DOWN through the centuries the merciless uncertainty of public opinion has chiselled furrows in many a statesman’s brow, but if you would view human instability at its peak, contemplate the world of sport.
Where, for instance, did the grand old game of croquet go? What cured the ping-pong fever? Who buried miniature golf? Where are the quoit tossers? Why did roller skating expire? When did club-swinging and rope-skipping cease to be sport attractions?
Even the world’s oldest games, the Olympic contests of ancient Greece, were wrecked by the whims of capricious public opinion. Long before the Christian era those events were so popular that during the period of competition warfare ceased, sacrifices were offered, city states opened walls to jx-rmit the triumphal return of the champion and national festivals were arranged. Eventually the sporting populace turned “thumbs down’’ and the games ceased.
In 1896, sixteen centuries later, they were revived, and slowly they have increased in popularity until, in Los Angeles last year, more than two million spectators viewed them.
The human element that ruthlessly rejects a popular game does not, however, always revive that sport in later years. This is true of the medieval recreation of archery.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries skilled bowmen were national heroes and archery was the outstanding Old World pastime.
Then something happened and the popularity of this sport was rudely shattered. Today, there are a few archery groups in girls’ schools, universities and clubs; but. with these exceptions, the ruling recreation of five centuries ago is dead.
Sometimes the change takes only a few decades or even years.
Nearly a century ago cricket was so popular in Upper and Lower Canada that teams from England and United States toured the land. All important centres had representative elevens, some cities devoted an entire week to one tournament, wagering was liberal and public interest high.
Twenty-five years ago lacrosse was so greatly esteemed in Canada that civic pride demanded a half-holiday on the afternoon of important games. Attendances of ten thousand invited no special comment, and the welcome accorded a champion team upon its arrival home was so picturesque and eventful that every citizen cherished the memory throughout a lifetime.
Even ten years ago baseball was the popular sixirt of the Canadian fan. Amateur games were well supported, and professional clubs were prosperous in a dozen Canadian cities.
Today the cricketers are comparatively few and only a test team from Australia or England can arouse enthusiasm. The two final lacrosse games which decided the 1932 Canadian championship were viewed by less than 3,(XX) spectators and expenses were barely covered. The only remaining professional baseball clubs,
Toronto and Montreal, suffered such heavy financial losses and received such little support that continuance during 1933 was for a time considered doubtful.
On the other hand the sudden rise of some sports is even more striking. Take softball, for instance.
About fifteen years ago,
youngsters in city parks w'ere playing a mild form of baseball known as playground ball and, later, softball. In its infancy, hardball players laughed at the simple pastime and agreed that it was all right for girls and kiddies. The fans were not attracted to the game either, and most observers gave it about five years to live.
Instead of dying, softball has developed into such a vigorous sport that it would be difficult to find a Canadian town without at least one team. Often there is a town league. The Sunnyside Girls’ leagues in Toronto enjoyed the patronage of 75.000 paying spectators last year, and the games played by a men's senior league in Hamilton attracted 80,000 supporters; while the players are so numerous that the Ontario Amateur Softball Association annually enrolls more than 20,000 boys and men actually engaged in competition.
Celebrities and Showmanship
WHAT PROMPTS these startling alterations in the sporting public’s allegiance?
Many sports decline in the land that gave them birth and prosper in a country that has adopted them. Baseball, for instance, has declined in United States, but is now the most popular sport in Japan. The richest soil for lacrosse grow-th is not in Canada, but in the new fields of Australia, the United States and England. The original Olympics were the national festivals of ancient Greece, but the leaders in the modem revival were Frenchmen. Football is typically British, yet in the South American republics soccer has superseded bull-fighting and its teams have wron world honors. Obviously, national pride hasn’t much to do with the popularity of any given game.
And rule changing seems to be just as ineffective as national pride. Sport laws are constantly being altered. Hockey and rugby have been so changed that the founders would recognize only the puck and the pigskin, while baseball has been so transformed that the sole surviving condition of early baseball is found in the length betw^een bases.
Sport directors may ring out the old laws and ring in the new\ but, after all their efforts, the opinion of the fans will still be an unknown quantity.
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\ Even dishonesty is not certain to more j than temporarily discredit a sport. Track 1 athletics were once a vehicle for the “rack! eteers.” Races were fixed, measurements I falsified and timekeepers bribed ; competii tors bet against themselves, judges were I dishonest, and spiked shoes were gamblers’ j tools. Yet track athletics have never been i “outlawed” by the fans.
Horse racing, too, had its years of chicanery, with doped horses, prearranged results, fraudulent bookies and crooked tipsters. But the followers of this ancient speculation have so forgotten evil influences that, even in 1932 there were 328 days of racing on Canadian tracks, and nearly twenty-nine million dollars were bet on the anticipated results.
Personally, I think that hero worship and the new art of showmanship have a great ! deal to do with fan approval.
