A fascinating portrayal of European sports history

Conor Curran
Trinity College Dublin

Daphné Bolz & Michael Krüger (eds.)
A History of Sport in Europe in 100 Objects
440 pages, hardcover, ill
Hildesheim: arete Verlag 2023
ISBN 978-3-96423-107-9

This ambitious and fascinating publication is the result of a successful funding proposal through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant system. Previously, there have been some notable edited collections based around European sports history and written in English, including those with a focus on football by Herzog and Brändle (2015) and Vonnard, Quin and Bancel (2016).[1] A few others have examined particular periods in history such as Vamplew, Dyreson and McClelland in their A Cultural History of Sport series.[2] This book has a huge breadth and depth with a chronology which stretches from ancient civilisations to the present day and encompasses a wide range of pre-codified and modern sports. It is packed neatly into a single publication and 110 authors from thirty-nine countries have contributed. With 100 objects discussed, briefly but adequately, it is also refreshingly illustrated. The objects can be loosely categorised as equipment, methods of measurement or development, documents or literature, photographs and posters, venues, art, emblems of commemoration and clothing, most of which have a national or political symbolism and are of value in different ways. As the editors, Daphné Bolz and Michael Krüger, have written, ‘this book is an attempt to emphasise the international framework of sport, and while each object is indeed specific and sometimes strongly anchored regionally, all are embedded in the global history of sport’ (pp. 13–14).

Both editors are established scholars in the field of sports history. Kruger is also the editor of the recent study of the history of German sport in 100 objects, Deutsche Sportgeschichte in 100 Objekten, and uses his experience of this to combine well with Bolz, who is a professor of sports history.[3] As they point out in their introduction (pp. 13–17), Neil McGregor’s bestselling A History of the World in 100 Objects (2011) was taken as a model. There have also naturally been other works on sports related objects, including single authored compilations by Siobhán Doyle on the Gaelic Athletic Association and Cait Murphy’s study of American sport.[4] Both of these were written on a chronological basis, while the entries in Bolz and Krüger’s compilation are thematically based. The book places a strong emphasis on diversity and is structured around six sections: (1) Play and Education (2) Training and Performance (3) Collaboration and Exclusion, Peace and Conflicts (4) Organisation and power (5) Identity and Representation and (6) Media, Arts and Celebration.

The introduction of codified games into society is not ignored in this book, with the entry by Matti Goksøyr on attempts to organise soccer in the Norwegian port of Bergen in 1886, a reminder that what is now the world’s most popular sport was not initially accepted everywhere.

While the editors have naturally drawn on the work of a number of established British sports historians – the book features star turns from Tony Collins, Dave Day, Mike Huggins, David Goldblatt, Richard Holt, Richard Mills, Mike O’Mahony, Martin Polley, Jean Williams, Fiona Skillen and Mike Cronin, which forms the bedrock of their book, they have also reached out to others with strong publication records such as Robert Edelman, Hans Bonde, Arnd Krüger and Christian Koller. There is also much to learn about nations which may not have been featured as much in major publications of sports history. Entries on nations such as Lithuania, Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia, Cyprus and Turkey indicate the wide range of contributions gathered and the geographical reach of the project.

Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, given their historical influence on later developments such as the Renaissance and Enlightenment through rediscovery, are naturally covered, although, as the editors make clear, the main focus is ‘on modernity since European Enlightenment when a new concept of European identity began to prevail’ (p.15). Venues and structures are an important part of the book. The sixteenth-century Real Tennis Court at Suze-la-Rousse in France (by Serge Vaucelle and Guillaume Roquefort) serves as ‘an extraordinarily well-preserved vestige of the physical culture of the European elites, and a very rare example of a traditional game being codified in the process of sportification’ (pp. 80–3). The spread of sport across continents is also acknowledged, with Samantha-Jayne Oldfield’s assessment of ‘A drawing depicting the 5th International Ashley Belt – at Madison Square Gardens, New York’ (pp. 134–7) highlighting transatlantic relations through the sport of pedestrianism, ‘the forerunner to modern track and field athletics’ (p.134) in the late nineteenth century.

