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May the Best Man Win

Review by: Dr. Shane McCorristine, University College, Dublin

Patrick F. McDevitt, May the Best Man Win: Sport, Masculinity, and Nationalism in Great Britain and the Empire, 1880-1935, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Sport takes place in a discursive playing field where notions of identity, gender, and nationalism are invented, disseminated, and challenged. In May the Best Man Win, Patrick McDevitt, an Associate Professor at the University of Buffalo, seeks to examine these constructions during the long crisis of masculinity that affected the British Empire in the decades before and after World War I. As befitting a study of male-dominated sport in the British Empire, McDevitt’s scope is satisfyingly varied, with essays on the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Ireland, polo in India, and boxing in the dominions, as well as two connected chapters on the Bodyline Affair in cricket. Throughout his narrative McDevitt takes pains to ‘analyze the processes through which the British propagated and colonial subjects shared and contested imperial sporting values and the varied nature of imperial masculinities thus produced’ (4).

Opening with the well-known crisis of masculinity that struck Britain following the Anglo-Boer War, McDevitt explores how sport intervened in debates about what ‘made a man’ in the age of Muscular Christianity. The trouncing that British rugby teams received at the hands of the Springboks in the winter of 1906 was a watershed in how sporting engagements between Britain and its dominions placed the perceived degeneration of the male centre-stage. Coming hot on the heels of imperial concern over the apparent declining strength of the average British male, similar defeats to New Zealand in rugby and Australia in cricket did little to engender masculine confidence in an imperial sporting discourse that was saturated with Social Darwinist assumptions about the pre-eminence of the Anglo-Saxon male in a multiethnic Empire. While dominion victories against Britain served to solidify their status as equals, the emergence of the GAA in Ireland at the turn of the nineteenth century demonstrated how sport could also be used in a counter-hegemonic manner that challenged the notion of imperial unity.

Notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority were further subverted by the emergence of the GAA in Ireland. McDevitt shows how the British ideals of discipline, strength, and endurance were mirrored in the strongly masculine ethos of the GAA. Gaelic Athletics proposed a native masculinity that would banish the spectre of the Great Famine and British racism regarding the infantile, lazy, and ‘unfit’ status of Irishmen. The specifically manly-nationalist underpinnings of the GAA meant that women, Anglo-Saxons, and non-Gaels (i.e. Irishmen who served in the British forces) were excluded from the creation of an independent Irish identity through sporting excellence and virility.

The case of polo in British India demonstrates another aspect of what was understood as ‘manliness’ in an imperial sporting context. Polo was a traditional Indian game that was standardised and maniacally taken up by the British officer caste to such an extent that whole regiments were expected to fund representatives in what was an inordinately expensive sport. For the British, polo was a prestigious sport that epitomized the elite male: poise, skill, horsemanship, class. In an example of how ideology refereed imperial sport, McDevitt demonstrates how the Indian Princes were considered real men of quality through their success at polo. This was in contrast to the non-polo playing Indian nationalists who were derided as the “miserable weeds of clerkly sons”, unmanly, effete, and incapable of self-governance (57). These racist attitudes came to the fore during boxing matches between black men and Anglo-Saxons across the Empire. Black champion boxers such as Peter Felix and Jack Johnson were despised in Australia for their perceived flashiness, arrogance, and sexual threat. On the other hand, West Indian- born Peter Jackson, refered to as “the whitest black man that ever lived” by W.J. Doherty, was widely respected for his humility and for the fact that he did not pursue white women.

In the Bodyline Affair of 1932-33, the English cricket team reclaimed the Ashes from Australia by adopting controversial fast-bowling tactics that gave them victory. These tactics, however, severely threatened relations between Britain and its closest dominion. The ensuing debate opened up issues of class, race, and nationalism that were all argued through the language of masculinity. When the Australians complained that fast balls delivered towards the body were dangerous and not in the spirit of the game, the English argued that this demonstrated the effeminacy and cowardice of Australian cricketers when faced with superior manliness of amateurs (i.e. gentlemen cricketers). As McDevitt argues, it was only when the West Indian team (with their famous black fast-bowlers) sought to prove their manhood by adopting Bodyline bowling against England in 1933 that it was decided that such tactics were not in the spirit of the game. McDevitt convincingly argues that such moments show how sport came to define what was meant by ‘manliness’ in the British Empire.

McDevitt’s May the Best Man Win: Sport, Masculinity, and Nationalism in Great Britain and the Empire, 1880-1935 is manageable and concise, despite what its lengthy title might suggest. The author selects interesting case studies from a variety of sports that illustrate the importance of masculinity in examining how sport is contested in political contexts. May the Best Man Win is an excellent introduction to a subject that will appeal to scholars interested in the histories of sport, imperialism, and gender.

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