Sports: The First Five Millennia by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is an ambitious project: telling the history of five millennia of sport—and doing so in about 350 pages. And ultimately, it is unrealistic. There is a lot of interesting and fascinating information here, but it is, necessarily, too often superficial, without sufficient context, and skimmed over. There are passages where it turns into the proverbial just one damned thing after another. Dates and names fly at you, interspersed with occasionally amusing or telling anecdotes. As much as I liked the idea of tracing the history of sport from prehistoric communities up to today, there was just too much information with too little space.
There are, nonetheless, many positives to the book. The author, Allen Guttmann, does a good job of including multiple perspectives. There is very rarely any sense that he has an ideological ax to grind. Guttmann also makes sure to bring in sport from a broad range of differing social classes and groups. The role of women in the history of sport was frequently highlighted—though obviously there are many more opportunities in the modern world for women in sport, women have in nearly every culture and every era been involved in some kind of sport.
I most enjoyed the first part of the book where Guttmann focuses on the sport of ancient cultures. He looks, of course, at the Greeks, but also cultures across the globe. He discusses various theories about how sport developed in these societies: from what they evolved and how they become what we might recognize as sport. This is the most interesting and recommendable part of the book. The discussion of sport in the middle ages was also intriguing. Where things start to get bogged down is when Guttmann moves more into the modern period.
Guttmann is a widely respected historian of sport, and I am certainly going to look at his more focused books. I am not sure I’d recommend this book, however. It unfortunately comes too close to turning into a fleshed out timeline.
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