man playing golf

From tennis, ping pong, and badminton to boxing, rugby, and football, the rules of many modern sports were written by British people! Why? Today I want to explain how and why so many of the world’s sports were invented by the British!

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  • To invent (v) – to design or create something that did not exist before.
    • The World Wide Web was invented in 1989.
  • Folk (adj) – traditional to or typical of a particular group or country, especially one where people mainly live in the countryside, and usually passed on from parents to their children over a long period of time.
    • There are some unique folk dances in this city.
  • To codify (v) – to organize and write a law or system of laws.
    • The UK doesn’t have a codified constitution.
  • Alumni (plural n) – men and women who have completed their studies, esp. at a school, college, or university.
    • There will be reunion of university alumni next week.
  • Elite (adj) – belonging to the richest, most powerful, best-educated, or best-trained group in a society.
    • Elite universities are very competitive to enter.
  • Boarding school (n) – a school where students live and study.
    • He studied at a boarding school in the UK.
  • Administrator (n) – someone whose job is to control the operation of a business, organization, or plan.
    • She works as a school administrator.
  • Set something up (phrasal v) – to formally establish a new company, organization, system, way of working, etc.
    • She plans to set up her own business.

I Love Sport

I love watching sport. Over the weekend I sat down to watch the opening weekend of the Rugby Union Six Nations tournament. It is one of the oldest international sporting competitions in the world and sees England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, and Italy compete to become the champion.

Before Christmas I watched as many games as possible during the football World Cup. Before that I watched the Rugby League World Cup which took place in the UK. Over Christmas I enjoyed watching professional darts. And in the summer, I like to watch the tennis at Wimbledon.

I’m a big fan of boxing – from the professional heavyweights to amateur fights in the Olympics. Speaking of the Olympics, I happily watch Olympic sports like rowing and badminton. And during the Winter Olympics I become a big fan of curling and downhill skiing.

My grandfather watches even more sport than I do. He’ll spend his days watching sports like cricket, golf, and snooker. But there is something interesting about sport. Especially all of the sports I just mentioned. They were invented by British people. Football, Rugby, tennis, badminton, darts, snooker, golf, rowing, boxing, curling, downhill skiing, cricket, horse-racing, squash, field hockey and probably more sports that I have forgotten were invented either in Britain or by British people.

Did Britain Actually Invent Sports?

Some of you listening might be about to argue against what I just said… Britain didn’t invent boxing… we’ve been punching each other for thousands of years… or People have been riding horses for longer than the United Kingdom has existed…

Yes, that is true. Britain didn’t invent riding horses. We didn’t invent fighting or punching people. British people didn’t invent skiing, kicking a ball around, or rowing a boat.

When talking about the history of football, for example, people always point to the ancient Chinese sport of cuju which apparently was a game similar to football. I listened to a podcast by the historian Tony Collins about the topic of cuju a few years ago and it was really interesting. But it has absolutely no relation to the modern sport of football.

Sports have existed around the world for thousands of years. Many countries and cultures have traditional folk sports. From European games of mob football that took over entire towns, to Mongolian horse racing and archery, to sports involving hitting objects with sticks.

These sports were based in local community traditions, cultural practices, and sometimes even religious festivals. And they were often local and specific. While games involving balls having existed for centuries, the rules varied greatly between every single town and village that played them.

This is why I said Britain invented all those sports earlier. Britain may not have invented kicking a ball around, but the modern rules of football were invented in the UK. As the historian Tony Collins says, “Britain was the first place to develop what we would see today as codified, organised and commercialised sports.”

 When Argentina played France in the World Cup final a few weeks ago, they were playing a game based on rules drawn up and debated over in English towns 150 years ago, not the rules of cuju from Ancient China. The same is true in a heavyweight boxing fight – they are using the Queensbury rules from Britain not the rules from the Ancient Greek Olympics.

Even the sport of downhill skiing got its first rules and laws thanks to British expats in Switzerland. People may have hit balls with sticks for many years, but the modern rules of 18-hole golf were written in Scotland.

Why Did Britain Invent So Many Sports?

The sporting influence of Britain is clear to see. But how and why did Britain invent so many sports? And why did these sports become popular across the world?

The reasons are a combination of the industrial revolution, Britain’s Public Schools, and the British Empire.


Industrial Revolution

The traditional story of Britain’s variety of sports is that the industrial revolution occurred in the UK first, creating a new generation of middle class people with more time and money to spend on doing leisurely activities and sport.

This is not necessarily the case. We tend to have an image of peasants in the Middle Ages working constantly and living a very tough life. The reality is that for a lot of the year life for peasants was not that busy. They worked long and hard days during the summer months and harvesting crops in the Autumn. But during cold winters there was little to do… apart from play games.

Like all countries, Britain has a long history of rural and traditional sports. From horse riding, fighting, archery, and swordsmanship (all sports that are used to train for war), to large games involving a ball, hundred of players, and played across the entire town. My home town even has it’s own traditional race invented 500 years ago in which women run down the main street holding frying pans with pancakes inside.

Sports, therefore, existed before the industrial revolution. What the industrial revolution did was allow sport to become regional then national and then international.

Before the industrial revolution, travel was difficult. You couldn’t simply take a plane, train, bus, or car to the next town to play them at a game of football. Sport was very much a local activity based on the traditions of the town. The game played in one town could have completely different rules to the next town over.

The industrial revolution allowed people to travel easily and sports to played with people from other parts of the country. There was a problem, though. How could you organise a game of football or cricket or golf if everyone had their own rules?

