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Sports Spectators from Antiquity to the Renaissance

Sports Spectators from Antiquity to the Renaissance

Sports Spectators from Antiquity to the Renaissance

By Allen Guttmann

Journal of Sport History, Vol. 8:2 (1981)

Introduction: If we define sports as physical contests engaged in for their own sake, that is, as autotelic activities, we can plausibly assert that the Greeks invented sports because they were the first peoples to discover the pleasures of playful physical contests among adults unconcerned for any material advantage. In other words, the Greeks were the first peoples to approach sports not merely as an aspect of cult or a preparation for warfare but as ends in themselves, activities engaged in for intrinsic as well as extrinsic motives. If we define sports in this way, we realize that the study of sports is roughly coeval with sports as an activity. The first ventures into the history of sports are remarkably ancient. The scientific study of sports is, on the other hand, essentially a phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the whole history of the history of sports from ancient times to the present, many hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been published. Only a handful of them indicate concern with sports spectators.

The paucity of information, indeed, the rarity of references even to the existence of spectators, has not prevented journalistic and even scholarly disparagement of sports fans. In the words of a trio of sports psychologists, “The discussion of spectatorship amounts to a nearly universal condemnation of the phenomenon.” When the commentator is hostile to sports as well as to sports spectators, the denunciation can be vitriolic: “More than twenty-five million Americans,’’ wrote a contributor to Christianity and Crisis, “fostered their own dehumanization each weekend last fall as fans of big-time football.’’ That this essay on the alleged dehumanization of sports spectators appeared in an organ of organized Christianity is in itself suggestive. In many of the modem condemnations of sports spectators one seems to hear tones of ancient wrath; one seems almost to hear the voices of the Fathers of the Church as they raged against the abominations of the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum. In the patristic diatribe of Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 230 A.D.) one can detect the moral concern still shared by twentieth-century critics:

Look at the populace coming to the show—mad already! disorderly, blind, excited already about its bets! The praetor is too slow for them; all the time their eyes are on his urn, in it, as if rolling with the lots he shakes up in it. The signal is to be given. They are all in suspense, anxious suspense. One frenzy, one voice.

Tertullian’s case against the spectators was one which Christian moralists have continued to make from his day to ours, but the most sustained and systematic of modern analyses of sports spectators have issued not from the pens of clerics, most of whom seem anxious to stride vigorously along in the path of “Muscular Christianity,’’ but from the typewriters of Marxist or Neo-Marxist scholars who anatomize the abuses of “capitalist” sports (in the Marxist version) or of all sports (in the Neo-Marxist version). In addition to the ideological critique of sport spectatorship, there is a good deal of worry on the part of government officials, sports promoters, journalists, and non-Marxist scholars about sports-related crowd violence.


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