A game of Dwile Flonking (or Dwyle Flunking) at Harveys brewery, Lewes, East Sussex

This history of sport fails to bowl over

An inadequate night watchmen of the genre


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Almost 30 years ago, Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of Britain’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, turned the manager of the England football team into a root vegetable when his side failed to qualify for the World Cup. “That’s yer allotment,” ran the front-page headline in The Sun above a photograph of Graham Taylor’s head morphed into a turnip. It echoed a headline after a defeat the previous year that said: “Swedes 2, Turnips 1.” Taylor never forgave MacKenzie for the mockery.

Surfing gets as many pages as tennis

Displeasing the sun on the field of play in Mesoamerica 3,500 years earlier was rather more risky business. The rules of the Mayan ball game, a religious devotion as much as a sport, are unknown: it seems to have been a form of keepy-uppy between two teams with points lost if the rubber ball hit the ground and gained if it went through a stone hoop in the wall. Accounts tell us that after some matches the losing captain, or his entire team, would be put to death to appease the gods. On rare occasions, the winners would be killed too.

My four-year-old son and I played a form of this game over Christmas, seeing how long we could pat a balloon around the kitchen without it hitting the floor or one of us being beheaded, Mayan-style, by his mother for getting under her feet. Balloon keepy-uppy is one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic: after videos of people playing it went viral online, an inaugural balloon world cup was held in Spain last October. Peru beat Germany in the final; the plucky Brits went home early after defeat to Equatorial Guinea.

This new sport arrived too late to earn a place in Games People Played, Wray Vamplew’s global history of sport, though darts and snooker aren’t mentioned either and they go back to the nineteenth century. Perhaps he considers them mere pastimes, but then rugby league gets barely half a page, a lot less than Aussie Rules or American Football, while in the often prosaic sport-by-sport guide that takes up the middle quarter of the book, surfing gets as many pages as tennis.

Odd priorities aside, Vamplew, an emeritus professor of sports history at the University of Stirling, attempts to give us a broad sweep of mankind’s love of playing around in only 450 pages, taking us from youths vaulting over bulls in Minoan frescoes in Crete and the early Olympics, where a skilled sprinter could win in a race what a skilled craftsman would take home in almost three years, to modern concerns about doping, match-fixing and the environment.

Schrush, a Dorset form of hockey using a stone

We learn on the latter, for instance, that the daily water usage of 2,000 American families is needed to keep one golf course looking green. And that’s before all the chemicals: a study of 600 greenkeepers in America in 1996 found that an unusually high number had developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Vamplew is especially keen to puncture the myths around sport. William Webb Ellis, for instance, probably did not invent a new form of football by picking up the ball and running with it at Rugby School in the early nineteenth century — it was “conjecture, myth and outright fabrication” by old boys decades later — though that has not stopped the schoolboy’s name being on rugby union’s World Cup trophy. Similarly, baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, whatever it may say on the wall at the sport’s Hall of Fame.

More myths: gladiators seldom fought to the death and their fights were often simulated like modern wrestling; golf was not invented by Scots; and the precise length of the marathon, with that extra 385 yards, has nothing to do with Queen Alexandra wanting a better view at the 1908 Olympics. Nor did the Marquess of Queensberry invent the rules of boxing. It was a friend, John Graham Chambers, who devised them but the Amateur Athletic Club, in an early victory for sports branding, felt it would be better for boxing’s image if they had come from a nobleman.

Along the way, we also learn about long-faded sports such as crimogiant, in which men of Pembrokeshire wearing thick shoes with nails protruding would take it in turns to kick each other in the shins; schrush, a Dorset form of hockey using a stone; or wallops, a type of skittles played in north-west Yorkshire with a stick rather than a ball.

It makes for a decent highlights package even if the full match seems to drag

Then there is dwile flonking, a Suffolk sport said to come from the sixteenth century in which players try to hit a team of dancers with a beer-soaked cloth, but which turns out to have been concocted by a bunch of lads in a pub in Beccles in the mid-1960s after a heavy night on the Adnams.

Games People Played: A Global History of Sport Wray Vamplew (Reaktion Books, £20)

Vamplew’s work is certainly comprehensive and accessible, but his writing style is too pedestrian. There is little sense of fun or excitement, of why we love sport. He admits he is more interested in those who take part rather than winners and in sport’s impact on society than on the record books, yet he needs more characters and anecdotes to bring it alive. If this book were a Test match, it would be one in which the batsmen plod along at one and a half runs an over.

Occasionally, though, to quote PG Wodehouse’s description of watching the limpetlike batting of Trevor Bailey, Vamplew wakes from an apparent coma to strike a boundary. I loved the discovery, for instance, that Australian radio’s “live” coverage of the 1938 Ashes in England involved a cable being sent to the other end of the world with each over’s details, from which commentators would improvise what had happened, tapping a pencil on the desk to simulate the sound of bat on ball and recreating the noise of a crowd by gramophone.

There are also some nuggets that would make good quiz questions. Did you know that two thirds of all the stones used in curling come from Ailsa Craig, the granite island in the Firth of Clyde? Or that the Hurlingham Club in west London, better known now for polo and tennis, was once the home of live pigeon shooting, which is why the bird is on the club motif?

Two more. What was remarkable about the Aston Villa side that lost 4-1 to Coventry City in 1999? They were the last team in the Premier League to feature 11 English players. And what did members of Corinthians football club refuse to do when it was introduced to the sport in 1892? They wouldn’t score from a penalty kick, arguing that only a cad would deliberately foul his opponent. Snippets like these reward the reader for their patience. It makes for a decent highlights package even if the full match seems to drag. Such is sport, sometimes.

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