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The Use and Abuse of Ancient History in Victorian Sport

Nineteenth-century elite education in Britain was dominated by classics inside the classroom and sport outside, often to the exclusion of almost everything else. The move towards athleticism in the public schools and universities ultimately transformed the social landscape by creating, codifying, regulating and promoting new games such as association and rugby football while reforming existing sports such as athletics, boxing and rowing. As these sports became more popular, bitter struggles erupted for their control. These often ostensibly centred on the issue of amateurism, but had an element of class conflict as their underlying cause. As part of this dialogue, some classical scholars created a powerful and widely accepted narrative which projected an image of the ideal Victorian sportsmen on to the athletes of ancient Greece in order to create a pedigree for elite amateurism. At the same time, they created a second narrative, detailing negative aspects of sport during the Roman period, in order to highlight the so-called ‘evils of professionalism’. My research looks at how these narratives were created and why, and examines the personal networks which intricately linked the classicists behind them with the leading sports administrators, politicians and educationalists of their day.

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