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What is Sportsmanship?

Masayuki Ishii
Associate Professor of Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Over these last few years, I have investigated the historical changes of the meaning of the word "sportsmanship" in Britain. As a result, I have learned that this word originally had a different meaning from that of today and had quite diverse meanings. Even in the early 19th century when the word "sports" meant "hunting", the word sportsmanship already had a meaning like fairness that is still relevant today. However, strange to say, this word also had a meaning like "refined" from the beginning.

Why is this? I think this is perhaps because sportsmanship (sportsman) originally held an implication as an antonym of statesmanship (policymaker). As books on British history say, the traditional ruling classes called "gentlemen" reigned for a long period of time. They were basically the landed gentry, and they run politics, economics and the administration of justice by using their surplus time and money. The rest of the time they simply played. This means that their faces in settings when they were "on" were that of statesmen (people who rule) and their faces in settings when they were "off" were that of sportsmen (people who play). Originally, sportsmanship and statesmanship were both sides of one coin called "gentleman ship" (a leader of society). Therefore, the idea of "fairness" even in settings of play, and the way of playing which was "refined", could be expressed with the same word of sportsmanship without any contradiction.

Surprisingly, among examples of the word in newspapers and magazines of the 19th century almost none can be found in which sportsmanship is used with a meaning such as obeying the rules. However, this is with no wonder, because the concept of sportsman was by nature the appearance of statesmen at their off-time. Therefore, statesmen were the protagonists who created the rules even in play. It is probably because of this that there are few provisions in the rules of British sports. The rules themselves are very broad and if some kind of problem occurred, each time the parties involved made a decision after talking it over. The entry of a meaning like "obeying the rules" into sportsmanship primarily came about in the 20th century. Conversely, this meaning like "refined" gradually disappears after entering this period.

This trend progressed at the same time as when sports started to spread widely to other classes and was parallel to the democratization of society as whole. Looking at things with a broad perspective, the move of the working class into the arena of parliamentary government and professional soccer players starting to become active occurred in the same period. Thus, the word of "sportsman" as well as its class implications gradually disappears. "Sportsman" had already developed a separate existence to that of "statesman."

This is, however, also surely because sportsmen (this also includes women and has the meaning of "humans") have developed a non-political existence. There has been a shift from the protagonists self-determining the rules to the protagonists obeying rules which have been pre-determined. Of course, adhering to the rules is exceedingly important in living in civil society. In this sense, the educational value of sports is great. However, who makes the rules? What should we do if the rules no longer fit with reality?

The point in which I occasionally feel uneasy toward the modern concept of sport is in there. If it is possible for everyone to become a sportsman, then it is also to be expected that everyone will become a statesman (a protagonist in decision making). This is not to say that athletes themselves should be involved in deciding rules. I would like to say that in sports (play), there was originally a function as a play of practice in which democratic decision making took place. Therefore, I would like students to learn mediation for mutual interests and to begin personal decision making through sports clubs and club activities. I also want students to play with "refinement." Causing trouble to the people around you in front of a station while you are intoxicated is never refined. I think this is what true sportsmanship is.

Masayuki Ishii
Associate Professor of Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Graduated from the Waseda University School of Education with a major in physical education. Completed a course in European cultural and regional environmental theory at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies. Assumed his current position after serving as Instructor at Hiroshima Prefectural University. Area of expertise is sports history. His major writings include "English Social History as Seen through Rugby", published in Quarterly Ethnic Studies Magazine (edited by the National Museum of Ethnology), and "Orientalism of the Field" published in Sports Magazine (Minerva Publishing).