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History of Fair Play


Sport has been associated with ethics and education right from its birth.

Where does fair play have its roots?

"Fair play means honest and just play. It is a notion that expresses the sports ethics of the 19th century evolved from the atmosphere of the English bourgeois liberalism" – writes László Kun, a Hungarian author in his book about the history of sports.

In the early years of capitalism sport was industrialised. It was not just a leisure time activity any more, it was business. People were feverishly bent on betting. The conditions of victory became ever more important as manipulation of competition had the power to ruin equal chances of winning. Consequently, the precursors of competition rules and regulations were born although the sheer interest in maximising profit actually inspired their creation.

In spite of these tendencies, there was hope for those who believed in the real values of sport. The movement that considered physical education to be a unique educational tool started to arise again.

Finally, in the 19th century the flowering of capitalism and bourgois liberalism saw the development of modern sport and the birth of the notion of fair play. The expression was first used by Shakespeare in his play, 'King John' (in 1597), but it became known and widespread in the 1800s. The 'Young Christian Athlete' and 'Christian Gentleman' of English society, regarded as the ideal in their era, were educated by means of sport which became an invaluable and key tool for shaping personality. Their behaviour was regulated and controlled by the spirit of fair play.

Fair play was an unwritten rule, a moral value that represented the real essence of sport. All kinds of sport. Professional athletes striving for individual success at an international level were expected to have respect for the rules of the game. If someone did not play by them, they ruined the game and destorted the results. Opponents had to be appreciated, the better they were, the more valuable they became. This philosophy ruled out the possibility of chauvinism.

It was very important to have fair play as a moral guide in sport. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, besides the discovery of the educational, health and entertainment functions of sport, significant changes were afoot. Considerable technical developments involving the sports equipment industry were underway and an international system of competitions was created. Clubs and associations were founded worldwide.

At that time a young French visionary stepped onto the stage. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, devoted to education, history and sociology, was the man whose enthusiastic endeavour revived the ancient Olympic Games. He founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894 with the aim of contributing to the building of a better world by educating youth through sport.

He said: "When reviving the Olympics, I did not look near myself but far into the distance. I wanted to give back to today's world, in a sustainable way, an ancient institution, the principles of which were becoming relevant again. "

Pierre de Coubertin was worried about the lack of physical development in his fellow countrymen, and he intended to use the Olympic Games as an inspiration to which he added the educational values of 19th century sport in the way it was being practised in the English schools he visited and admired.

He was convinced that the practice of sport would help fight physical and moral decandence. He firmly believed: "There are not two parts to a man, body and soul; there are three, body, mind and character. Character is not formed by the mind, but primarily by the body. The men of antiquity knew this, and we are painfully relearning it. "

He also emphasised that sport is a universal language and a catalyst for universal harmony capable of bringing people together and teaching them values like mutual respect, solidarity, tolerance and fair play.

The work of Pierre de Coubertin made a huge impact and paved the way for the fair play movement to develop. Nevertheless, sport in the 20th century had to face a number of obstacles.

Social tendencies, world wars, crises, dictatorships, the collision of economic and political interests, chauvinism, nationalism and terrorism swept aside the ideal of fair play both on and off the field. Again, the principle of 'winning at all costs' became dominant and almost the rule. This doctrine led to all kinds of distortions in sport such as brutality, aggressiveness, drug use and racism.

It is well-recognised that sport mirrors society. As a consequence, from time to time the value and expression of fair play may vary from one society to another. The more civilised a society, the higher its moral consciousness and sense of responsibility is likely to be. However, it has been shown time and again that success is considered more important than anything else and may be pursued by any means. Sporting success brings social and financial advantages that are a strong and irresistable temptation to some. Nevertheless, as Pierre de Coubertin too believed: "The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well." Playing fair is more important than victory.

Jean D'Ormesson, a French academician, philosopher and member of the International Fair Play Committee, expressed a fundamental truth when he said: "Morals are manifested more sincerely while playing. (...) Fair play allows us to declare that sport shall not become a manifestation of brutality. Fair play helps sport become a constituent of civilisation. Sport is not about killing, humiliating and breaking the opponent; it is about playing with the opponent so that they can deploy all their human skills. "

Responsible politicians, researchers, influential educationalists, sociologists and scientists of the 21st century collectively realised that sport is much more than the right to enjoy exciting leisure-time activities and preserve health. Sport is an incredible tool to foster and maintain moral values, develop character and shape the body and mind.

More than ever it is vitally important to defend the values intrinsic to sport: respect for oneself and others, solidarity and fair play. Through sport and values like fair play, that encompasses respect, friendship, team spirit, fair competition, sport without doping, respect for both written and unwritten rules, equality, integrity, solidarity, tolerance, care and joy, we can contribute to building a peaceful society and ultimately a better world.