Photo: Image from page 342 of the Encyclopaedia of sport (1897)

Exercise is good for you. Exercise regularly and eat well and you reduce the risks of a catalogue of long term health conditions including obesity, diabetes and mental health problems such as depression. The message has been absorbed; millions of people strap on technological devices that measure their heart rate, count their steps and check how many calories they’ve burnt. Data from sweaty wrists can be collated online and pitched in competition with others, or as a personal target, while the companies that manufacture the gadgets are able to sell more products to us based on the data that we ourselves have generated and submitted. Of course, considering the socioeconomic gradient to ill health, an unpleasant irony is that those that might most benefit from such a contraption are those for whom the costs, both time and financial, are most prohibitive.

This is a modern manifestation of a historical issue, whereby the poorest people have often been systematically excluded from resources relating to sport and fitness. Class divisions in sport have largely related to the split between amateur and professional sportsmanship. One such example is in rowing. Rowing has occupational origins – and was a sport of significance especially in North East England for working class people. Races between professional boatmen drew crowds comparable to those expected at premier football team matches today. Communities worshipped their local heroes, which included ex-pitmen such as Harry Clasper. The sport was conducted by working class men, for working class crowds. However, rowing became increasingly dominated by amateur rowers during the late19th Century. The better resources of wealthier men led to levels of organisation that went well beyond the scope of existing professional clubs and associations, meaning that amateur gentlemen rowers, (who did not, and would not, subsidise their earnings from rowing with cash prizes or wagers), became the stereotype of the sport. Amateur rowing imbibed the ‘Corinthian spirit’ – an ‘especially high standard of sportsmanship’ very much part of the public school sporting ethos, and very exclusionary.

The wealthy were able to colonise a working-class sport which had allowed manual workers to showcase their strength and individuality. Many of these manual workers were on low wages and were unable to afford the annual fees required of the burgeoning amateur clubs. Additionally, men such as those in collieries in North East England – such as the knights of the black diamond – often worked six day weeks, leaving only the Sabbath for leisure activities. The increased regulation and bureaucratisation of the sport began by disallowing professional rowers to race in regattas, and then prohibited amateur rowers from mixed (professional and amateur) clubs from racing. This resulted in professional rowing clubs struggling to afford the upkeep of boats and boathouses – especially as they could only race each other and were no longer patronised by the wealthy – who now supported the amateur teams and events. In the years following the Second World War, rowing races for money had all but ended.

But this issue did not just affect rowing. All working class sports tended to be affected by periodic crack downs by local authorities on wagering and betting. Colliery men and miners would also often compete in bowls and quoits competitions, but were regularly deprived of green space on which to play, amidst accusations of immoral gambling. Here we see moralising on the conditions of poverty functioning as a tool for social control.

Fast forwarding to the turn of the 21st century, and access to sport is still subject to limitation. Despite high hopes of a Paralympic and Olympic legacy from the 2012 games, that would have rid sports of their elitist stereotypes and engaged a new generation – (a happy coincidence of which would be reduced levels of (childhood) obesity and related health issues). Instead we have witnessed an extensive reduction in the availability of municipal sporting facilities, not as a result of accusations of immorality – though there are plenty of those – but in response to top down cuts from national government. Leisure centres and community swimming pools, alongside libraries, were some of the first casualties of reduced Local Authority budgets in the UK, limiting exercise for both the body and mind particularly for disadvantaged populations. Scotland has seen cuts to important, and relatively low cost sports such as badminton and table tennis. Extracurricular school activities, which are strongly represented by sport and exercise are likely to be the first costs cut as a result of schools working to reduced per-student budgets – though the government has at present committed to spending the proceeds of an increased ‘sugar tax’ on sport in schools. Adults interested in sport and exercise face even more limitations than children, who generally are able to access some physical education at school. A collection of barriers to some adults wishing to lose weight, join a sports team or access group exercise reflect those faced by their Victorian working class counterparts. The continuing issue of people facing in-work poverty results in people short of money, time and energy. Those working shifts, or long but inconsistent hours on zero-hour contracts are unable to commit to set times for classes or team sports, nor can they afford the costs associated with them.

Where does accountability fall for those unable to access adequate sporting and exercise facilities? A recurring theme from the Victorian era is that of individual responsibility. Those that are in poverty, those that are unemployed (and now those that are obese?) are blamed for their own poor circumstances. The narrative of deservingness can also be observed in discourse around health; whether smokers should have to pay for their own treatment, or whether the NHS should fund weight loss surgery, and around welfare benefits; whether certain individuals are ill enough, or worthy enough to receive state support. Those on long term sick that dare to do something active face the risk of being shopped by their neighbours for benefit fraud at the encouragement of a blame and shame agenda that shows no sign of weakening – moralising the conditions of poverty and policing engagement with sport.

We find ourselves again reflecting on the systematic exclusion of particular groups from resources which they are then blamed for not adequately accessing. The combination of increasingly restrictive working practices, and reduction of local and community resources reflects a Victorian distinction between those able to engage with sport and leisure activities and those unable to. Repeated across history is the blame then attached to those deemed too feckless and too lazy to look after their own health and personal accountability is applied to people for whom access to particular resources was never an option.