Brilliant account of a formative period in British sport and exercise history

Matthew L. McDowell
University of Edinburgh

Charlotte Macdonald Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960 240 sidor, inb., ill. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press 2013 ISBN 978-0-7748-2528-3
Charlotte Macdonald
Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960
240 sidor, inb., ill.
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press 2013
ISBN 978-0-7748-2528-3

Charlotte Macdonald’s monograph is one of the most ambitious scholarly volumes to focus on sport, physical activity and policy as transnational phenomena in the Anglophone world. It fits well within wider trends in the English-language historiography of sport and sport policy, leaning as it has in recent years towards examining the development of sport’s institutions in a global context. In many respects, Strong, Beautiful and Modern can be viewed as something of a parallel work to Kevin Jeffereys’ well-regarded 2012 volume Sport and Politics in Modern Britain, which discussed the somewhat inchoate, laissez faire treatment of sport by the UK government in the post-war years. The UK did not develop a coherent sporting policy (or separate ministry devoted to sport) until a Labour government, led by the PR-savvy Harold Wilson, took power in 1964. The run-up to these events form a part of Macdonald’s book; however, she puts developments in England and Scotland within the far wider panoply of the British world; and in this, Macdonald’s approach is highly original. The period 1935-60 is not typically discussed within sports historiography – most is framed around either side of the Second World War – but Macdonald does so largely to witness the changes in the broad world of ‘British’ sport: from its firm placement within an integrated imperial milieu, to its mobilisation on a war footing, and through to its subsequent fraying, along with other consensuses on what constituted broader ‘white Britishness’ in the post-colonial, post-1945 world. But, as Macdonald states, the specific imperial context is only one side of the coin during this period, a time when central governments’ uneasy treatments of sport explicitly reflected modern fashions and anxieties. Strong, Beautiful and Modern, then, is more than a book on policy and politicians; it also represents how sport reflected the ‘national’ moods throughout the ‘British’ world.

The book is subdivided according to country, with Macdonald giving a healthy-sized chapter each to the UK (England and Scotland), New Zealand, Australia and Canada. These chapters are bookended by thorough introductions and conclusions, which do an excellent job of framing the chapters within the wider international and social contexts. It is perhaps an issue secondary to content, but the book’s design is excellent. Macdonald has selected a wide variety of photographs, illustrations and official propaganda from libraries and archives; and, at $95 Canadian for its cloth volume, the book arguably represents good value for money. So, what of the actual content? Macdonald’s prose is clear, mostly concise and free of jargon. And, best of all, the entire topic is made easily accessible: non-experts in sport and sport policy, or in history, or for that matter in the individual countries’ histories, will not feel isolated. While an inevitable amount of simplification takes place on Macdonald’s part, she is able to succinctly introduce lay readers into all of these topics – no mean feat.

Macdonald argues, as have others, that the aftermath of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and the 1936 (‘Nazi’) Olympics in Berlin, introduced a level of visual statecraft to sport that had hitherto not existed. Sport was never apolitical, and was already a feature, if a highly contested one, of some municipal governments and parliamentary campaigns (at least in the UK). But the coming of age of mega-sporting events, which for many nations was politically disastrous and linked to a collapse in prestige, nevertheless spurred central governments in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada tentatively towards developing some form of policies on physical fitness. But these would necessarily remain baby steps; there was great anxiety on the part of politicians and civil servants about trying to mimic the perceived successes and excesses of sporting fascism, and the creation of ‘councils’ of fitness were decidedly piecemeal and arms-length affairs. The war itself might have spurred the perceived need for physical fitness amongst the general population (especially in Canada); but, after it, the Cold War once again threw government-sponsored efforts to build up fitness into sharp relief, with politicians not especially keen to lavish considerable expenditure on sport: one defining feature of Communist nations. Most of these schemes (with the exception of the Australian), then, ended up in failure, even if they did provide the building blocks for more active government intervention in sport and fitness in the 1960s.

Macdonald leaves little doubt that one is reading about Britain and its ‘white dominions’, but there are perhaps times where she needs to examine race a bit more explicitly.