The answer was you couldn’t. Some early solutions were to play the game of the home team (so if you were playing in Sheffield you would play Sheffield rules of football) or to play one half with one set of rules and the other half with another set of rules.

The best solution, however, was to make a standard and codified rulebook. Rather than hundreds of regional varieties, if there was one set of rules everyone could follow them and play the same sport.

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Public Schools

It would be a lie to say that Britain invented so many sports due to working class people having more freedom due to the industrial revolution. The opposite was true. Rather than working on farms with lots of free time during the winter months, millions of people were working in factories every day of the week with no free time. There was no time to play sport.

Sport flourished and became more popular and professional due to working class involvement later on, that is for sure. Laws were changed in the 1800s and early 1900s to let workers have more rest and eventually some sporting associations in the UK allowed professional players.

But the real forces behind the establishment of formal sports and sporting associations were Britain’s public schools, their teachers, their students, and their alumni. The first FA Cup, one of the oldest football tournaments in the world using the modern rules, was not won by Manchester United, Chelsea, or Liverpool. It was won by Wanderers FC, a team of former public school boys. ‘

And the early years of the tournament were dominated by the Wanderers, Old Etonians (alumni of Eton school), and Oxford University!

Here, I think I need to explain or define something for you all which often confuses non-British people. In the UK, a public school is an elite and expensive private school. In America, they are free government funded schools… but the term public school in the UK is the opposite.

The origin of the term is based in the history of education and language – maybe I’ll do an episode on it in the future. But when I say Public School I am referring to the great private schools of the UK – Eton, Harrow, Winchester, St Pauls. These were the schools that educated the most elite people you can imagine.

As the Industrial revolution powered the British Empire and allowed Britain to colonise more countries, the need for boarding schools increased. As Britain was sending men around the world to govern parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, their children needed places to study. Rather the being educated overseas, the officers and administrators of the empire sent their children back to the UK to study.

These schools were designed to raise and train the future leaders of the British empire – future government officials, military officers, and colonial administrators.

Sport became a key part of education at these schools. The students would often take part in team sports every day. Sports were seen as an activity that not only promoted health and fitness, but made good team players, hardworking individuals, strategic thinkers, and students with a sense of justice or fairness. All of these were seen as good qualities to oversee the future of the empire.

Each school would have their own games and their own rules. Eton famously has a game called the wall game where two teams compete to touch a ball against the wall. And one of the most famous games was rugby named after the school it was first played in the town of Rugby.

However, when these schools wanted to play games against each other it caused problems. Thanks to the industrial revolution they could now travel more easily and they wanted to compete against other schools.

As the popularity of sport in schools grew the demand for one set of rules also increased. A famous example is at the University of Cambridge. I think at one point Cambridge had around 10 different football teams all playing different rules. The alumni of Eton school would play their rules, the alumni of Rugby school their version, the alumni of other schools the same. Eventually, in 1848, they made an effort to make one set of rules.

As sport was such a key component of education at these schools, their alumni wanted to continue playing as adults. And it was these alumni who were key to creating and setting the rules to tennis, football, cricket, rugby, hockey, and many other sports.

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British Empire

These alumni were also key to spreading British sports and rules around the globe. The men educated in private boarding schools eventually moved out of England to parts of the British empire. And they took their sports and games with them.

You can still see the history of colonialism in some sports. Cricket is one of the most popular sports in the world… but in the cricket World Cup the competitors tend to include Australia, New Zealand, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan , Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, South Africa… all former British colonies.

Britain’s informal empire also helped spread sport. The alumni of British boarding schools ended up in cities across the world. The first non-British football club was set up by British students in Switzerland.

Some of you may be AC Milan football fans… this was originally a cricket and football club founded by two English men (this is why the club’s name is Milan not Milano). The Genoa football club is one of the oldest in Italy… but originally didn’t allow Italians to play as it was just for English people in the city.

If you are Brazilian, you probably know the team Corinthians – one of the most successful Brazilian teams of all time. Did you know that the original Corinthians team is currently playing in the eight level of British football? Yet the British Corinthians, over a hundred years ago, toured South America and inspires the creation of a team with the same name. Interestingly, football in South America was introduced by British railroad workers.

An key point here is that the British Empire spread sport almost accidentally. They often didn’t allow non-British people to join their clubs and made no effort to promote the sport to the public, but the games became immensely popular anyway.

And the fact that British sports had clear rules for everyone to follow made these instantly popular. From boxing to cricket to football to downhill skiing, the rules made by the British still shape the sports today.


Final Thought

While Britain didn’t invent sport or even kicking a ball around, British people did make the rules for many of the popular sports today. Hopefully I have been able to demonstrate that a combination of the industrial revolution, the British school system, and the British empire allowed British sports to become dominant!

What is your favourite sport? What is a sport that was “invented” in your country?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

3 thoughts on “205. Why Did Britain Invent So Many Sports? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi, Tom, I’d like to share with you two comments:
    1)I really enjoy your Podcast, beside improve my English I always learn new things.
    2) The Athletic Club de Bilbao was founded on 18 August 1898 by Englishman William MacGregor and Spanish lawyer Fernando de la Maza.
    Best regards Gorka

  2. Hi Tom! My name is Edgardo. I’m from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Very interesting perspective of your analysis!
    In my country the first soccer club was the Alumni Athletic Club, founded by Watson Hutton in 1884 and its players were alumni of the English High School. In this link you can access more details of the first Soccer Institution in the country of the World Champion:
    Other clubs were founded by railway workers.

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