On Radio 4: Sport and the British

In the year that London will host the Olympics for the third time the BBC has set aside thirty episodes for a discussion of the relationship between Britain and sport, what Clare Balding the writer and presenter called, “this great triviality”. As those Olympics are looming large on both the horizon and the balance sheet it was perhaps appropriate that this first episode looked at The Rise of Olympism.

The modern Olympics began in farce. Inspired by the noble ideas of play up, play up and play the game that Baron de Coubertin had taken from Thomas Arnold at Rugby the first three iterations of the Olympics would not be recongisable as such to our eyes. No national teams, handfuls of competitors and events taking place months apart. It was only when London stepped in to take charge of the 1908 games (“England has led the way in manly sports …” wrote the Evening Standard in 1906) that something approaching the current behemoth emerged: White City was built, national teams adopted and judging controversies got in the way. The latter to such an extent that Wyndham Halswelle won the 400m gold by virtue of being the only man on the track, his American competitors having left in disgust owing to hometown bias amongst the judges.

All this was put in context by Balding: Lord Coe banging on about how WE created most of the sports (well, we created the ones we play; the ones the rest of the world play we tend to ignore), the headmaster of Rugby School getting a bit moist eyed that de Courbetin slept in the chapel there in order to be close to the spirit of Arnold and Tony Collins explaining that the 1908 games were organised by aristos, competed for by public schoolboys and watched by the huddled masses. It was all very trivial and all very compelling, rather like sport itself.

Tomorrow’s programme asks whether the French would have had a revolution if they had played cricket. There surely has to be the opportunity to point out that in one of the great quirks of sport, “France” took the silver in the Olympic cricket competition of 1900 despite losing the only match played by 158 runs. I look forward to this and other asides over the next 29 episodes.

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