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King James and the Olympics

Where else but Berkshire would you find King James–yes, that King James, the one for whom the great translation is name–and the Olympics mentioned in a single article? I was looking for something about his controversial “King’s Book of Sports” to go into a sidebar in our new book China Gold, where we quote Confucius and Mao on sport and physical fitness, and found a review from The [London] Times of our original Encyclopedia of World Sport (1996) at the German I loved that review, which called our work “the newest sporting Bible,” and saying, “They don’t come any better researched, or any longer, than the Encylopaedia of World Sport, from Ancient Times to The Present.” (That referred to a three-volume work, and we’ve definitely beaten that record now, with our five recent volumes.) Here are a few paragraphs from the “Literature” article, written by Olympics historian and rare book dealer Harvey Abrams:

Consider this: what is the most influential book ever written on sport? Probably a nine-page book issued in 1618. King James I issued a declaration known as the King’s Book of Sports that declared that certain sports and activities were to be permitted on Sundays after church. He was reacting to a petition submitted by rural working people who complained that the Puritans in their region refused to allow them to play on Sundays, in honor of the Sabbath. The king’s declaration, which he required be read in all churches, caused a furor. Puritan influence was growing, and religious conflict was tearing England apart. When James died in 1625 his son, Charles I, became king. Charles reissued the declaration with minor changes, but the Parliament, which was increasingly hostile to the monarchy, rebelled. By 1643 the King’s Book of Sports was ordered to be publicly burned by an angry Parliament. The Puritans were in power, and Sunday sport was no longer allowed. In 1649 Charles I was beheaded. When, in 1660, his son, Charles II, regained the throne, many Puritans emigrated to the New World. More than 300 years later, as late as the 1960s, public displays of sport, such as baseball games and boxing, were not permitted on Sundays in some parts of the United States.

Germans, too, were profoundly influenced by a printed work: Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths (1759-1839) published Gymnastik fur die Jugend (Gymnastics for Youth) in 1793. This book, not really about gymnastics as we know it today, was a manual on physical education and promoted a variety of sports and skills at a crucial time, the period of the Napoleonic wars. It was translated into other languages and strongly influenced other nations: It was published in Denmark in 1799, in Bavaria and England in 1800, in the United States in 1802, in France in 1803, in Austria in 1805, in Holland in 1806, and in Sweden in 1808. By 1812 Napoleon was defeated soundly. The Germans defeated the French again in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Following this defeat, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin traveled the world to study sport and physical education in other nations. By the 1890s he had come up with a plan to promote fitness among French youth, as well as the rest of the world’s revival of the Olympic Games.

Of course, the current situation in Tibet is stirring much concern about how the Olympics this summer will play out. I take some comfort in the fact that Olympics have often been the stage for international political drama and debate, and that sports have throughout history proved a way for nations, and peoples, to come together.

2 thoughts on “King James and the Olympics

  1. The British invaded Tibet in 1901 and killed many Tibetans. The Dalai Lama of the time hid in the Himalayas and eventually negotiated a peace treaty whereby the British Army shamefacedly withdrew.

    This is not an incident that stands proudly in History Books– but it was far worse than what we are seeing now, so far at least. We should not be so holy

  2. Thanks, Tim. Someone else pointed out to me that U.S. citizens might just think about how they’ve treated Native Americans, and as we all now the problem of racial injustice is hardly behind us. A little humility, and perhaps more effort to fix our own problems, wouldn’t go amiss.

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