The British and their Sports: Class, Gender and Identity

Professor Alan Tomlinson, Professor Lincoln Allison  

This course explores the central influences upon the making of the sports of the British, and the contribution that sport cultures have made to both the Victorian and early twentieth-century expression of British identity, and to revised and reworked notions of identity in contemporary Britain. Many of the sports that have dominated the international sporting landscape were first played in their modern form in Britain. Team games such as soccer, rugby, and cricket, and sports such as rowing, athletics and boxing, were formalized, codified and modernized in the elite schooling institutions of Britain (its public schools) and the ancient universities. Many were then diffused in the new urban communities of the industrializing society. The spread of sports in the British Empire and the trade networks of that empire, and the parallel influence of other European nations and their imperialist ambitions (such as France and Germany), consolidated the widespread impact of these new sports forms and practices. Sport came to represent, in ideologies such as fair play, an ideal of European manhood and, more generally, civilized conduct. Physical activity and sports for women were cultivated to fit with contemporary ideals of Victorian femininity, and the enthusiastic working-class response to organized team forms such as soccer laid the foundations for the commercial and professional development of the sport. Soccer in particular became a central source for the expression of urban, regional and national identity.

The course examines this historical background and the persisting influence of social class and gender in the making and remaking of the sports of the British. It draws upon documentary, historical, cinematic and literary sources and forms of analysis. Case studies and themes include: the contribution of Rugby School to the development of sport in Britain and worldwide; the place of Cambridge and Oxford in the formative philosophy of Olympism; evocations of the source of British sporting excellence, and its juxtaposition with US performance sports culture, such as that shown in the movie Chariots of Fire; soccer’s export to the US, and its relation to both the Big 3 US sports of grid-iron, baseball and basketball and the globalized spectacle of international soccer; the construction of sports celebrities and heroes in both Britain and the USA; the peripheral place of women champions in the canon of British sports stars; political influences upon sport in contemporary Britain, and the years of devolved political power and identity of the later 1990s and the first decade of the new century; and the making of the London 2012 Olympics. Students should read Tom Brown’s School-days, a text that will form the basis of the mid-term assignment.

Pre-arrival reading
To be compulsorily read before the start of the course

  • Hughes, Thomas Tom Brown’s School-days

Recommended additional pre-arrival reading:
None: you must concentrate on reading through the Hughes novel.


  • Allison, L. 2001, Amateurism in sport – An analysis and a defence, London: Frank Cass.
  • Holt, R. 1989, Sport and the British – A modern history, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Horne, J., Tomlinson, A, Whannel, G., and Woodward, K. 2013, Understanding sport: A socio-cultural analysis, Second Edition, London: Routledge.
  • Hughes, T. Tom Brown’s school-days, London: first published 1857.
  • Hornby, N. 1992, Fever pitch, London: Victor Gollancz.
  • Jarvie, G. 2006, Sport, culture and society – An introduction, London: Routledge.
  • Tomlinson, A. (ed.) 2007, The Sport Studies Reader, London: Routledge.
  • Tomlinson, A. 2010, Oxford Dictionary of Sports Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tomlinson, A. 2011, The Atlas of sports: Who plays what, where, and why, Berkeley: University of California Press.


  • 1 Final Exam: 45%
  • 1 Final Essay: 45%
  • Participation, progress and attendance, mid-term essay: 10%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)