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A ‘Symmetrical Body’: Amateurism, the ‘University Athlete’ and Attitudes to Professional Coaching in Late-Victorian Britain.

Day, DJ (2016) A ‘Symmetrical Body’: Amateurism, the ‘University Athlete’ and Attitudes to Professional Coaching in Late-Victorian Britain. In: Carrefours d'Histoire du Sport, French Society for Sports History, 24 October 2016 - 26 October 2016, University of Lille, France. (In Press)

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Abstract

Coaching and training was an integral part of sports preparation for the British professional athlete from the beginning of the eighteenth century. This traditional approach generated a specialised sporting body crafted into a shape and form suitable for working-class rowers, pugilists and athletes but it was a system rejected by the middle-class men who organised sport through their clubs and associations in the late-Victorian period. Their adoption of the amateur principles of moderation and non-specialisation resulted in a preference for ‘all-rounders’ and in the development of the notion of the ‘University Athlete’, a sportsman who displayed a symmetrical body and who played sport with elegance and style. Using a selective reading of the Classical literature the university-educated athlete elected for a body shape that provided an outward demonstration of their moral superiority and their social status and power. This gentleman athlete, at least outwardly, avoided the constraints on his performance that might be imposed by coaches, especially those of working-class origins, and eschewed the notion of serious training, since this might shape his body into an unacceptable and non-aesthetic form. As a result, professional coaches and trainers were consigned to the margins of amateur sport, leaving a legacy that lasted for over a century, although the rhetoric of amateurism was not always matched by the realities of elite sport in Britain, even in the Universities, and some professional coaches continued to make a living. This paper explores all these various processes and brings them together through the presentation of archival research from the late-nineteenth century sources including biographies, newspapers and organisational records. Particular reference is made to the published comments of medical men who used statistics and anthropometry to justify their claims that upper-class bodies were different from working-class bodies and that working-class trainers could not fully understand the training needs of their social superiors. The author concludes that body shape was an important adjunct to the application of the amateur ethos by powerful social elites in late nineteenth century British sport and that the ideal body-type demonstrated by the ‘University athlete’ was used as a critical distinctive marker between the amateur and the professional athlete.

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