Let’s Call it Swimming

From History Today:

How Europe Learnt to Swim

For 1,500 years, Western Europe ‘forgot’ how to swim, retreating from the water in terror. The return to swimming is a lesser-known triumph of the Enlightenment.

Humans first learned to swim in prehistory – though how far back remains a matter of debate between the paleoanthropological establishment and the followers of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), who championed the aquatic ape hypothesis, an aquatic phase during hominid evolution between 7 and 4.3 million years ago. Even though we may never have had an aquatic ancestor, compelling evidence exists for the swimming abilities of the representatives of the genus Homo since H. erectus, who appeared some 1.8 million years ago. In the historical period, the myths of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean testify to a positive relationship with water and swimming, mediated until late antiquity by a pantheon of aquatic gods, nymphs and tritons.

By the medieval period, the majority of Western Europeans who were not involved in harvesting aquatic resources had forgotten how to swim. Swimming itself was not forgotten – but the ability to do so hugely decreased. Bodies of water became sinister ‘otherworlds’ populated by mermaids and sea monsters. How do we explain the loss of so important a skill? Humans have never given up running, jumping or climbing, so why did so many abandon an activity that was useful to obtain food and natural resources, vital to avoid drowning and pleasurable to cool down on a hot summer’s day?

The retreat from swimming began during late antiquity, as evidenced in the writings of the fifth-century Roman military writer, Vegetius, who bemoaned the fact that, unlike the hardy legionaries of the Republic, ‘whose only bath was the River Tiber’, the recruits of his day had become too used to the luxuries of the baths and had to be taught how to swim. Roman baths were furnished with large, shallow basins (piscinae), but these were designed for soaking and sitting and not swimming. Nevertheless, is it conceivable that the majority of the population of the Western Empire could forget how to swim? It is, if one considers the size of the urban bathhouse infrastructure and the concentration of the population living in inland cities in the late-imperial period. In 33 BC, Rome had 170 bathhouses; by late-fourth-century, that number had grown to 856.

Much more at the link, although as a friend pointed out, the Roman Empire may have been based on cities, but the vast majority of people did not live in them.

The author of this piece, Eric Chaline, wrote Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming (Reaktion, 2017). My friend Nicholas Orme wrote a history of British swimming that I see is still in print. The post title is a lyrical reference.

Horse Racing

Mike Huggins talks about his newly-published book Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century at Proofed, a blog of Boydell and Brewer:

I had not realized how important the annual racing week was in the leisure calendar of so many county and large market towns during the eighteenth century, helping foster consumerism and the urban renaissance. For many women of the middling classes for example, the racing was almost incidental, but was looked forward to for weeks before with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. It offered many social opportunities; socializing with the titled and the county set, attending assemblies, balls, the ordinaries or the theatre, appearing in the grandstand, and dressing up, demonstrating status and conspicuous consumption.

Racing was equally significant politically. The early Jockey Club was much more than a racing club. Its members were mostly Protestant, Whig and committed to the defeat of Stuart Catholicism, and were usually MPs or otherwise leading figures in the political elite, like the Duke of Bolton. Racing played across divisions of Whig and Tory, court and country or Hanover and Jacobite in complex ways. Hanoverian sons demonstrated their independence against their father by spending money racing. Race meetings were sites of assembly for political discourse where prospective and current parliamentarians lobbied for support, exploited the dynamics of patronage, or used attenders as focus groups.

More at the link.

England at the World Cup

So the English national football team lost yesterday in the semi-final of the World Cup. Their first goal was a thing of beauty but it came too early, giving Croatia the chance to tie the game and then score a winning goal in extra time. The English fans’ continuous chanting of “it’s coming home!” can now only apply to the third place trophy, which England will play for on Saturday against Belgium, a rematch of a pool stage game that England lost 1-0. So England, where the game was invented and which hosts the Premier League, the world’s top professional soccer league, with such monumental clubs as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal, must suffer yet another disappointment from their national side.

At least this time the team made it to the semi-finals. They did not exit after the pool stages like they did four years ago, they were not eliminated in the first round by Iceland like they were two years ago, and they were not sent home after losing a penalty shootout as they have done consistently since 1996. In this tournament, by contrast, they actually won a shootout (in their Round-of-16 game against Colombia), and thus have broken that particular curse.

Wikipedia.

