the Cold War does hold a greater significance than that of a mere sports match.

I suppose on a certain level I should be happy that these books appear in the "sports" section of a bookshop, for it will probably mean they get the attention of people whose eyes would never come across it cast away on the history shelves. But the reverse is also true, and we ignore the forces of sport in history at our peril. At the very least, they provide one of the most interesting looking glasses into the way people lived in the past. And if done correctly, studying sport, sporting organisation and sporting culture is absolutely integral to an understanding of the 20th century.