Olympics Kickoff: Boris Johnson on London’s Sporty Side

Did you know that Brits invented football? As the Olympics officially kick off, mayor Boris Johnson pays tribute to his city’s athletic ancestors in an excerpt from his book Johnson’s Life of London.

Of all the contributions the Victorians made to the world, the most culturally pervasive today is almost certainly sport. I remember hearing Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA, shocking the world when he announced that football had been invented in China—when he knows fine well that the game that unites humanity was codified in London in 1863. Whatever the attractions of cuju, a third-century B.C. game that involved kicking a leather object through a hole in a piece of silk cloth, it is not Association Football.

The modern Olympic games have their origins in Much Wenlock in Shropshire, where in 1850 a local physician named Dr. William Penny Brookes established the Much Wenlock Olympics, an event that involved all kinds of exertion, including wheelbarrow races and singing competitions. The thing was such a success that he bombarded the Greek king, the Greek prime minister, and the Greek ambassador in London with fervent pleas that they should revive the Olympic Games themselves, in Athens—somewhat to the mystification of the Greeks. His idea was eventually taken up by the Anglophile sports nut, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

On it went through the 19th century, as sport after sport was codified in Britain—usually London. The Athletics Club was founded in West Brompton in 1866, and evolved into the Amateur Athletics Association, which itself provided the rules and template for all modern athletics. Men have been punching each other in the head since the beginning of time, and you will find references to boxing in The Iliad. But it was in London in 1867 that the Marquess of Queensberry gave his name to the modern rules, with their careful stipulations about gloves, holding, and so on. In 1871 a group of 32 burly Victorians met at the Pall Mall restaurant on Cockspur Street and started the Rugby Football Union. In 1882 the rowers set up the Amateur Rowing Association to formalize the aggressive competitions that had been taking place on the Thames. You can see ancient Greek bas-reliefs of people playing a game that is evidently hockey—but the rules of the modern game were established in 1886 with the foundation of the Hockey Association.

Modern lawn tennis was invented by an eccentric character named Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, and the game was originally called “Sphairistike,” or “sticky.” In 1888 they changed the court from Wingfield’s preferred hourglass shape to a rectangle, and the Lawn Tennis Association was born. Rackets was first played by inmates of London debtors’ prisons. The world’s first squash court was in Harrow. The global home of cricket is in Marylebone. The world’s first organized swimming competitions seem to have taken place on the Serpentine in 1837.

In case after case we see the Victorians taking a long-standing sporting activity, playing it obsessively and then deciding on the rules—partly because rules were vital to the public school concept of “‘fair play” and partly because rules were essential for deciding who had won the betting on the outcome.

But there was one game that seems to be wholly indigenous to Britain: not just the rules but the very idea. The Victorians were so energetic that in the 1880s they came up with a new after-dinner entertainment. They cleared the table and balanced a row of upright books down the middle so as to form a barrier. They then fashioned a ball made of a sawn-off champagne cork or string or anything they had knocking around, and then with the help of other books or cigar box lids they biffed that projectile to and fro across the table.

In 1890 there was the first patented version, which involved a 30 millimeter rubber ball covered with cloth, strung rackets and a low wooden fence all around the table. A year later the games company John Jaques of London introduced their “Gossima” game with a 50 millimeter cork ball, a foot-high net and bats made of parchment—hence the ping pong noise.

Soon other variants were on the market, with names like Whiff-Whaff, Pom-Pom, Pim-Pam, Netto, Ping-Pong, Parlour Tennis and Table Tennis. It was not long before Ping-Pong and Table Tennis were the two survivors, and since they had different rules they agreed in 1903 to end the confusion and form the Table Tennis Association.

The interesting question is why the miracle took place on English dining room tables. It may be something to do with the embarrassment of trying to maintain after-dinner conversation. It may be to do with a lack of interest in food, or rain stopping play of tennis outside. It may be that Victorians were simply richer than any other society on Earth—and had the leisure to hit champagne corks at each other.