All this wouldn’t matter nearly so much had not England won the World Cup in 1966, symbolized by the single star displayed over the team’s coat of arms. Why have they not managed to repeat this feat in the intervening half-century? What has gone wrong?! I found a Financial Times article that I thought was interesting and revealing:

Wikipedia

“Ee-aye-addio, we won the cup!” sing the crowd. England’s captain Bobby Moore climbs the steps to the royal box at Wembley, where a yellow-clad 40-year-old Queen Elizabeth hands him the little gold Jules Rimet trophy. She, he and it all look gorgeous in the London sunshine.

The Technicolor moment in 1966 when England’s football team won their only World Cup is a high point of postwar English history. It also serves as a constant reprimand to the nation’s present. National decline is a powerful notion in modern English history, and England’s failure to win a football tournament since that July day seems to sum up that decline. That’s why the English often turn 1966 into a symbol. The argument then goes that Moore’s “greatest generation” won because they were better men than today’s spoiled overpaid lot. However, if you want to understand why England won then and have lost since, symbolism doesn’t get you very far. In an attempt to demystify 1966, I read the history and crunched data.

Read the whole thing, which examines the roles of home field advantage, changes in the game, and the ever-present quality of luck, among other factors.

The Gaelic Athletic Association

Arial view of Croke Park, from a postcard.

Entrance to Croke Park, with its name rendered in Irish and the GAA logo on the wall.

I was pleased to be able to visit Croke Park with two of my students while we were in Dublin. Named after the prominent Irish nationalist Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel (1875-1902), it is the headquarters and national stadium of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which governs the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football. Croke Park, they claim, is the third largest stadium in Europe but the largest stadium for amateur sports in the world and, like the GAA itself, has a prominent place in Irish national history: on Sunday, November 21, 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, the Royal Irish Constabulary thought it would be a great idea to go to Croke Park and shoot the place up during a Dublin-Tipperary match, in revenge for the IRA’s assassination of fifteen British intelligence officers earlier that day. At Croke Park, fourteen people were killed and over sixty wounded in what became known as the original Bloody Sunday. It was a moral victory for the IRA – whereas their operation was targeted at specific individuals, the RIC’s was indiscriminate and against civilians out enjoying themselves. One player, Michael Hogan of Tipperary, died in the event, and in 1924 a stand at Croke Park was named in his memory.

The GAA itself was founded in 1884 in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, by seven people including Michael Cusack, whose statue stands outside the main entrance to Croke Park. It was part of an international movement to codify rules for sports and to organize teams to play them, such as the National Association of Base Ball Players (1857), the Football Association (1863), the Rugby Football Union (1871), or the modern Olympic Games (1896). The Gaelic Athletic Association was set up as a specifically Irish organization. Hurling, which involves running around on a field and hitting a ball (“sliotar”) with a stick (“hurley”), has a long pedigree in Ireland – the mythological hero Cú Chulainn plays it in the medieval Ulster Cycle, and one of the Statues of Kilkenny in 1361 forbade it to English settlers.

From a postcard: “Hurling in action! Eoin Larkin from Kilkenny takes on Tipperary men Michael Cahill (left) and Paddy Stapleton (right) during the 2011 GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final at Croke Park.”

The hurling game that the GAA formalized ended up with fifteen men a side, a 90 by 145 meter field, and two ways of scoring (in the net for three points, over the net for one), along with various permissible ways of handling and passing the ball and of contact between opponents. Gaelic football does not have as long a history as hurling, but it was devised in tandem with modern hurling, and so deliberately uses the same size of pitch, number of players, and methods of scoring. More to the point, Gaelic football was to be different from rugby and soccer, the two other major codes of football, which were English in origin and thus morally tainted.

From a postcard: “Jumping! A general view of the action from the 1966 All-Ireland Senior Football Final between Galway and Meath at Croke Park, Dublin.”

Having now seen a Gaelic football match in Dingle, I will say that it seems to be a well-designed game. One cannot argue with the immense worldwide popularity of soccer, which is cheap to play and easy to understand, but I am reminded again in this World Cup season about Adam Gopnick’s observation that:

The game has achieved a kind of tactical stasis. Things start off briskly and then fritter away into desultory shin-kicking, like a Wall Street Journal editorial. In soccer, the defense has too big an edge to keep the contest interesting, like basketball before the coming of the twenty-four second clock or the Western Front before the invention of the tank…

Since a defensive system keeps players from getting a decent chance to score, the idea is to get an indecent one: to draw a foul so that the referee awards a penalty, which is essentially a free goal. This creates an enormous disproportion between the foul and the reward… The customary method is to walk into the “area” with the ball, get breathed on hard, and then immediately collapse, like a man shot by a sniper, arms and legs splayed out, while you twist in agony and beg for morphine, and your teammates smite their heads at the tragic waste of a young life. The referee buys this more often than you think.

