The rise of competitive sports in England: constructing character & national identity


Athletes in a relay race in black and white as a part of competitive sports

There is a widespread belief that competition is a ‘natural’ phenomenon in human beings, and that it should therefore be fostered in such subjects as physical education, and certainly within the national sporting context. However, my research rejects this truth claim about competition and competitive sports being ‘natural’ and instead examines how competition has been used as a governmental art since the post-Second World War (1939-1945) in England. In this sense, I explore how physical education has been constituted as a governable problem. Focusing on the post-Second World War context in England, I argue herein that there is a close relationship between physical education pedagogy, sports policy, and the construction and regulation of the body. In particular, I consider one of the central ‘problems’ that dominates the literature on the governance of physical education - that of moral/social behaviour. This is aligned with the emergence of nationalistic discourses following the devastating effects of the Second World War, when competitive sports became a technology with which to rebuild the nation. 

In order to explore the rationalities and discourses through which different forms of governing have been constituted in physical education, I selected historical physical education documents and related policies, reports and Acts as the forms of evidence in my genealogical research. These facilitated a diagnostic methodology, whereby the ‘symptoms’ (singular rationalities and discourses) were able to be isolated, grouped and categorised. Utilising such mundane texts, which are so often overlooked by physical education scholars, my research reveals power forms and their effects at the micro-levels of social practices, along with surprises and false assumptions. In this specific article, I primarily consider two sport policies written in the 1960s, the Wolfenden Report (CCPR, 1960) and Planning for Sport (Sports Council, 1968),  using them to reveal a host of interconnecting power struggles that rise and fall across time during the character and national identity construction process. 


The emergence of ‘traditional’ physical education

One of the key findings of my genealogical research that stretches across 114 years (from 1902 to 2016), is how the rationality of competition is used by ruling authorities to help construct character and national identity after the Second World War. Indeed, the competitive capacities of individuals are fostered in distinctively socialised ways through traditional team games. Thus, the rationality of competition, through social means, has come to be accepted as the foundation of physical education in state schools. This affirms the work of other scholars (see Kirk, 1992, p. 84) who recognise how competitive team sports became “traditional physical education for everyone” during this post-war era.

On closer examination of England’s sporting infrastructure during this post-war period, there are strong connections between sport and the education system. This is confirmed as valuable by the Wolfenden Committee in their report (CCPR, 1960, p. 44): “it is important to remember that the British system – especially the system of linking sport closely with school and education – has considerable merits”. Indeed, the report outlines the way in which games are included in the physical education programme for all children via “inter-house teams, inter-form teams or teams from other intra-school subdivisions” (p. 44). As such, “very many children (in some schools all) play games regularly and the healthy tolerance of moderate standards of performance which is part of our games-playing tradition is nourished” (p. 44). This statement reinforces how competitive sports and games were embedded within physical education from an early age at school level across this epoch, and how they came to be perceived as customary elements of the curriculum. Accordingly, these physical activities developed into the preferred form of physical education for the new mass secondary schools, designed as they were to help construct group solidarity and, more generally, national identity. Houlihan and White (2002, p. 15) verify the “importance of an early introduction to competitive games if sport was to fulfil the role of restoring Britain’s flagging international prestige”. Emphasis on the need for high levels of performance and skills in the competitive school games context signifies how these are considered transferable to the adult international sport context (see CCPR, 1960, pp. 44-45). 

Developing specific character attributes through competitive team games

Individual character traits that are often considered to be achievable through participation in team competitive sports and games include such positively regarded qualities as loyalty, honesty, compassion, humility, respect and responsibility (see Lumpkin, 2013). Rudd (2005) further divides character development, referring to moral and social attributes that are gained through participation in competitive sport. The former, moral attributes, focus on fairness, honesty and respect; indeed, it is suggested that “individuals show moral character when they act in a way that respects the psychological and physical safety of others” in sport (Bolter & Weiss, 2016, p. 173). Notably, competitive team games are seen to both regulate the emotions and to develop the character trait of loyalty in a young person in the aforementioned Wolfenden Report:  

For young people especially, there is loyalty which grows from a shared competitive enterprise; and if the loyalty is a narrow one which springs from the contest against another group, at least it can be argued that the emotions of the young find an appropriate focus in such competition [emphasis added]” (CCPR, 1960, pp. 4-5). 

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This connects back to the way in which the Wolfenden committee perceives playing sport to be both a social and individual phenomenon, due to its recognised “community aspect” (p. 3). 

The notion of the individual developing qualities that are valuable for both them and the society in which they live is also reinforced a little later in the report when the significance of games, particularly competitive types, are debated. Herein, a wide range of character attributes are highlighted as being potentially achievable through the playing of competitive sports: “Courage, endurance, self-discipline, determination, self-reliance, are all qualities which the sportsman, in the broadest sense of the term, has at least the opportunity of developing in the pursuit of his sport” (CCPR, 1960, p. 5). Interestingly, reference is made at this point to the character-building team game traditions of (private) schools in the nineteenth century, and how they were considered to be a vehicle for helping to develop “unselfish, co-operative and self-sacrificing” behaviours; although the committee does not seek to legitimate such claims, it does comment that “the playing of games… does at least provide the opportunity for learning this kind of lesson” (p. 5). In line with this, it could be argued that as “political rationalities have a characteristically moral form” in that they “elaborate upon the fitting powers and duties for authorities” (Rose & Miller, 1992, p. 178), the rationality of competition was embraced as having the potential to develop a person’s moral character. Whilst the uptake and embodiment of certain character attributes are recognised as being dependent on the individual’s character and the “spirit of the instruction” (CCPR, 1960, p. 5), it is made clear that a sports player’s personality could be enriched by such experiences. 

