Impressively knowledgeable guide to the history of games that people actually played

Jens Ljunggren
Department of History, Stockholm University

Wray Vamplew
Games People Played: A Global History of Sport
454 pages, hardcover, ill.
London: Reaktion Books 2021
ISBN 978-1-78914-457-4

Initially, I must state that it is an impressive book that sport historian Wray Vamplew has written. In Games People Played: A Global History of Sport, he covers a wide range of sports from different corners of the world. In addition, he addresses a number of fundamental topics in sports history, such as discrimination, the role of sports clubs, nationalism in sport, human rights, sporting rules, mega-events, markets, commercialism, professionalism, cheating, doping, match-fixing and the (negative) environmental impact of sports. This is, to say the least, an ambitious, comprehensive and wide-ranging book on international sport history.

However, given the book’s high level of ambition, the author discusses his analytical point of departure rather briefly. By no means does Vamplew write off that sport has an intrinsic value; however, he primarily aims at understanding it in its political, social and economic contexts. Sport is thus considered to be a means for people to acquire and express certain values, attitudes, and societal norms, such as masculinity, social status or national or local identity. ‘This book’ he writes ‘shows how sport was practiced, experienced and made meaningful by a variety of groups and individuals in different historical periods.’ Moreover, to Vamplew, the reasons for why people have consumed sport is just as important as for why they have practiced it. Consequently, not only the practitioners of sports but also all those who pay entrance fees as audiences or follow sport through the media ought to be considered. In addition, Vamplew gives the reader a crash course in source criticism. It’s easy to agree with him that sports historians need to get better at working with different types of source material and digitization. It is equally easy to support his notion that sport historians today know far too little about what has caused sports to develop or not develop in Asia and Africa.

Vamplew, who is obviously very fond of the historian’s classical virtues of proof-finding, critique of sources and contextualization, does not embark on any perilous excursions in theory.

The book’s first part, after the introductions, outlines the development of sport in the pre-industrial society. This it does in a fairly general way. In other words, Vamplew does not follow in the footsteps of Wolfgang Behringer who in his book, Kulturgeschichte des Sports: Vom antiken Olympia bis zur Gegenwart (2012) argued that the history of sportification goes far back in time and must be traced to the Middle Ages. For Vamplew, sport is still mostly a modern phenomenon. In the following chapter, “The industrial age”, he discusses the theory of sportification and criticizes sport historians for having been far too Anglo-centric. His own analysis extends over a wide geographical area, still though with some predilection for England, the US and Australia, it seems. Interestingly, he attaches great importance to the significance of workplace sports. Other topics addressed in this part of the book are the development of spectator sports, the creation of sporting leagues, the emergence of amateurism and the significance of the First World War for the development of sports. As if this was not enough, Vamplew goes on to deal with stadium sports, commercialization, how amateurism was challenged, as well as technology development and the special development of the United States.

Thereafter follows a more thematically focused part which goes under the heading “Sporting life, Social and cultural aspects”. Among other things, the author here makes an interesting point in highlighting and discussing the significance of emotions for sport. What is it that lies behind all these passions, the antagonism between people, and in the worst case, violence, that characterizes so many sports? As we know, sport has been inclusive as well as exclusive and discriminatory, which is yet another topic for deliberation at this point in the book. In the concluding parts of the book, we have politics, power relations, markets, as well as the environmental consequences of sports. in the field of vision. For instance, the author reasons thoughtfully about sports stars’ efforts for charity, which obviously not always is driven by altruistic motives. I also recommended for reading the section on sports as a marketing product. For the Swedish reader, it may be of interest to note that much of what Vamplew has to say about sports clubs and their development resembles what we already know about the situation in Sweden at the same time.

A game played in the Netherlands. From an antique Dutch delft blue tile, c. 1675.

To date, a number of books and articles have been published on sport and globalization, some historical, several in other disciplines. A pioneer was Allen Guttmann who 1994 published his book Games and empires: Modern sports and cultural imperialism. Vamplews’ book is quite different. Not only does it by far surpass Guttmann’s book in terms of number of pages. More important, of course, is the difference in content. Guttmann set out to understand international diffusion and power relations. To do this he used theory, which led him to substitute the notion of cultural imperialism with the notion of cultural hegemony. Vamplew, who is obviously very fond of the historian’s classical virtues of proof-finding, critique of sources and contextualization, does not embark on any perilous excursions in theory. Certainly, he does not distance himself from the fact that sports historians need to use theories. However, theory comes a bit down on the list when he outlines what sport historians do. In addition, he warns for overemphasizing it. Several theoretical notions appear in his book, but he never let them dominate the analysis. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. Sport history needs both theories and the conscientious empiricism advanced by Vamplew.

In the introductory parts of the book, Vamplew discusses how he works as a sports historian. It is highly important for him to expose myths and correct false notions that over time have come to be considered truths. He also warns us all for being sport nostalgic. That is, we should stop longing for an ideal state back in time when sport was genuine – because it never was. These two thought-provoking ambitions are well fulfilled in the book.

However, other intentions are not implemented as consistently. Despite the authors initial declarations, the societal perspective is never particularly prominent in the book, which makes sport very much stand out as an entity on its own. Vamplew, obviously, believes that sport historians are committed to mapping out historical transformations and to “explain why, when and how sport has changed”. If we want to understand in what direction sport is developing today, as he argues, we must know something about its history. However, due to the book’s thematic disposition and diverse content, this aspect is in fact neglected. Vamplew never sets out to periodize the historical development and therefore the book lacks in-depth reasoning on change and continuity. All in all, the historical narrative falls short of expectations in this fact-crammed book.

The same goes for the geographical perspective. Although the book’s subtitle contains the word global, this book does not problematize the diffusion of different sports within and between nations, nor does it explain what has affected such processes. What Vamplew has to offer to the reader is instead a well presented, and certainly palatable, smorgasbord of various aspects of sports and sports history.

On the one hand, this is not a book that digs deep into the soil of historical research issues. On the other hand, this is a book that I like both to have on the shelf and to read. With Wray Vamplew as a well-worded and knowledgeable guide, we get to learn a lot about the games that people actually played.

Copyright © Jens Ljunggren 2021

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