The rising popularity of sports in the nineteenth century

In the nineteenth century sports flourished. England, Scotland and America were trendsetters. Everywhere prize fights, rowing contests and races were held. In the second half of the nineteenth century the elite too attached a growing importance to sports. At the expensive English boarding schools boys received a proper physical education and also the universities organized athletic contests. At the end of the century a new recreational sport for the elite was developed: tennis.

These gentlemen were reluctant to take part in the same contests as - and possibly lose from - lower class athletes. In 1866 the Amateur Athletic Club, to which only 'amateurs' were admitted, was founded. These were men for whom sport could be a pure hobby, as they already had an ample income. The ideal of amateurism remained important during a large part of the twentieth century.

In other countries the importance of sports grew as well in the nineteenth century. In Germany gymnastics ('turnen') was developed because young men needed a good physical education to become good soldiers for the war of liberation against Napoleon.

In England and Greece, there were several attempts to revive the Olympic games. The most successful was that of Pierre de Coubertin from France, ironically a country that fell behind in the nineteenth century's rise of sports.

© KU Leuven, 2012