Furthermore, when discussing the teaching of games in schools a little later in the CCPR report, it becomes evident that character construction is deemed feasible if these physical activities are framed in certain ways: “Stress may be placed on playing to the spirit rather than to the letter of the law; effort, courage, loyalty and unselfishness may be praised as well as skilful performance” (p. 44). As such, character formation and regulation might be fostered, since “Social training in courtesy to visitors on and off the field can be inculcated [emphasis added]” (p. 44). Indeed, the report affirms the need for a “proper attitude to games” that should be nurtured by teachers and coaches early on in the child’s schooling process, since this positive disposition could affect their character more generally (pp. 44-45).

These examples from the Wolfenden Report highlight the emergence of a ‘games ethic’ of which Mangan (1983, p. 314) speaks, that essentially comprises “the subscription to the belief that important expressive and instrumental qualities can be promoted through team games (in particular loyalty, self-control, perseverance, fairness and courage, both moral and physical)”. This games ethic was purportedly transformed in the post-war period from an elite to a mass conception (see Kirk, 1992; Mangan, 1983), duly imbued with authority and currency, and as mentioned previously, “appeared as the ideal form of physical education for the new mass secondary schools” (Kirk, 1992, p. 114). The Wolfenden Report examples above also elucidate how the interrelationship between the playing of competitive team sports and the construction/regulation of character is promoted through certain prevalent discourses. 

Competitive team sports: exploring the interplay between social cohesion and national identity 

In respect of the construction of national identity and the assumed social cohesion that is possible through competitive team sports, there are two policies in which this phenomenon might be readily observed. Indeed, in the previously cited Wolfenden Report (CCPR, 1960), national identity is viewed as arising from “the traditional British love of sport… it [the attitude] is one in which we can legitimately take some pride” (p. 6). This is reiterated at a later point in the report when it is claimed that “ideals of sportsmanship [sic] occupy… our national habits of thought and behaviour” (p. 23). Interestingly, this “sportsmanship” that is alleged to be a British trait is associated with a better quality of communal life; thus, it might be surmised that the individual sports player is regulated via social means through competitive team games to conform “to decent living together in society” (p. 6). Certainly, there is a perception that “a loyalty… grows from a shared competitive enterprise” (pp. 5-6). This same statement could also indicate the way in which social cohesiveness (alias “loyalty” to the team) is purported to be cultivated through competitive games. A further example of this social unification discourse can be found when the Wolfenden Report discusses the elite sportsperson, known as the “outstanding boy or girl, of really high-level performance”; these young sports stars “present to the ordinary performer a standard of achievement that is beneficial of all [emphasis added]” (pp. 7-8). 

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The second report, Planning for sport (Sports Council, 1968) outlines further reasons why women and men are attracted to sport and physical recreation, citing “physical challenge” and a “sense of achievement”, to name but a few (p. 14). Above all, however, sport and physical recreation are considered to be “essentially social activities”, since “it is the friendship and companionship found in them [sport and physical recreation] which is their main attraction for many people” (p. 14). Hence, “Provision for sport and physical recreation is… [deemed to be] a vital part of community life” (p. 14). To all intents and purposes, these examples connect the individual with the team, and in turn the team with the community/society. As such, it is proposed that through the technologies of games and sport “a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms and meanings, and a shared history and identity” (Rose, 1999, p. 172) is believed to be possible. This facilitates the governance of autonomous individuals in the competitive team context where they experience a type of regulated freedom through the competitive team context and its ‘culture’.


Through the application of a genealogical approach, my research examines how the rationality of competition permeates sports documents and related regimes of practice. Indeed, it might be surmised that physical education/competitive team sports are exposed as technologies to help ruling authorities build citizens’ characters, along with a sense of unified national identity and commonality in the international competitive sports arena. Knowing that policymakers formed a network of governance after the Second World War to aid and advance the emergence of competitive team sports calls into question the so-called ‘naturalness’ of competition. This should encourage physical educators to reflect on the design of their contemporary physical education curricula, ensuring that there is breadth, balance, and that ‘traditional’ competitive team sports do not therefore dominate, as they have done for the majority of post-war decades in England.


Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan

Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan is currently a lecturer in Human Movement Studies (Health and PE) at Charles Sturt University in Albury-Wodonga. Prior to this she taught secondary physical education in the UK, lectured in primary physical education at Bath Spa University, and was head of secondary physical education for several years in the International School of Geneva. She has led physical education seminars and workshops internationally during her lecturing roles in the UK and Australia, and as part of her consultancy role for Cambridge Assessment International Education, Cambridge University Press, and Montrose. Rachael was the UK consultant for Fundamental Movement Skills (STEPS PD) from 2007 to 2012, which was a catalyst for the writing of her book entitled Fundamental Fun: 132 activities to develop fundamental movement skill.

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Rachael’s book, Fundamental Fun: 132 activities to develop fundamental movement skills, is available for purchase directly from her via e-mail: [email protected]. Here are some free sample pages from Rachael’s book:

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