Even though a case could possibly be made out in defense of the foreign beginnings of a limited number of minor sports, little doubt can be entertained as to the English origins of the major ones and, above all, the source of the sporting spirit in which they are played.
Readers will have already realized it was my Englishman who won the toss and kicked off this article on sports with the above lines. Initially he set the ball rolling by: ‘Even though absolutely no doubt whatsoever may possibly be entertained as to the English origins of all popular sports …,’ but was crunchingly tackled on this by his left-wing French team mate. My Gallic vehemently protested that, contrary to general belief on the English side of the Channel, popular sports such as football, rugby, and tennis are, in fact, of French origin. He went on to insist that if his English alter ego were to remain true to the principle of fair play he claimed for himself and his compatriots, the very least he could do was to admit the existence of doubt on this score.
My French left winger then proceeded to declare that, though English history maintains that the game of rugby was inspired by a certain William Webb Ellis, a pupil at the Public School of the same sporting name who, in November 1823, during a game of soccer, hit on the brilliant idea of picking up the ball and running with it towards the opposing goal, this sport can actually be traced much further back in time to the ancient French game of la soule. This contest, apparently originating in Brittany, took the form of what was little more than a mass punch-up between two gangs of young men from rival villages, with few, if any rules – the goal being to carry a bran-filled pig’s bladder over a predetermined line. “If no rules existed,” my Englishman commented, “then it must have come from France.”
Similarly, again according to my Frenchman, tennis has its origins in the French jeu de paume. For him, indisputable proof of this is provided by the word ‘love’, signifying ‘nought’ in this sport only, and which is, in fact, a corruption of the French word ‘oeuf’, meaning ‘egg’– an egg having much the same shape as the figure nought. Imagine my Englishman’s stupefied indignation, however, when his French alter tried to bowl him over by declaring that even that quintessential English game of cricket was of Gallic inspiration. So silly was this point that my Englishman was stumped for a reply. After a few seconds, however, he creased himself with laughter but, realizing they were playing on a sticky wicket* here, he made an appeal to call off play.
My Frenchman then served for the match by announcing that even the concept of ‘fair play’ was of French inspiration. The Englishman in me managed to get the ball back into the other half of the court by arguing that proof of its English origins would seem to be provided by the fact that no linguistic equivalent exists in the French language (the Gallics readily use the English expression), and even less in the French mentality. To this, my Gallic was unable to hit back a winner, and after a protracted rally my Englishman finally managed to win his point.
In all justice it has to be admitted that, though my rosbif remains unshakeably convinced that the spirit of fair play left the shores of Albion in unadulterated form, only to arrive on the Continent considerably diluted (perhaps it got dropped in the water on the way), he is fair-minded enough to concede that the actual level of playing ability of sports, reputedly English in origin, is often considerably improved upon when exported abroad.
*For the benefit of my non-English readers ‘to play on a sticky wicket’ means to find oneself in a difficult or delicate situation. Derived from the game of cricket, a better understanding of this commonly-used expression pre-supposes an elementary knowledge of this sport – if, indeed, the word ‘sport’ may be used to qualify an activity which my Frenchman describes as ‘more akin to ritualized loafing’. The ‘wicket’ is the name given to the narrow strip of grass where, again according to my Frenchman, ‘most of the little action which characterizes the game’ takes place. On it, a bowler pitches a ball at a hitter who will attempt to strike it with his bat. Unlike baseball, the cricket ball is usually pitched in such a way that it bounces in front of the batter, and when the wicket is ‘sticky’ (i.e. drying out after a fall of rain) the ball can rebound in an unpredictable way, thereby placing the batter in a perilous situation.