It has been said that in the absence of war, society looks to sport to fulfill its combative nature. Perhaps the strategizing generals might be likened to today’s sport commissioners; however, the relationship between war and sport goes far beyond the similarities of winning and losing. In fact, left to the foot soldiers, sport and war has throughout history proved to have a much more symbiotic relationship.
Many athletic careers are impacted by war. You need look no further than the Nelson Sport Museum to see the unused trophies for the duration of the World War II.
During World War I, English and Scottish football (soccer) amateur, and some professional players unhindered by club contracts, willingly abandoned their careers and volunteered their services into the British army. This led to many of their supporters following them out of honour of serving next to their heroes. This founded the “Football Battalion” from which various stories surfaced of men shedding tears for their lost football heroes and of shot and injured players pleading with German doctors to avoid leg amputation due to their football careers — only to die later from poison gas.
Women saw an increase in opportunities during the WWII (due to the male population serving away) and sports was one of them. Baseball in the USA provided life changing opportunities that had not before been available to female athletes (see movie A League of Their Own). Granted those same women returned to domestic life after the war, but the impact of those opportunities was never forgotten. Indeed, many other marginalized groups of society such as ethnic and disabled communities have improved lives today due to sport.
International Rugby was started during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 when Afrikaans and their sympathizers from all over the world were sent to prisoner of war camps in India, Bermuda, Ceylon, St. Helena and Portugal. Experienced player-prisoners regularly organized the game that also served as a much needed release for stress and boredom of wartime imprisonment. The once urban-only sport spread into more rural areas once the prisoners were moved on to new countries or retuned home.
Conquering empires have always left much mayhem in their wake, but they also spread their coveted and sometimes useful traditions and customs; one of which was their love of physical prowess and sport. The activities were integrated into new societies and usually included a test of strength, speed and agility – and additional feats of hurling or kicking something through space such as a ball, spear or body. As a result, new challenges were born to answer an age-old need to triumph over our environment, be it local or global.
Perhaps it is this need to gain strength by overcoming adversity that links war and sport. It might explain the reason for the insatiable appetite for winning, when really all that might be needed is a well earned bucket of half time oranges or a seventh inning stretch. Time enough at least, to rethink, gather the troops and find a mutually beneficial goal instead.
Kim Palfenier is the executive director of the Nelson Regional Sports Council. Her column is featured in the Star every second Wednesday.Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org