The History of Sport Under Capitalism (Part I) - Sport in the ascendant phase of capitalism (1750-1914)

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For a long time sport has represented a phenomenon that cannot be ignored from the fact of its cultural breadth and its place in society. A mass phenomenon, it's imposed on us through the tentacles of many institutions and results in a permanent hammering from the media. What significance can we give it from the point of view of a historical understanding and from the point of view of the working class?

In this first part we are going to try to give some responses by looking at the origins and function of sport in ascendant capitalist society.

A pure product of the capitalist system

The word "sport" is a term of English origin. Inherited from popular games and aristocratic entertainments, it was born in England with the beginnings of large capitalist industry.

Modern sport clearly distinguishes itself from the games, entertainments or physical activities of the past. If it inherited practices from them, it's because it oriented itself exclusively towards competition: "It was necessary that the development of the productive forces of capitalism were important enough for the abstract idea to make itself apparent to the masses from concrete works (...) similarly it was necessary for the long development of physically competitive practices so that little by little the idea of physical competition became generalised"[1]. The horsemanship of the aristocracy ended up with racecourses. It's around this that the stopwatch was invented, in 1831. From 1750, the English Jockey Club promoted numerous racecourses whose appearances continued apace. It was the same with running and other sports. Football came from the matches of Cambridge, 1848, and the Football Association appeared in 1863; tennis was transformed much later providing the first tournament in 1876. In brief, the new disciplines were all geared towards competition: "Little by little, sport broke free from the confused chaos and complexities of the time in order to form a coherent and codified body of highly specialised  and rationalised techniques adapted to the mode of capitalist/industrial production"[2]. In the same way that wage labour is linked to production in capitalist society, sport incarnated "abstract materialisation made flesh"[3]. Very quickly the search for performance and records, along with bookmakers and betting, fed a diversity of sporting activity which became a real, popular infatuation, allowing the factory to be forgotten for the moment. This was the case for example with cycling and the Tour de France (a sort of a "free party") from 1903, boxing, football, etc. In line with the development of the  capitalist system, transports and communications, sport took off in Europe as in the rest of the world. The extension and institutionalisation of sport, the birth and multiplication of national federations, harmonised with the heights of the capitalist system from the 1860s, but above all in the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth. It's a time when sport really internationalised itself. Football for example, was introduced into South America by European workers who were employed in the railway workshops. The first international sporting grouping was the International Union of Yacht Racing in 1875. Then others appeared: International Horse Show Club in 1878, International Gymnastic Federation in 1881, bodies for rowing and skating in 1882, etc. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded in 1894, FIFA (International Federation of Associated football) in 1904. Most of the international bodies were set up before 1914.

Contrary to accepted opinion, the capitalist version of sport doesn't represent a simple continuity with the ancient games. The Olympianism of the ancient Greeks was not at all based upon the idea of records or the obsession with performance against the clock. While confrontation with adversaries took place, it was connected with religious ceremonial and myth which had nothing to do with the material and mental universe of the contemporary games - even if the military aspect, the war between cities, and even the mercantile dimension. However, the modern Olympic Games, like those of Paris in 1900 or London in 1908, were already major commercial fairs. But, above all, these games took place in the context of the growth of imperialist tensions and thus helped to feed the ambient nationalism. The institution of the Olympic Games created in 1896, presented as a continuation of the tradition of the ancient Greeks, or corresponding to the democratic ideals displayed by Pierre de Coubertin and his celebrated saying, "the main thing is to participate", was just a con-trick. These modern games, reactivated in order to propagate chauvinist hysteria and militarism, are situated within the framework of capitalist alienation where everything rests on elitism and relations of domination linked to the production of commodities.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, sport is an almost exclusive practice reserved for the bourgeois elite, mainly around boarding school education. It's the occasion for the bourgeoisie to show-off, amuse itself and compete while allowing its ladies to ostentatiously exhibit their new outfits.  It's the time of the big meetings at racecourses, aquatic sports. the first winter sports as at Chamonix and the proliferation of golf clubs. These creations are reserved for the bourgeoisie which then forbids access to them by the workers.[4]

From the very conditions of capitalist exploitation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the workers had neither the means nor the time to engage in sport. The frantic exploitation of the factory or the mine and the miserable state of daily life hardly allowed the reconstitution of labour power. Even the workers' children, frequently struck by rickets, had to be sacrificed in the factories from the ages of 6 or 7. The ten-hour day was introduced only later, not before 1900, and a day of rest was only obtained in 1906.