More fundamentally, as Steve Sailer notes:

There’s a cost to abjuring the use of the opposable thumb: competence. While the average National Basketball Association team sinks three dozen field goals per 48-minute game, the all-star squads in the knockout rounds of the 2002 World Cup averaged less than one goal per 90-minute game. The reason soccer so often seems like an exercise in futility is that it’s played with the wrong part of the anatomy.

Rugby (founded, according to legend, by William Webb Ellis, who “in a fine disregard for the rules of football, picked up the ball and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the game of rugby football”) does not have this problem, but it is immensely more complicated – I played the sport in high school and have been watching it for years, and even now I have to have the commentators explaining its minutia to me. Moreover, the trouble with the sport right now is that it is too easy to commit penalties. Often you simply can’t prevent going over the top of the ruck, or collapsing the scrum – and, like soccer, there is a disproportion between the foul and the consequence, since a penalty equals a kick for the other team and thus a pretty good chance for them to score three points. England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 using this strategy.

Gaelic football thus seems like the sport that Goldilocks chose. Players can pick up the ball with their hands, and run with it, although every four steps they have to kick it back up to themselves, or bounce it off the ground. They can pass the ball by hand, but only by holding it in one hand and hitting it with the other (a feature shared with Australian Rules Football if I’m not mistaken). They can kick it along the ground and at the goal as in soccer if they wish. Rugby-style tackling is not allowed, but shoulder-to-shoulder body checking certainly is, and as a consequence there is a minimum of play-acting. Forward passing by hand is allowed, and thus there are no knock-ons like in rugby, and there are no offsides, meaning that the game is open in way that soccer or rugby aren’t (my brother-in-law insists that the key to improving soccer is to get rid of the offside rule). Our guide at Croke Park, a hurling man himself, did claim that Gaelic football is currently dominated by the defense, but that is not the impression I got in Dingle, whose junior team lost to Ballyduff by a total score of 22-21.

From a postcard: “Arthur Griffith, Eamonn de Valera, Lord Mayor Laurence O’Neill and Michael Collins at Croke Park for the 1919 All-Ireland Senior Hurling final between Cork (6-04) and Dublin (2-04), 21 September 1919.”

It’s a shame this sport is not more popular, but something tells me that the Irish wouldn’t want it that way. The GAA was, and remains, very much a nationalist organization. In addition to promoting indigenous sports, it set itself the task of promoting the Irish language, Irish dance, and Irish music. In the late nineteenth century the organization was infiltrated by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who recruited through it. During the War of Independence, apparently some GAA teams were simply front organizations for IRA units, and in response at some point the British banned the playing of Gaelic sports, something that the Irish happily ignored in a coordinated effort. (As late as the 1980s, numerous county GAA boards supported the IRA and INLA hunger strikers in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.)

Thomas Ashe (1885-1917), member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the Irish Volunteers, and namesake of the Dingle GAA grounds. Ashe died in police custody in 1917.

But the GAA did some banning of its own: from 1897, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were forbidden from joining the organization (Rule 21), and from 1901, GAA members were forbidden from taking part in or even watching non-Gaelic games (Rule 27). The most famous victim of this policy was Douglas Hyde, who in his capacity as Ireland’s first president, attended an Ireland-Poland soccer match in Dublin in 1937, and who was subsequently removed as patron of the GAA! I saw a book about this episode in a shop at Inch Strand. This does seem a bit self-righteous and psychologically insecure.

Since then both Rule 21 and Rule 27 have been abolished, and even Rule 42, which prohibits GAA grounds from being used to play “garrison games,” has been relaxed. When Lansdowne Road, the Irish national stadium for rugby and soccer, was being redeveloped over the period 2007-2010, the GAA graciously allowed the Ireland rugby team to play its home games in Croke Park, including against England. A sculpture in honor of this event greeted us as we arrived at Shannon Airport.

“Saturday 24th February 2007 Ireland v England, Croke Park, Dublin. ‘The Day that Changed Ireland.’ Rugby lineout featuring Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan and John Hayes. Sculpture by Paddy Campbell, February 2015.”

