John Evans, editor of a sportcloseup.co.uk new online guide to Britain’s sports museums and visitor attractions, asks if we are doing enough to remember the Sporting Revolution that began here.
Britain, the nation that invented modern sport. That’s not the extravagant claim of some bragging Brit, but the Belgian head of the International Olympic Committee, speaking in Trafalgar Square one year ahead of the London 2012 opening ceremony.
We learn at school about the Industrial Revolution. Its most iconic symbol, Ironbridge in Shropshire, is one of 25 internationally-recognised World Heritage Sites in the UK. The bridge and blast furnaces, foundries and factories, pioneered the industrialisation that made the modern world.
But how much do we know about – or celebrate – another upheaval that began in Britain? The Sporting Revolution certainly did not transform lives in the same way, but its impact is felt to this day in every continent, exciting millions, filling airtime and column inches, creating stars, and amounting to very big business.
In two extraordinary decades, Scotland staged the first of the world’s major golf championships in 1860, and took on England in the first rugby (1871) and football (1872) internationals. The English wrote football’s first laws in 1863 and, in a momentous four months in 1877, staged the world’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament and took on Australia’s cricketers in the first-ever test match.
But that is only part of the story of inventing, laying down the rules, or popularising a string of sports that were exported to the rest of the world.
In the 17th century, royal patronage of racing made Newmarket home to the sport of kings. In the 18th century, Hambledon in Hampshire was the cradle of cricket. In the 19th century, just five miles from Ironbridge, a Victorian doctor dreamed up an annual sporting event that inspired the start of the modern Olympics. In the 20th century, Stoke Mandeville gave life to Paralympic sport. Six years later, less than 20 miles west, one of sport’s great barriers was smashed, with the first sub-four minute mile, run at the Iffley Road track in Oxford. They are all still there in 2011.
Museums for every sport
More than 40 sports museums reflect this country’s unique sporting heritage. Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have them, so does Hampden Park in Glasgow. World-famous venues like Lord’s, Twickenham, St Andrews and Wimbledon have them. Small towns have them – like Weybridge in Surrey with its Brooklands Museum, right next to what remains of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit.
There are more than 50 football, cricket and rugby grounds you can tour, motor racing tracks and workshops, the Olympic Park, even the National Stud. But less high-profile sports honour their history too, with museums for badminton, fencing, shooting and speedway – the work of small groups of enthusiasts, sometimes just individuals.
I have spent much of the last year visiting them and creating sportcloseup.co.uk – not just about bricks and mortar, but people, famous and infamous, occasionally unknown and neglected.
But are we making enough of a fuss about what we have – and what we did – as the UK prepares for an influx of Olympic and Paralympic visitors in 2012? Do we treasure it as much as Jacques Rogge seems to?
My worry is that, as a nation, the answer seems to be ‘no’. We are all very familiar with our castles, churches and monuments that measure their age in centuries, even millenniums, but rather less switched on to the sporting heritage also on our doorstep. But there is still time. What better moment than 2012 to tell the world about it – and put forward all of Britain’s sporting birthplaces to join the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites?
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