Clare Balding presents Sport and the British on Radio 4

By Clare BaldingPresenter, Sport and the British
British athlete Wyndham Halswelle crosses the finishing line of the re-run Olympic 400m in 1908
Wyndham Halswelle crosses the line in the re-run Olympic 400m in 1908

For the first time, on Radio 4 we have an epic 30-part series exploring the relationship between sport and the British.

Over six weeks I will gratefully accept the help of a team of academics from the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University to explore how the British shaped huge global sports like football, cricket and rugby union and how sport in turn shaped our culture and our character.

In July, London will become the first city in the world to host the Olympics for a third time as the Games of the XXX Olympiad arrive in our capital.

Following hot on the heels of the Olympics, the country that founded the will host the Paralympic Games.

I have watched the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley grow from a pile of rubble - it was used for landfill since the late 19th century - into a beautiful, landscaped park the size of 357 football pitches.

The venues are all ready for action, the ticket sales have set new records and the interest is immense. There is much debate over legacy but to predict the future it helps to understand the past and the role Britain has played in shaping sport as we know it today.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin's Modern Olympic Games were established in Athens in 1896 when, as with the Ancient Games, the Greeks embraced the concept of a multi-sports event designed to test the fittest, the fastest, the strongest and the bravest.

They paid for tickets to watch and supported it enthusiastically. However, the concept of moving the Games around major cities of the world nearly failed as they were overwhelmed in Paris by interest in alternative events during the Great Exposition of 1900, and they barely registered in St Louis during the World Fair of 1904.

It fell to London, who stepped in at late notice to host the 1908 Olympics, to effectively save the day. This was the first Games at which athletes marched under their national flags and its global profile was helped by a good, old-fashioned bust-up between Great Britain and the USA.

A game of cricket in 1743
A game of cricket in 1743

Winning suddenly mattered, not just for the individuals but for the country they represented.

While Britain had long held sport dear, during the 17th and 18th centuries it was inextricably linked with gambling.

Sport may not have been considered professional but money was at the heart from the very early days when wealthy aristocrats would challenge each other to cricket matches.

On a breezy summer's day, I went to Hambledon in Hampshire. A village cricket match was in progress on Broadhalfpenny Down, the sort of scene that you could point at immediately and identify as 'English'.

In the local pub, the Bat & Ball, the rules for cricket as we know it today were drawn up and modified as various loopholes were exploited by a batsman who walked to the crease with a double width bat, or one who refused to accept that he was out as the ball had passed through the gap between the two stumps. A third was rapidly introduced.

The benefit of cricket to British society was that it was a sport that mixed the classes. The landowner and his employees were on equal terms on the pitch, unlike the situation in France, where the nobility and the rest of the population were on an unavoidable and fatal collision course.

1811: English prize fighter Tom Cribb (left) beats Virginian Tom Molineaux
1811: English prize fighter Tom Cribb (left) beats Virginian Tom Molineaux

Boxing was another sport favoured by the upper classes - to watch rather than to participate. A group of aristocrats known as 'The Fancy', many of whom were close friends of the Prince Regent, promoted and financed the fights.

They would wager large amounts on the first boxer to draw blood, the first to go down and, of course, which man would be left standing.

It strikes me that in these early examples of organised sport it is a way of keeping rich men entertained and a means of them having something upon which to bet.

Things changed as the British Empire expanded and there was a need for the archetypal British man to be fit and strong.

At the end of our first week, Sport and the British expands upon the concept of Olympism and shows how it penetrated the English public school system.

Having been a game and a means of winning or losing money, sport became a tool, used to shape the men of the Empire.

Sport and the British can be heard at 1345 GMT on Radio 4 each weekday, from 30 January until 9 March.

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