The early efforts to build up these campaigns reflected concomitant modernist anxieties on the part of their proponents, worried as they were about the effects of modern living on the body. In England and Scotland, the concern had decidedly suspicious, conservative undertones, especially with regards to men, who were seen attending football and cricket in large numbers, rather than actively participating in the games themselves. This concern was expressed in Australia, as well, but the undertones were different. Unlike in the UK, which at the outset of 1935 had a Conservative government, in Australia such fitness programmes were borne out of civic movements, which utilised the decidedly progressive language of reform (albeit with a eugenicist undertone), and went hand-in-hand with the creation of public parks and National Fitness camps. Less progressively, the Australian drive towards fitness was heavily gendered; it dovetailed with consumerist notions of beauty. Liberal Canada shared a large civic, provincial impetus towards encouraging fitness; but, in New Zealand, the experience was very different. By the mid-1930s, New Zealand’s welfare state was already being created by the Labour government, with sport having a continual ministerial champion in Bill Parry.

As can be surmised, these were highly disparate movements, held together largely through the movement of people throughout the then-British Empire, and through what was considered to be a shared British notion of ‘fair play’ in sport, free from political interference. But even this was not fully true: it was not just Canada’s calamitous performances in international sport which prompted the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker to enact the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act 1961, but a gently mocking speech given by Prince Philip to a Canadian crowd which hinted at these various disasters. Canada, the originator of the Empire (later Commonwealth) Games, paradoxically had a sporting culture that was heavily influenced by the United States, but still had residual sporting loyalties that were, in this instance, utilised by its prince consort. And, as Canada, Australia and New Zealand were ‘settler’ societies, they hint that the Empire was not hermetically sealed from ideas – and people – from outside. Often these ideas and peoples attracted suspicion. The California-educated Rona Stephenson at New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs, and her partner, Philip Smithells at the Department of Education, were jazz-loving radicals who were proponents of government-sponsored dance and physical-cultural programmes during the 1940s. While their ideas experienced a conservative backlash by the 1950s (seen in the rising popularity of the ‘girls marching’ movement), Jan Eisenhardt, a Danish-born educationalist who became important in Canadian physical-educational circles, endured a worse fate: his career suffered when associated with ‘un-Canadian’ (i.e. Communist) activities in the post-war period.

Macdonald leaves little doubt that one is reading about Britain and its ‘white dominions’, but there are perhaps times where she needs to examine race a bit more explicitly. Aside from Eisenhardt and his considerable educational work within Canada’s First Nations bureaucracy (which was viewed with increasing suspicion in governmental circles), discussions on Maori and Aboriginal peoples in New Zealand and Australia respectively could perhaps feature more prominently, rather than ending up at the end of the chapter. ‘Britishness’, in this context, cannot be truly divorced from ‘whiteness’; and, as sport and leisure require land, sport and displacement can in effect be interlinked. Aside, too, from acknowledging that Canada’s response was initially province-based, more on what was occurring in Canada’s French-speaking communities in Quebec and New Brunswick would be welcome; Macdonald acknowledges that these schemes did not involve Franco-Canada, but was there a competing ethos regarding sport and fitness in these regions?

Regardless of this, however, Macdonald has compellingly shown us that, as the UK and its former dominions attempted to build national fitness programmes, their successes and failures were indelibly linked to various insecurities about the modern conditions of these nations in comparison to the rest of the world. ‘National’ sport in these countries follow different directions after the 1960s: Harold Wilson, a successful political opportunist, was one of the first to realise the electoral power of associating with, and later investing in, sport. Australia’s future Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, viewed sport as a platform for building a progressive national identity. The lessons of these councils on fitness were learned by these statesmen and others, even if the groups themselves were ultimately casualties of an era where governments and taxpayers alike were unsure of what, if any, value sport had in an increasingly confusing modern era. By utilising an ambitious programme of research, Macdonald has shown Anglophone historians that we should continue further down this potentially very rewarding path.

Copyright © Matthew L. McDowell 2014

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