Our guide at Croke Park said that some people protested this game outside the stadium, but that there was dead silence for the playing of “God Save the Queen” before the match, indicating a certain maturity on the part of the Irish. I suppose it helped that Ireland handily won the match, 43-13, although I would be curious to know what the reaction would have been if Croke Park had been filled with fans of the GAA, and not the IRFU.

Paddy Bawn Brosnan‘s Bar and Lounge, Dingle. Brosnan was Co. Kerry senior Gaelic football captain, 1937-52.

Statue of famed Gaelic football player and manager Páidí Ó Sé (Paddy O’Shea), outside his eponymous pub in Ventry, Co. Kerry.

Painting of a hurling player, Falls Road, Belfast.

Apart from the politics, it does seem that the GAA is something that binds the country together. The organization remains amateur, with all the romance that this entails, and it is organized by county, the fundamental subunit of the Irish state. The sports, I discover, are very popular – people walk around in replica jerseys, and county colors fly from pubs and from private homes.

County banners, GAA Museum, Croke Park, Dublin.

The museum is pretty good too. I did not recognize anyone in the GAA hall of fame, but the exhibits on the history of the organization are well done, and a visitor can even get the opportunity to see how hard he can hit a sliotar with a hurley (I kept missing it, to my students’ mirth).

Outside Croke Park: GAA club logos by county.

Medievalism

The first series in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs has been determined, with the Vegas Golden Knights sweeping the Los Angeles Kings four games to zero.

Knights vs. Kings. Sounds like a successful medieval rebellion…

Naming Names

Watching the gold medal men’s ice hockey game of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, I was disappointed to see that the two teams, Germany and Olympic Athletes from Russia, wore sweaters that read “Germany” and “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Yes, I certainly appreciate that I can go just about anywhere and be able to speak English with someone. But if only for the sake of style points, why can’t the teams label themselves “Deutschland” and “олимпийские спортсмены из России”? And for the latter to render their names in Cyrillic on the backs of their sweaters? Have some self-respect!

Braves

The Gwinnett Braves, the AAA-affiliate of the major-league Atlanta Braves, have announced that they will be changing their name for the 2018 season (although they will still be affiliated with Atlanta). You might think that this is another example of the desire to eschew Native American symbolism in sports team naming, but it is only a desire to avoid confusion with the major league team – Gwinnett being close enough to Atlanta to be considered the same market. There is a shortlist of six finalists,* and you can vote for the name you prefer; being a historian, my personal favorite is the “Gwinnett Buttons.” (Button Gwinnett, representative to the Second Continental Congress from Georgia and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, is the namesake of Gwinnett County. I had not known that he was killed in a duel in 1777 – come to think of it, the “Gwinnett Duellers” would also be a good name for the team.)

* UPDATE (12/17): The names were Buttons, Big Mouths, Gobblers, Lambchops, Hushpuppies and Sweet Teas. The name eventually chosen was “Stripers,” after the fish.

Sports

An update to the post below on the St. Louis Blues: is the fiftieth anniversary of an NHL franchise really “history” worth noticing? Isn’t there something juvenile about sports fanship, which ought to be beneath the notice of a professional academic?

Part of me thinks yes. I am aware of and actually agree with a lot of the criticisms of sports – especially professional sports, which are the purest expression of the capitalist imperative to privatize the benefits, and socialize the costs. In Europe, a soccer team is often a genuine expression of its local community, as there is a good chance that it began life as an amateur club organized by the people who lived there, and which may still be owned by community shareholders. In North America, by contrast, professional sports leagues were always cartels run by businessmen, who love to posture as valued members of a given community, but who have no problem moving their teams to a more accommodating place if they don’t get the subsidies they want – or who often have no desire to put together a winning team, as long as the money keeps rolling in. The players too are all mercenaries – only by chance do they actually come from the place they play for, and they can be traded away to another team at a moment’s notice.

(Then there are college sports, of the sort that Reinhardt sponsors at great expense and at great distraction to the academic mission of the university [or so it seems to many of us], and which seemingly injure our students with shocking frequency. I’ve often said that if any other activity produced injuries at the rate that sports do, it would be illegal. There has been talk about “rape culture” finding a home among certain teams; I don’t particularly believe this, but it is clear that at the very least teams can foster a certain cliquishness, thereby fragmenting the campus.)

