Sport and War


England_Rugby_by_SenceThe sand of the desert is sodden red,-

Red with the wreck of a square that broke;-

The Gatling‘s jammed and the Colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks,

And England’s far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:

“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This verse is taken from Henry Newbolt’s 1892 poem, Vitae Lampada (They Pass on the Torch of Life), and represents the allegory of sporting tradition within war. Currently in the midst of the Six Nations rugby tournament, I feel compelled to ask how valid the metaphor of sport in war is in this modern era.

Certainly from within British history there is a great wealth of literature and art linking the horror of warfare to sporting endeavour. The importance of sport within education was not entirely uncoupled from the thought that its uses and skills were the same as those needed to be an officer in far-off lands. In no sport is this more evident than in rugby, where the comparison is continued throughout adverts and commentary. As if to illustrate the point, the New Zealand team perform a Haka before their matches – a tribal war cry or challenge.

But to reduce sport to this level, to equate it purely with man’s triumph over man, conflict and ultimately death, must surely be an insult to the nature of sports and sportsmen. Yet, the issue is more complicated than that, as we know that sporting competitions are a way to create national pride in such a way that doesn’t lead to nationalism. Without nations fighting in war, they fight on the sports-field.

And why not? It’s a reflection of that which Charles Malik points out – the human species is one which struggles in all aspects of life and existence. To struggle in any field stems from the fact that we care. This is fundamental to the concept of dignity because it comes through pride in, and loyalty to, a community or country. We support our national teams not through jingoism, but because it’s a reflection of the truth that humans and humanity struggle and strive to better ourselves; it is, after all, an evolutionary trait.

So in answer to the question posed at the start, I think that the validity of a war-based sporting metaphor is more relevant now than ever, because it shows how far we have moved on. Rather than in times gone-by when it was very real, now it’s a symbol that the world has progressed, and that, rather than states expressing national prestige through war, competitiveness is delegated to sports teams. It’s an enormously enriching experience to go and support your team in a pub or bar half filled with opposition fans. From one side to the other rebound chants involving national stereotypes and offensive vestiges of disreputable histories – and it doesn’t matter! Well, that is to say it does matter, and it matters because it’s in good humour and what was once a source of tension is now a source of competitive pride. What histories of war sought to divide, sport, in the guise of war, has put back together and forged a strength because of that history.

By James Newman, Intern at WYA Europe. 

More To Explore