Certainly most sport booms have been built around admiration for a champion. A half-century ago. when Ned Hanlan was : outclassing the world’s best oarsmen, rowing regattas attracted many thousands of spectators and young Canadians took to the i boats. After Tom Longboat, the picturesque Indian runner, gained his sensational Marathon victory at Boston, the highways of the Dominion became crowded with lads who hoped to achieve fame similar to that acquired by the galloper from the Caledonia Reserve. The Catalina triumph of George Young inspired a sentiment for Marathon j swimming and made it possible to gather the ! largest crowd that ever watched a sporting I event in Canada. The victory of Percy ¡ Williams at Amsterdam made Canadians ! track-conscious, imparted enthusiasm to the spiked-shoe fraternity and packed thousands : of spectators into stadiums and arenas.
I The 1932 golf conquest of “Sandy” Somer| ville instilled new life into Canadian golf and I created a sympathetic interest in the minds of thousands of non-golfers. Outstanding athletes like Bradman, the Australian cricketer; Cochet, the French tennis wizard; Ruth, the American fence buster; together with the Canadians already mentioned, have been set on pedestals by the hero-worshipiping spx>rt lovers of their respective countries. When their glory is dimmed, then the sentiment dies and the crowds go seeking other games where new champions are being crowned. But while their triumphs live, these idols can and do control the currents of public favor.
Showmanship and ballyhoo can also divert the streams of spxjrt popularity. This is particularly true in wrestling. The style demonstrated by Gotch, Hackenschmidt, Roller and Zbysco a quarter-century back would seem monotonous to the current fan crop). Today, wrestling contests are wellstaged spectacles. No villain in blood-andthunder melodrama ever acted with more apparent cruelty or aroused more welldeserved hisses than the supposedly roughhouse wrestler in the prevailing exhibitions: few vaudeville artists are more export than poesent-day tumblers who por form in wrestling rings; the resin workers of 1933 can break more allegedly unbreakable holds in one hour than the stars of yesterday could in a lifetime. Because of this planning, dramatic ability and showmanship, the pnihlic is enthused; turnstiles are creaking with the rapidity of an unlatched gate in a cyclone, and the wrestling attendance in Ontario during 1932 was just 250 por cent in j excess of that of 1931.
So with bicycle racing. For many years I six-day podalling was a stranger in the Canadian sports family. During its absence from the arenas of the Dominion, this game was all dressed up). Certain hours of the day are set apart for sprints, and the winners of i these splints are awarded joints. Each day the last team in the race is droppxxi; the
leadership changes freely; after riding for 113 hours and travelling more than 2,400 miles, half a dozen teams are likely to be so closely bunched that the last hour of riding decides the winners. Regardless of the evident impx)ssibility of six or more teams journeying a distance greater than that from Halifax to Regina while rubbing each others' shoulders, the fact remains that, because of the staging, the public likes the show so well that on a final night the crowds line up) for blocks seeking admission.
And yet there is reason to believe that the most forceful influence in the killing or developing of a game is science.
The Effect of Science
“THE INVENTION of gunpowder and I guns destroyed archery; highway and automotive engineers have made golf. Sixty J years ago there were few golf clubs in Canada. Then applied science pDroduced motor cars, and when they became the px>pular means of transpx)rtation the owners no longer secured their usual exercise, the roads became too congested for walking, and so the business man was compDelled to ' join a golf club.
Electrical engineers, too, may alter our I spx)rt maps. In Canada and the United States baseball games played on week-day afternoons have suffered in attendance because workers cannot afford to lose the time and money involved ingoing to the stadiums. Electric lighting experts hope, therefore, to make night as bright as day. Then the worker with his family can attend a night game as they would the theatre. Already the engineers are producing results, and many clubs in the States have been restored to prosperous conditions. In Toronto. London and Vancouver such games as girls’ ! softball, lacrosse and rugby have been j successful in their night-time ventures— thanks to electrical science.
And as with gunpx)wder. motor cars and arc lights, so with artificial refrigeration.
Until ten years ago the playing of hockey was largely dependent upx)n the mood of Old King Weather. When temperatures were low ice was naturally keen, but in late winter, when the most important finals were contested, the mercury sneaked up in the tube and matches of supreme importance were decided on a surface where slush was so pronounced that only shinny could be played. Indeed, on many occasions games were advertised and thousands of tickets sold, but until the referee blew his whistle the fans did not know whether or not they : would see a hockey game.
Then about a decade back, refrigeration ! engineers produced artificial ice. At once 1 hockey conditions changed. Players skated earlier, played longer and were assured of uniform ice throughout the season. Patrons j no longer dressed like Eskimos, for outdoor j tempxratures had little effect on comfortably : heated arenas; players’ salaries and club franchises trebled in value; ice plants blossomed all over the country. Enthusiasm for hockey has become so abundant that, in Toronto, for instance, on two successive March Saturdays nearly 25.000 fans paid admissions to afternoon and evening hockey games. Even in these times.
So p)erhap)s. after all, the most px)werful influences governing sp)ort px)pularitv derive from the efforts of the scientists who play j with test tubes and battle with slide-rules.
Are their efforts now exhausted? Hardly, ! for the effect of radio broadcasting and the development of television op)en up p)ossibilities that challenge the most fantastic imagination and even suggest the thought that some day playing fields may lack accommodation for spectators and the fan i in Vancouver will be as near to the play as the enthusiast in Halifax. Who can tell?
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