By this time, physical exercise was becoming more accepted in European schools. The role of sports in schools is acknowledged through entries related to physical education from Leif Yttergren on the Gymnastics Central Institute in Stockholm (pp. 88–92), Wall Bars (pp. 130–30) by Michael Krüger and the Gantry by Tony Froissart and Jean Saint-Martin (pp. 32–5) along with a number of related documents and journals. The role of women in sport is covered well throughout the book, with, for example, Florence Carpentier’s use of a programme of the First International Meeting of Women’s Physical Education and Sports, held in Monte Carlo in 1921, to discuss how the event led to the foundation of an international women’s sports federation and the Women’s Olympic Games the following year (pp. 238–41).

The Royal Gymnastics Central Institute in Stockholm, about 1900. (Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences Collection)

While most followers of sport in Britain and Ireland will have limited knowledge of winter sports, aside from those who watch Eurosport and the Winter Olympics or maybe live in the colder parts of Scotland, the entries on these activities are also illuminating for readers. Martina Gugglberger’s study of the Olympic Gold medal for Alpinism (1936), for example, illustrates that not every sport has attracted full support in these Games, with the award abandoned in 1948 (pp. 118–21). More significantly, it was won by the Dyhrenfurths, a couple with Jewish ancestry, at the 1936 Summer Olympics, for their achievements in the Himalayas (p.118). As Fiona Skillen notes in her interesting study of curling in Carsebreck, climatic change has led curling enthusiasts there to increasing retreat indoors to practice their sport (pp. 302–5), and one wonders if the same fate awaits winter sport practitioners in areas of the Alps and Scandinavia, despite the need for greater space in skiing, for example. Admittedly, indoor facilities such as nuclear shelters are already also utilised for winter sports such as ice hockey in Finland. These studies also serve as a reminder of Europe’s diverse climate and traditions where the weather has permitted these sports. Grégory Quin’s entry on the Olympic Bob Run at St Moritz (pp. 138–41) also notes the promotion of tourism through sport as well as the origins of its construction. The introduction of codified games into society is not ignored in this book, with the entry by Matti Goksøyr on attempts to organise soccer in the Norwegian port of Bergen in 1886, a reminder that what is now the world’s most popular sport was not initially accepted everywhere (pp. 250–3).

The exclusion of some objects related to important themes within the history of sport is sure to divide readers. While there were important entries on some athletes such as Iceland’s Ólafur Stefánsson (chosen by Vidar Halldorsson), a handball star who received the Icelandic Grand Knight’s Cross on account of his influence and achievements (pp. 328–31), it was surprising not to see anything on the migration of players (the Bosman Ruling was highly significant for the movement of footballers in the late 1990s), athletes and coaches. The development of the treatment of injuries might have been covered, given the body’s role within sport, which is acknowledged throughout, but entries on performance are generally more focused on improvement rather than repair. In 1993, the amateur Donegal Gaelic footballer, Martin ‘Rambo’ Gavigan, a woodwork teacher by trade, was given a contraption known as ‘the cage’ to wear on his damaged knee in a desperate bid to be fit for that year’s Ulster Gaelic football championship.[5] He had torn a posterior cruciate ligament but the ‘cage’, which was fitted from thigh to ankle, was more suited to basketball courts than soft playing fields. It was not an immediate success for the player, although he later recovered to play for another four years for his native county.[6] Significantly, it came at a time when the treatment of sports injuries was beginning to gain more professional attention, and professional methods were beginning to creep more and more into so called ‘amateur’ sports. The use of professional sports psychology and strategies for treating mental health of athletes is also quite a modern development. There might also have been more in the book on those with disability and special needs, which have also more recently begun to be shown more inclusion by sports clubs and by competition organisers.

Overall, however, this is a huge achievement on the part of the editors, firstly in gaining the funding for their proposal on sports history, and then pulling all the material together.

The book is very much a celebration of sport, and in a number of cases milestones and recording devices are commemorated. These include entries on the French ‘Mazeud Law’ on Physical Education and Sport (1975) by Michaël Attali and that on Finn Paavo Numi’s stopwatch (by Vesa Vares, pp. 154–7). There might, however, have been more on the darker aspects of it, which unfortunately cannot be ignored given that numerous professional sports are rife with drug taking. While the two world wars, rooted in Europe in the opening half of the twentieth century, the Spanish Civil War, along the post-World War II Cold War and the Balkan conflict in the 1990s, were adequately covered, there no object directly related to the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles.’ This was a violent sectarian conflict between 1968 and 1998 which saw the deaths of over 3,000 people, with sport naturally not unaffected.[7] An object related to the impact on communities and teams such as Belfast Celtic and Derry City, or the treatment of travelling Gaelic Athletic Association players and supporters by security forces, for example, surely merited some assessment.

