Monday, March 08, 2010

Ask Brit: The origins of sports

It’s always awkward when you’re chatting with an American such as David and the subject of sport arises. One feels badly that the Cousins got stuck with rounders and that fussy, fancy-dress version of rugby. Invariably they will bemoan the ill-fortune that prevented the absorption of proper sports into their otherwise-admirable culture, and demand to know why they too can’t play games such as cricket, ladies’ cricket and tennis.

Well some mysteries are insoluble and even I can’t answer them, but did you know that every single sport or game that has ever been played in the history of mankind was invented in Britain?

Absolutely true. Soccer (or ‘real football’ as Americans call it) was unwittingly invented by Henry VIII, when in stocking foot he kicked the severed head of Anne of Bognor - his ninth but by no means final wife - through a portcullis in a rare act of seriousness. The King's toe was broken and amidst the ensuing howls of agony and regal expletives some wag was heard to remark that His Majesty “might regrette his haste” to “sock her”. Thus a great sport was born.

Archery, meanwhile, was first conceived by Robin Hood in around 1840. He had the idea of adapting the pub game of darts by making the arrows much bigger and aiming them at people rather than a board. When this proved dangerous and unpopular, they simply replaced the people with a board again. When it proved too easy to hit the board now that the arrows were so much bigger, they simply moved the board far away. When it proved too difficult to hit a tiny board, even with big arrows, if it was far away, they simply made the board bigger, at which point they let the thing alone. Golf was invented by some Scottish idiot.

As to so-called “American” sports, there are none. Baseball is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as ‘a game for ladies of delicate constitution, for whom whist makes too vexing a pastime’; while epic games of basketball are of course a key plot device in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The name “American Football” is derived from “A-Merry-Can Football”- an antiquated Cornish game in which villagers would take turns to hurl oval rocks at each others’ delicates. The only protective equipment permitted was a light tin cup or “Can” strapped over the contestant’s “Merries”. When a direct hit was scored, a group of female domestic servants would signal the event by waving giant balls of wool in the air – and again, it doesn’t take an etymological scholar to deduce that modern ‘cheerleaders’ are the direct descendents of those trailblazing Cornish ‘charladies.’

These days, we British take a certain pride in watching competitors from across the globe come to our shores and thrash us at our own games. For while we’re expert at inventing sports we’re no good at all at playing them. There is one exception. British competitors have dominated the World Cheese Rolling Championships since their inception in 1066. Here are the highlights from this year’s competition. Look out for Price Harry wearing the traditional ‘Royal Thong’ in the second race, and if you stay with it until about the 3 minute mark, you can see Kate Winslet triumphing in the Under-40s Actress or Singer category.


Gaw said...

Re the origins of archery, I think you're on to something. Surely polo is merely a modern extrapolation of the ancient pub game of bar billiards?

Willard said...

And now I've just wasted an hour reading about cheese rolling. It's hypnotic stuff watching people dislocate their limbs.

Matt said...

On the other hand, the governments of three States of the Union have designated an official flying mammal.

Brit said...

But what is their crustacean, Matt, what is their crustacean?

Gaw - indeed. Also, jousting is based on shove ha'penny, I believe.

W - amazing it's still allowed, really, isn't it.

Mark said...

I imagine the relentless tunnelling under the Mexican border down Texas way wouldn't have happened had not we introduced ferret racing across the water. The ferrets were taken on board the old sailing ships to keep the ship's rats under control during the Atlantic crossing, but it was only a matter of time before a Fancy was born, with off-duty ferrets racing in "tunnels" formed from spare sails. The rest is history.

Joey Joe Joe Jr. said...

It's because of the admirable American impulse to do things bigger and better that made their version of shove ha'penny unplayable. Increasing the size of the shove ha'penny board a hundred-fold is on the face of it a brilliant idea, but after the great depression heralded the end of yard-diameter coinage the 18 yard wide (and now useless) playing area was adapted for a new version of skittles. Now the game was played sideways between the ridges giving rise to what we now know as ten-pin bowling.

On the topic of sport, the clip is from Yorkshire Televisions 70's show the Indoor League presented by cricketer Fred Trueman.

I'll see thee

Gadjo Dilo said...

Of course, you know what our American cousins will say to all this: "lacrosse". Supposedly invented by Huron and Iroquois tribesmen and as American as mom's apple pie and, errr, John Wayne. Never really caught on though as a jumpers-for-goalposts people's sport.

martpol said...


This wouldn't be another of your cheeky attempts to influence the gullible section of the Wikifying community, would it?

Brit said...

JJJ Jnr: Eminently plausible, and it really is time they re-ran the Indoor League. Another brainchild of the genius Sid Waddell, wasn't it?

Gadj: surely lacrosse is just a variation on hurling, which is a variation on hockey, which is a variation on football?

M: Might get away with the baseball one as it really is mentioned in Northanger Abbey.

David said...

Hockey is just soccer on ice, but it took the Canadians to think of adding the ice (or not clearing it off the field, more likely).