An issue for the class struggle

Initially the workers' movement showed a distrust towards the sporting practices of the bourgeoisie and kept a certain distance from them. But in striving to constitute itself into an autonomous class and with the development of its struggles for improvements and social reforms, the working class succeeded in wresting from capitalism some sporting activities which had been forbidden or inaccessible to it up until then.

The sport of the workers was born somewhat tentatively before the workers' sporting federations and clubs obtained through large-scale struggles were constituted[5]. Originally any gathering outside the factory, even of small numbers, was illegal. Popular games that risked disorder, like football, were forbidden by the authorities on public roads (the British Highway Act of 1835). The least attempt to play games appeared suspect and dangerous in the eyes of the bosses. The police saw them as 'troubling public order'. Initially confined to closed and discreet spaces, the sport of the workers was really born in the trade union movement and only developed after the Victorian era. In the workers' districts, sport was part of a whole ambiance of culture and sociability, a sense of belonging to a class. Physical activity was connected to the need to feed social bonds.

In a certain way, the workers associated sporting activity with a fraternal spirit which gave birth to mutual aid. On these grounds, workers' clubs multiplied (football and cycling) from the 1890s, and developed later in the 'red districts'. For the workers who were constituting themselves into an autonomous class, it was all associated with the struggle against the brutalisation of work, with the need to come together to educate themselves and develop their consciousness through political activity and propaganda. Thus in France, from its creation in 1907, the Socialist Sporting Union affirmed the necessity to "lay claim to the (...) the party, by organising sporting festivals and taking part in athletic events...". The Socialist Athletic Sporting Federation said the following year: "we want to create for the working class centres of amusement which will develop alongside the Party, and which will also be (...) centres of propaganda and recruitment"[6]. Through these sporting activities, militants of the working class were at the same time conscious of conducting a preventative struggle against the damage of alcoholism and the ravages of delinquency. For example, in its platform, the USPS (Sporting Union of the Socialist Party) underlined the necessity "to develop the muscular strength and purify the lungs of proletarian youth and give to young people healthy and agreeable amusements which can be a palliative against alcoholism and the bad habits among a part of young comrades (...) and develop among the young socialists the spirit of association and organisation"[7] .

In Germany, these same preoccupations were shared in the years between 1890 and 1914 by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was very influential in the education of workers, supporting the setting-up of clubs and sporting federations as well as union structures and labour exchanges. In 1893, the Gymnastic Union of the Workers came into being and was a counterweight to the ambient nationalism. Within a concern for unity and internationalism, the workers were even led to create a Socialist International of Physical Culture in Belgium in 1913.

Sport becomes a real means of social control

Faced with these initiatives of the workers the bourgeoisie didn't stand with folded arms and looked to draw the workers, notably the youngest, into its own structures. The workers' movement was perfectly conscious of this as we see in France in an article of Humanité published in 1908: "The other political parties, above all those of the reaction, try by all means to draw youth towards them by creating patronages where athletics has a large role"[8]. For bosses with a paternal attitude, recuperating the physical activity of the workers to turn it to its profit rapidly became a major concern, notably in big industry. The baron Pierre de Coubertin was maddened by the idea of a 'socialist sport'. From this, in order to re-establish submission to the established order, sport became one of the major tools to hand. Thus the bosses created clubs in which the workers were invited to get involved. The mining clubs in England, for example, allowed for the stimulation of a spirit of competition between workers, of preventing political discussion and contributing to breaking strikes in the making. With the same spirit, bosses in France developed clubs like the cycling club of the enterprises of Lyon (1886), the football team of Bon Marché (1887), the Omnisport club of the motor factories of Panhard-Levassor (1909). There's also the case of Peugeot at Sochaux, of the Stade Michelin at Clermont-Ferrand (1911), etc: clubs intended as a means of social control, a way of policing the workers. We can note for example the boss of the Saint-Gobain mines "who wrote in its company notebooks who was present, attitudes during gymnastic work and political opinions". In the same spirit, the founder of Paris Racing Club in 1897, Georges De Saint Clair, thought that it was important to occupy sporting youth rather than "leave them to the taverns where they occupy themselves with politics and foment strikes"[9].