On a more fundamental level, there is always the question of why? Why should anyone possibly care about the attempts of one group of five men skating around and trying to put a puck into a net while preventing another group of five men from doing the same in the space of sixty minutes? It’s not like they’re curing cancer or anything! But David Potter, author of The Victor’s Crown: A History of Sport from Homer to Byzantium (2012), has a good answer:

The crucial feature of sport is… not simply the contest, but the way it enables those outside the arena to feel linked with those within, and in so doing to feel (at least briefly) empowered by what they do. It is this aspect of sport that energizes and creates communities. It allows people to find themselves insiders in the game. And it is precisely these aspects that so infuriate many who think that the whole exercise is a massive waste of time and money, and who feel excluded from it, for whatever reason.

You don’t have to be a sports fan in order to respect the activity. Given the enormous amount of money spent on it, and attention paid to it, it clearly addresses a primal need in humans – so primal that it consistently trumps the obvious venality and fabrication – and is worth studying for that reason alone. (I say the same thing to my students about religion, with which sports fanship shares certain characteristics). And at the very least it provides a certain means of understanding the world through the vehicle of metaphor. Here is a list of baseball metaphors that I have husbanded over the years:

• “he’s out in left field” (i.e. inattentive)
• the “three strikes and you’re out” law
• doing something “right off the bat”
• he’s a southpaw (i.e., left handed – although this one isn’t all that common)
• calling a short person “short stop” (although this one is even less common)
• George H.W. Bush was “born on third base and thought he hit a triple”
• to “touch base” with someone
• a wrong answer is a “swing and a miss!”
• a surprise is a “curveball”
• an eccentric is a “screwball”
• something abstruse is a little too “inside baseball”
• the highest caliber of something is “playing in the big leagues,” while something less than that is “bush league”
• to have a high ambition is to “swing for the fences”
• to do something especially competently is to “hit one out of the ballpark”
• a bisexual is a “switch hitter,” while a homosexual “bats for the other team”
• a tough negotiator “plays hardball”
• to accept a challenge is to “step up to the plate”
• an estimate is a “ballpark figure”
• to be up against a deadline is to “be in the bottom of the ninth”

Then there is the wonderful teenaged-boy metaphor of how far you “got” with a girl, with first base being kissing, and so forth. If you didn’t get anywhere you “struck out” (perhaps because she was “out of your league”).

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” wrote Jacques Barzun in 1954 – a sentiment that remains true to this day.

St. Louis Blues

In 1967, the National Hockey League doubled its size from six to twelve teams; the St. Louis Blues were one of those teams, so the club (along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, and Dallas Stars, which is the successor team to both the Minnesota North Stars and the California Golden Seals) is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. While in St. Louis this Christmas we stopped by the Central Library for an exhibit on the team’s history entitled “50 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers – A Tribute to the St. Louis Blues and their Fans.” The Blues have never won the Stanley Cup, but they are a key part of the city’s culture and have a devoted fan base, and like all sports teams have accumulated a wealth of lore over the course of their existence. Some photos:

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The prototype Blues sweater, not ever used.

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The original squad, and their original bench.

goalie

In the olden days, even goalies didn’t wear helmets.

gretzky

This is Wayne Gretzky, widely regarded as the best player ever to play the game. He played for St. Louis for 31 games in 1996.

I was also fortunate to attend the Alumni Game of the Winter Classic on December 31. For the past few years the NHL has sponsored an outdoor game as a marquee event on New Year’s day, featuring teams playing on a specially built rink in a football or a baseball stadium – this year it was the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks at Busch Stadium, normally home to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. As a bonus, an “alumni game,” featuring retired players, also takes place the day before. It was nice of Gretzky to come out for this.

rink

The game was not really competitive, but it was fun all the same.

Sports

An amusing observation from Pliny the Younger, as quoted in David Potter’s book The Victor’s Crown: A History of Sport from Homer to Byzantium (2012). Some things don’t change much!

I am not in the least bit interested in that sort of entertainment [chariot racing]. There is nothing new, nothing different, nothing that it does not suffice to have seen but once. For this reason I am all the more astonished that so many thousands of people desire so childishly to watch horses run, and see men ride chariots again and again. If they were drawn by the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers, that would be one thing; now, however, they cheer for a piece of cloth, the love a piece of cloth, and if, in the middle of a race this colour would be transferred to that man, and that colour to this one, the partisanship and favour would change with it, and suddenly they would leave those charioteers and those horses, that they recognize at a distance and whose names they shout.