Thursday, 21 November 2013

Running History (6): The Evils of Athletics- The Spectator 1868

According to this article published in the London-based Spectator magazine, 29 August 1868, athletics is an evil because:

- it wastes the time of university students by diverting them from studying (though it does least divert some of them away from mixing with the lower orders like servants and hostlers);
- it involves training, which means neglecting the mind for the body, and acting like a 'savage';
- it is physically dangerous;
- it is spreading to the 'larger classes of society' who haven't even got the pressure to study to keep them in line.

If you think I'm exaggerating, read on... (mind you this comment is dead on and still accurate: 'How many miles he is to walk, how many hours he is to sleep, what he is to eat and drink, whether this or that food produces the maximum amount of' strength, are questions of absorbing interest which he is continually discussing').

NOT a few of those who, for the last ten years, have been asserting most vehemently that play should hold equal rank with work in the system of education, are dismayed at the success which their gospel has achieved. The old games are pursued with professional devotion. The masters of even hard-working schools declare that in the cricket season nothing else receives any real attention. Oxford heads of houses and tutors make the same complaint of the summer term, and are driven to propose an alteration of the academical year, in the hope of thus excluding an evil with which they cannot contend. Meanwhile there has risen up a more formidable and in many respects more undesirable rival to study, in the amusement, or rather pursuit, which may be described by the name of "athletics."

...a new pursuit which, like athletics, appeals to the tastes which the old sports may not have been able to attract, will be certain to withdraw from study a corresponding proportion of followers. At the same time, it is true, and in weighing the merits of the case it should not be forgotten, that for one class of so-called students this pursuit has an influence which is not other than beneficial. Any one who compares the Oxford of to-day with the Oxford of twenty years ago, will observe that one of the most offensive features of the place is at least less prominent than it was. The idlers who after a morning spent over ponderous break- fasts and in billiard rooms made their elaborate toilette, and lounged forth half-tipsy "to do the High," have many of them found occupations more healthful if not more congenial to the objects of a University. Practising the "long jump" or "the quarter-of-a-mile " is not an academical pursuit, but it is, at least, better than ogling servant-maids or talking with hostlers. As long as the University consents to receive youths who are students only in name, who come to it corrupted by the associations of wealthy uncultured homes and aristocratic schools, she must be content to welcome any influence which will counteract the evils they introduce. The "barbarized athlete of the arena" is at least a more desirable inmate than the fop and the profligate.

But in measuring the ill effects of athletics on study, there are other things to be considered besides the positive attraction which they exercise over those who engage in them. At first sight they would appear to be, as an amusement, more economical of time than that which may be called the representative game, cricket. A cricket match lasts for one, two, or even three days ; the practice which is necessary before excellence can be attained is incessant. On the other hand, a foot-race occupies but a few minutes ; nor would much time seem to be necessary for the preparation. The real state of the case is wholly different. The preparation is a most important consideration. The cricketer lives like other men; the athlete has to undergo an elaborate training. It is necessary to inquire what influence this training is likely to have upon the student, on his body and on his mind.

The physical question cannot be completely discussed except by those who are professionally qualified for the task. A great authority in surgery, Mr. Skey, has declared his belief that athletic exercises are decidedly injurious, and we are not aware that this opinion has been contravened by any competent person...  It can hardly require much medical knowledge to perceive that sudden and violent exertions which are painful to men in ordinary health are likely to be injurious in all cases, and are almost certain to be so to the unformed frame of boyhood and early youth. We say "ordinary health," for the habit of body which it is found necessary to create in order to meet the demand made by athletic exercises cannot be described by these words. It is fuller, ruder, apparently more robust, really less available for all practical purposes of life...

This habit, in fact, is little more than the imitation by civilized man of what is the normal condition of the savage; an imitation doubtless so successful for a time as even to excel the original, but which cannot be effected without a great and dangerous strain upon the physical powers, cannot be sustained for any length of time, and is probably especially perilous in the reaction which it leaves behind. It is possible, indeed, that the student may escape these dangers; it is certain that he cannot avoid the indirect effect which his training will produce upon his mental powers. It cannot but be that the intellectual vigour will be obscured by laborious and unusual processes, which are intended to develop to the utmost the bodily powers. To keep that vigour at its highest point it is necessary that the mind should be as little as possible conscious of the body. This condition it is difficult to reach, and still more difficult to retain. But the weak health with which scholars are unhappily too familiar is far more favourable to the intellectual habit than the vigorous animalism which it is the object of training to produce; and for this reason, that when it is not developed into the excess of positive pain, it makes a man turn to mental exertion as to a relief.

Training, on. the other hand, has an exactly opposite effect. The attention of the mind is continually directed to the bodily processes by which the object sought is to be attained. How many miles he is to walk, how many hours he is to sleep, what he is to eat and drink, whether this or that food produces the maximum amount of' strength, are questions of absorbing interest which he is continually discussing...

But "athletics " seem likely to become a yet more serious evil,. when they pass, as of late years they have been doing, from the precincts of the school and the university into other and larger classes of society. Where learning is the acknowledged end, they will be opposed by strong intellectual influences, and, though they may injure, it is hardly to be feared that they will dominate the prevailing tone of thought and life. It can easily be imagined that this may be the case where these influences are less potent. Sport is the natural corrective to study, and some exaggeration may be pardoned in it where study is even nominally pursued; but this exaggeration becomes an intolerable evil when we find ourselves in other scenes, and among men whom its influence is more likely to corrupt. It is evident to all who have the opportunity of observation, that pursuits which are comparatively harmless to the youth of the Universities, are most injurious to the same class when it is less favourably situated in our great cities. With these culture is continually growing rarer and more scanty'.

Previously in this series:

- Advice to Runners from 1895
Gentleman Amateurs vs. Tradesmen at Crystal Palace 1872
- The Women's 800m, 1928 and Today
- A London Foot-Match in 1736
- Hare and Hounds 1869

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