Much more fundamentally, and in a codified framework, sport allowed a body of workers to much more easily become an appendage to the machine and its nascent technologies. The body of the sportsman, like that of the workers, was in some way mechanised, fragmented, as in the various training moves. It was the mirror image of the division of labour and the movements inside the factory. The energy of the sportsman was like labour power in the factory; divided by discipline, and submitted to the rhythm of industrial time: "competition...presupposes that labour as been equalized by the subordination of man to the machine or by the extreme division of labour that men are effaced by their labour; that the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives. Therefore, we should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcass."[10]. Modern sport fully participates in transforming man into a "carcass", into a record-breaking production machine. It allows the boss to exercise pressure over the worker which, at the same time, intensifies the discipline which tends to render the worker more docile and liable to forced labour. The workers' movement was capable of revealing and denouncing this capitalist reality of sport. It would do so for example regarding English football (professional since 1885) which was already becoming a form of commercial enterprise. The conditions of the players was seen as unacceptable and was compared to a kind of slavery[11].

Sport mobilises and prepares for war

Sport, as a cog of capitalist society, was also a privileged means of the dominant class in developing patriotism, nationalism and military discipline in the ranks of the workers. We already mentioned this with regard to the first Olympic games. If, on the margins, a public health current developed - under the impulsion for example of the Dr. Ph. Tissie (1852-1935) - concerned about the health of the population and more or less in line with eugenics, sport above all was used to strengthen the patriotic spirit and prepare for war. In Germany, 1811, Ludwig Jahn founded the Turplatz (gymnastic club) in a marked patriotic and military spirit. It succeeded in secretly creating a real reserve army, aiming to get around the lack of military manpower imposed by the French state. In the 1860's, the scholarly institutions militarised gymnastics and inculcated "order and discipline" (zucht und ordnung).

In France things went the same way with a chauvinist, military culture. L'Union des sociétés de gymnastique de France was created in 1873. And it's no accident that shooting developed as a complementary discipline at the same time (l'Union des sociétés de tir en France was founded in 1886). By June 26, 1871, Gambetta was already declaring that "We should have everywhere the gymnast and the soldier" in order to make "the work of patriots"[12].

After the defeat of Sedan and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, the French bourgeoisie prepared its revenge. Gymnastics entered schools through a law of January 27 1880. The famous Jules Ferry went on to be a great promoter of military education for the young sons of workers. From July 1881, the Parisian authorities organised children of communal boy's schools into 'scholarly battalions'. Four 'battalions' equipped (with uniform, berets of the fleet and blue jumpers) and armed, manoeuvred on the boulevard Arago surrounded by "a battalion chief of the territorial army" and 4 gymnastics teachers. On July 6 1882, following a decree legalising these practices, Jules Ferry addressed these children with the following: "Under the appearance of a trifling thing you are fulfilling a profoundly serious role. You are working towards the military force of tomorrow"[13].

This "military force of tomorrow", with all sporting forms, is what was served up as cannon fodder in the butchery of 1914. This led Henri Desgranges, the director of l'Auto to declare, flippantly and cynically, on August 5 1914: "All our little troops who are at the frontier at this time in order to defend the soil of our country, are they not re-living the adversity of international competitions?"[14].

During the massacres, we can recall an episode long passed over in silence, but depicted in the film Joyeaux Noël: an improvised football match in no-man’s land, between German and English soldiers who were trying to fraternise. They were brutally deported and repressed: this sort of sport the bourgeoisie and its officers did not want! The sole sporting 'contribution' to this monstrous war was to be the import by American troops in 1917 of volleyball and basketball. A poor consolation for more than ten million dead.

WH, October 29, 2012

Coming Soon! "Sport in Decadent Capitalism (1914 to today)".


[1]J-M Brohm, Sociologie politique du sport, 1976, re-edition: Nancy, P.U.N. 1992.



[4] There's a class cleavage then in the choice and practices of sport. Take cricket, we find within this discipline a similar cleavage in the choice of positions: thus the batsman came from a socially elevated class, whereas the bowlers and fielders are from the popular classes.

[5]Pierre Armand, les Origines du  sport ouvrir en Europe, L'Harmattan 1994.

[6]The Socialist, no. 208, 9-16/5/1909.

[7]P. Clastres and P. Dietschy, Sport, societe et culture en France, Hachette Carre Histoire.



[10]Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy.

[11]Le Socialiste, 8-15/12/1907 (


[13]P. Clastres and P. Dietschy  Sport, societe et culture in France, Hachette Carre Histoire.

[14]J-M Brohm, Sociiologie politique du sport: Nancy, P.U.N., 1992.