Outside my window at the moment is the Matterhorn, a huge and imposing spike of rock that rises some 15,000 feet, as high as any mountain in Europe. Its peak looks sheer, unclimbable, yet people do go up all the time, and accidents are rare.
One of the local hotels has a plaque commemorating a famous mountaineer, the Englishman Edward Whymper, who earned immortality as the first to climb the Matterhorn in the late 1860s. One dreads to think of the antique equipment he must have used. But while Whymper was taking his life into his hands and popularising mountaineering, other British people of that day were launching and standardising association football, rugby football, lawn tennis, golf, skiing, hockey, lacrosse, croquet, cricket, horse-racing – in fact polo seems to be the only sport that did not originate in Britain.
What is the explanation of the fact that British sportsmen spread their sports so swiftly and acceptably to the rest of the world? No doubt the supremacy in the nineteenth century of the British Empire played some part – people wanted to be doing what the British were doing. William James, brother of the novelist Henry James and a better psychologist than Freud, held that sports were valuable because offering what he called “the moral equivalent of war.” That’s convincing, but doesn’t explain why the British were pioneering in this respect, while the French or Germans, say, were stuck with war and revolution, contributing no sports.
The British were – at least till recently – rather good at war. They were also early to suffer the consequences of civil war. They developed sports, it seems to me, because they knew what they were capable of, and so devised ways of managing conflict, ways so varied that there was an outlet for everyone, whether as a team player or an individual. And maybe this is an indispensable feature of a civil society. In any case, millions indulge in sports without awareness of what they owe the British. This has surely been a more successful colonization even than the adoption of the English language.