Disasters within the history of sport are somewhat overlooked in the book. Tragedies involving teams in transit throughout Europe needed some assessment, with nothing contributed on the Grande Torino team which perished in 1949 when their aeroplane crashed in fog at Superga, while the Munich Air Disaster surely merited inclusion given that the Manchester United ‘Busby Babes’ team was effectively wiped out while on the cusp of European glory in 1958.[8] While the origins of the European Champion Clubs’ Cup are adequately covered by Philippe Vonnard (pp. 310–13), it is strange that there was nothing significant on hooliganism, which blighted European football in the late twentieth century, and still continues occasionally to the present day amongst some supporter groups, with the attack on Sean Cox at the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg between Liverpool FC and AS Roma, which left the Liverpool supporter needing constant medical care, evidence of this.[9] The more recent attack on a Newcastle United supporter in Milan indicates that this has not gone away.[10] Crowd safety and policing at sporting events might also have been discussed given its tragic consequences and legacy in British and Soviet football, for example.[11]

The book might have reflected more on sporting bans within European society, although there are significant entries on exclusion such as Kay Schiller’s work on the homosexual runner Alex Natan, ‘the fastest Jew in Germany’(pp. 208–11). One notable case was the Gaelic Athletic Association’s ‘Ban’ on its members taking part in the so called ‘foreign games’ of rugby, soccer, cricket and hockey from the early 1900s until 1971, which was hugely controversial in Irish society, with offenders often named and shamed in newspapers. Those who also played these codes often avoided team photographs or played under false names while playing ‘foreign games’ and were subjected to the watchful eyes of GAA ‘vigilance committees’. In the late 1970s and 1980s, some soccer clubs in Donegal were unique in having their pitches and property vandalised at a time when competitive grassroots soccer there was largely devoid of any financial support and struggling to get established.[12] Although the ‘Ban’ was inconsistently enforced, tensions still remain between organisers of Gaelic football and soccer today in many rural areas of Ireland.

Paavo Nurmi used to control his pace during his races with a stopwatch. At the Paris Olympic Games of 1924 Nurmi won three of his five gold medals by using a watch that he had borrowed from the sports educator Tahko Pihkala. Afterwards Pihkala had the watch engraved: “This watch was held by P. Nurmi when running 1500, 5000 and 3000 m at the Olympic Games 1924”. Pihkala used the watch regularly on his jogging trips. In 1963 he was hit by a car when jogging and taken to a hospital. A little boy found the watch at the scene of the accident and delivered it to Paavo Nurmi. Nurmi had the watch repaired in Switzerland and returned it to Pihkala. (Urheilumeseo. License: CC Attribution. Included in collage.)

‘Sports’ based on animal cruelty are unfortunately still in existence. These include the legal practices of fox hunting, horse racing and showjumping, and the illegal activities of cock fighting and dog fighting. As recent public examples of a woman striking a horse illustrate, not to mention the violence of bullfighting in Spain and France, ill-treatment of animals before spectators is still present in European society.[13] Take an official tour of the bullring in Seville and notice how the odds are architecturally steeped against the animal, while the tour guide attempts to romanticise the sport, waxing lyrically about how the ‘bravery’ and dress code of the matador can induce passionate feelings in the crowd. Perhaps one of the bulls or bulls’ heads on display in the museum there might have been covered as an object in the book. The survival of these ‘sports’ might have been treated more fully within this book, although in Mike Huggins’ fine contribution on George Stubbs’ painting of the race horse Hambletonian (pp. 394–7), the author notes the horse’s suffering and how the painter went against the grain in emphasising the strenuous efforts of the race horse and the physical toll on his body (p.396). The 2021 photograph of trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on top of a dead horse is indicative of the ill treatment still meted out to many animals involved in sport in the early twenty-first century.[14]

