Saturday, 25 February 2012

On class, language and exclusion in sport

By about 1850 pedestrianism was, according to Neil Tranter in Sport, Economy and Society in Britain 1750-1914 (1998), ‘the most extensive working-class sporting interest’; when in 1866-7 the Amateur Athletic Club drew up its first rules for athletics it ‘specifically excluded mechanics, artisans and labourers from participation in an attempt to divorce amateur athletics from professional pedestrianism and preserve the former exclusively for the upper and middle classes’. The ‘mechanics clause’ caused significant antagonism between amateurs and professionals, which lasted well into the twentieth century.  In 1907 when the International Olympics Committee met to organise the London 1908 Games, the mechanics clause was cited in drawing up the rules for the rowing events, having been adopted by the Amateur Rowing Association in 1882. 

In 1846 the Lancaster Regatta organisers consulted with Bell’s Life as to the protocol of whether to admit a boat crewed by tradesmen; the response was that ‘tradesmen’ were acceptable so long as they were not ‘journeymen or mechanics’, in which case they were to be called ‘landsmen’, ‘to distinguish them from gentlemen amateurs and professional watermen.  If the oarsmen in question are master tradesmen the decision should stand; if journeymen or mechanics, they should be defaulted.’  ‘Landsmen’ was a term that had been in use for some years by that stage, to indicate someone whose normal employment was on land.  The Isleworth regatta in the same year had races for apprentices, landsmen, amateurs and watermen.  The discrimination increased from the 1870s when American and Canadian crews started to participate in British regattas, their amateur status being regularly challenged.  In 1874 the Bolton and Bingley Rowing Club was disqualified from the Agecroft Regatta when it was found that there were artisans in their crew.  The rules for the Henley Regatta in 1879 stated that ‘no person shall be considered an amateur oarsman or sculler who is or has been by trade or employment for wages, a mechanic, artisan or labourer.’  At various times the Amateur Athletics Club and the Amateur Rowing Association adopted similar clauses, though the Amateur Athletics Club dropped theirs after fourteen years, under pressure from members; in 1890 the National Amateur Rowing Association was formed by clubs who found that several of their members would not pass the amateur qualification regulations of the ARA – the two did not amalgamate until 1956.  In 1900 the National Cyclists Union banned from their race meetings prominent English cyclists who had recently been racing on the continent.  The ‘Artisan Golfers’ Association’ was formed in 1920.  The mechanics clause survived the longest - it still applied for rowing in the 1908 London Olympics.  Henley Regatta as late as 1920 banned an American rower who had once been a bricklayer, and banned the Australian Olympic eight in 1936 because they were policemen and therefore could not be amateurs.  Whatever the intention, the mechanics clause came to be seen as an act of class exclusion and resentment.

Adapted from Team Talk, Sporting Words and their Origins

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