The best history books to find out why sport matters

Wray Vamplew Author Of Games People Played: A Global History of Sports
By Wray Vamplew

Who am I?

I love sport. I played my last game of cricket when I was 69 and, as I approach my eightieth year, I continue to play golf, confusing my partners by switching from right to left hand when chipping and putting. I like watching sport but prefer to spectate via television rather than being there. I confess I do not fully understand American sports: I cannot fathom why a hit over the fence in baseball can score 1, 2, 3, or 4 rather than the undisputed 6 of cricket; and, while I admire the strategies of American football, I wonder why a ‘touchdown’ does not actually involve touching down.

I wrote...

Games People Played: A Global History of Sports

By Wray Vamplew,

Book cover of Games People Played: A Global History of Sports

What is my book about?

My book is a record of what I believe have been significant factors and events in the development of sport, a cultural institution that matters to millions of people. I deal not with sporting results but how sport has been practised, experienced, and made meaningful by a variety of groups and individuals in different historical periods. Sport can be big business or family recreation; be discriminatory but also integrative; produce triumphs and tragedies as well as heroes and villains; and encourage the best and worst of nationalism.

I challenge the facile generalisations made about sport and look at recent revisions in our sports history knowledge, show how sporting myths have been created, and explain how sports history has been abused for political purposes.

The books I picked & why

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Sport: A Very Short Introduction

By Mike Cronin,

Book cover of Sport: A Very Short Introduction

Why this book?

In the late 1990s I asked Mike Cronin to join me in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture that I had set up at De Montfort University. Initially he was wary. He later told me that, although he saw me as a leader in the development of sports history, he also viewed me as a strange, perhaps outdated creature: the economic historian. I welcomed him to Jurassic Park. I admire this book because Mike covers world sporting development in just 40,000 words, a task that took me over 100,000 more (but mine is cheaper by the page!). More significantly it was the starting point for my own global venture and it stimulated me to take off my economic blinkers and consider social, cultural, and political issues.

The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany: Volume 42

By Kay Schiller, Christopher Young,

Book cover of The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany: Volume 42

Why this book?

In this narrative of the Munich Olympic Games the authors demonstrate that sport and politics were closely intertwined. Much of the planning for the event was based on that of the 1936 Nazi extravaganza but aimed at promoting a different international image, that of German post-war modernity: this at a time when Cold War tensions were easing, with neighbouring East Germany receiving IOC recognition and entering a team under its own flag. The Black September terrorist attack is dealt with briefly and more time is spent discussing the political aftermath, both short and long-term. The book supports my belief that sport is intensely political: sometimes even picking a team is a political act and claiming that sport and politics do not mix is actually a political statement.

Match Fixing and Sport: Historical Perspectives

By Mike Huggins (editor), Rob Hess (editor),

Book cover of Match Fixing and Sport: Historical Perspectives

Why this book?

The uncertainty of the result is a bedrock of sport. Yet, although it should not be pre-determined, it does happen. Gambling interests, the very people who developed rules for many early sports, can persuade competitors (by threats or bribes) not to perform to the best of their abilities. The book shows that cheating to lose has a long history dating back to Antiquity, when fines on cheating competitors paid for statues to commemorate the gods. I have never believed in the purity of sport and its participants. Sport may well breed character, a mantra of the sports lobby, but, I suggest, not necessarily good character. The book appeals to me as it shows how historians can dig out evidence on activities which, to be successful, must be covert.

Women's Sports: What Everyone Needs to Know

By Jaime Schultz,

Book cover of Women's Sports: What Everyone Needs to Know

Why this book?

Another dark side of sport is the position it accords women. In this accessible (but not dumbed down) work, American academic Jaime Schultz provides an overview of how women have fared over the years. Her approach is to pose a set of questions that are answered within chapters covering, for example, occupational opportunities, sex segregation (not, I would emphasise, in my bowls team), sexualities, female health, and the media. I admire Jaime for her determination to give women’s sport its rightful place not only in sports history but in contemporary society. She also deserves kudos when, though a young scholar, she challenged my views on methodology in sports history.

Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere

By Roy Hay,

Book cover of Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere

Why this book?

Indigenous populations too have had a raw deal: from settlers who took their land and from those who felt they knew what was best for them. Although among the lesser sinners, sports historians have disregarded their traditional sports and focussed on their participation in sports imposed on them by invading powers. In contrast, Australian Aborigines feature in Roy Hay’s book as sportspersons in their own right. Hay shows that they were human beings who performed a constructive role in Australia’s sporting history. He does this not as a woke, bleeding heart academic but as a historian determined to unearth the ‘true’ story of Aboriginal participation in Australian Rules Football. As an Australian citizen I wanted to read this story.

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