Cases of bribery and corruption in European football might also have been emphasised a little more in the book. Examples of suspected match fixing in European competition have tarnished soccer in a number of countries, with infamous cases highlighted by players such as Jimmy Greaves, writing of Tottenham Hotspur’s European Cup semi-final defeat against Benfica in 1962, while in 1965, Liverpool also lost their European Cup semi-final away to Inter Milan under suspicious circumstances.[15] There were other examples, including Nottingham Forest’s defeat to Anderlecht in the 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final when the referee for the second leg was bribed, not to mention the infamous Calciopoli in 2006.[16]

Improvements in equipment, and influential developments such as the Sandow Developer (pp. 122–5), covered by Conor Heffernan, and the Electronic Scoreboard (pp. 146–9), analysed by Anita Sterea and Bogdan Popa, are welcome additions. Some assessment of more modern technology which has enhanced sporting decisions might also have been included in the book. VAR has divided many football fans, but it has for the most part eliminated errors. The decision not to award Leeds United a penalty in the 1975 European Cup final after a clear trip on Allan Clarke by Franz Beckenbauer, and then to disallow a Peter Lorimer volley, for example, is clear evidence that greater help needed to be given to match officials.[17]

Some entries in the book are unfortunately blighted by grammatical errors, highlighting the difficulty in putting together such a Pan-European publication across a range of nations where English is not everyone’s native tongue. It was also surprising not to see an index. Overall, however, this is a huge achievement on the part of the editors, firstly in gaining the funding for their proposal on sports history, and then pulling all the material together. The authors must also be complimented for their efforts in what is certainly a ground-breaking work. It deserves the widest readership and should be on the reading list of every modern European history university course let alone those focusing only in sports history. The editors have also noted the current lack of a European sports museum. While some organisations such as the English Football Association (in Manchester) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (in Dublin) have established important sites, not to mention others in Nice, Zurich and Lausanne, there is a very real need to have a site dedicated to commemorating sport throughout Europe. This book can justifiably serve as a pioneering guide to what should be in there, whenever those running Europe’s sporting associations should decide to unite to put a plan into place for its construction and development.

Copyright @ Conor Curran 2023

[1] Markwart Herzog and Fabian Brändle (eds.), European football during the Second World War: Training, Entertainment, Ideology and Propaganda (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015); Philippe Vonnard, Grégory Quin and Nicolas Bancel (eds.), Building Europe with the Ball: Turning points in the Europeanization of football, 1905–1995 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2016).
[2] Wray Vamplew, John McClelland and Mark Dyreson (eds.), A Cultural History of Sport. Volumes 1–6 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).
[3] Michael Krüger, Deutsche Sportgeschichte in 100 Objekten (Neulingen: JS Klotz Verlaghaus, 2020)
[4] Cait Murphy, A History of American Sports in 100 Objects (New York: Basic Books, 2016) and Siobhán Doyle, A History of the GAA in 100 Objects (Kildare: Merrion Press, 2022).
[5] Jerome Quinn, Ulster Football and Hurling: The Path of Champions (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1993).
[6] Irish Times, 13 March 1997.
[7] Conor Curran, Irish Soccer Migrants: A Social and Cultural History (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), pp. 50–2.
[8] John Foot, Calcio: A History of Italian Football (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 88–100 and Matthew Taylor, The Association Game: A History of Association Football (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2008), pp. 206–7.
[9] The Guardian, 28 February 2019.
[10] The Times, 19 September 2023.
[11] The Observer, 4 May 2008.
[12] Conor Curran, ‘It has almost been an underground movement’. The Development of Grassroots Football in Regional Ireland: the case of County Donegal, 1971–1996’ in Jürgen Mittag, Kristian Naglo and Dilwyn Porter (eds.), Special Issue of Moving the Social: Journal of Social History and the History of Social Movements, no. 61 (2019), pp. 33–60.
[13] The Guardian, 25 August 2023.
[14] Irish Times, 1 March 2021.
[15] Jimmy Greaves, Greavsie: The Autobiography (London: Time Warner Books, 2003), pp. 178–81 and Ian Herbert, Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British football’s greatest manager (London: Bloomsbury Sport, 2017), pp. 134–5.
[16] The Guardian, 11 Dec. 2013 and Shamoon Hafez, ‘Calciopoli: The scandal that rocked Italy and left Juventus in Serie B’ Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/49910626 [Accessed 23 Sept. 2023)
[17] Uli Hesse, The Three Lives of the Kaiser: A Biography of Franz Beckenbauer (London: Simon & Schuster, 2023), p.144–5.

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