The UK is celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 70th birthday as Head of the Commonwealth.
As many know (possibly through the Netflix biopic The crown) the Queen ascended the throne in 1952 after the sudden death of her father King George VI.
For seven decades, her family members regularly presented themselves as enthusiastic (upper-class) athletes, but also as respected patrons of more popular (working-class) sporting events. In short, sport was a significant feature of their rule.
The social and political conditions of the early 1950s drove a core characteristic of contemporary sport: the quest to push the boundaries of human possibility. In an upcoming BBC Sportshour In this segment, sports journalist Caroline Barker, sports historian Jean Williams and I discuss the Queen’s relationship with sport – and how 21st century sport found its roots in the early days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
No more fading empire
In sporting terms, two of the most important moments in breaking human barriers happened early in Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
On the day of the Queen’s coronation, news reached the British Isles that New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay scaled Mount Everest for the first time on behalf of their empire. And less than a year later, Roger Bannister broke the mythical four-minute-mile barrier at a track in Oxford.
These demonstrations of ultimate human physical achievement set in motion the drive for incremental or marginal gains that currently dominates sports science and athletic preparation.
Both events were touted not only as incredible feats demonstrating the capacities of human physical potential, but also as symbols that the UK was no longer a fading and dwindling empire after the devastation of World War II.
While the idea of nations like the United States and the United Kingdom asserting themselves through sporting prowess was not new, Britain’s pivotal role in globalization and the rise of nationalism in a post-World War II geopolitical landscape combined with the explosion in television viewing figures Due to the strategic use by the Queen and sport, international sporting successes became increasingly important.
Sport as a builder of identity
The Soviet Union entered this expanding sports world. In 1952, just months into the Queen’s reign, the Soviet Union took part in the Olympic Games and immediately challenged the international sporting dominance of powerful Americans.
This led to years of Cold War sporting struggles, when international competitions — including the Olympics and events like the 1972 Canadian-Soviet Summit Ice Hockey Series — served as sites for marginal gains as countries armed athletes as their nations’ pseudo-agents.
The use of sport as a tool for national identity and political debate has increased over the past 70 years.
Sport as a tool for social justice
Combining sport’s pursuit of transgression, the intersection of sport and politics, another characteristic of contemporary sport articulated in the earliest days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign: the use of sport as a tool for social justice.
Most famously, Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier five years before the rise of the Queen.
Sports integration continued to expand during the Queen’s early years on the throne, and in 1957 a retired Robinson used his sports platform to stand shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King Jr. as a prominent leader of the civil rights movement. Soon athletes like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King were fighting racial and gender inequality in and through sport.
Over the course of the Queen’s 70-year reign, sport has evolved into a highly technological, politicized, ubiquitous and commercialized entity. In many ways, the sport today is unrecognizable from what it was in 1952.
Current issues dominating sport discourse include weighing limits to technological intervention in sport, sports washing strategies by countries with questionable human rights records, the international sporting arms race, athletes as political influencers, and determining the suitability of athletes like Caster Semenya.
These contemporary sports themes have gradually evolved over the last 70 years. And like sport, the role of the Queen in 2022 is provoking significant critical debates – particularly regarding the monarchy’s proper and functional place in society, as well as the abuse and unequal distribution of resources.
But on the occasion of its platinum anniversary, it provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the complex interdependencies and historical development of not only the British monarchy, but also the changes (for better or worse) in sport, politics and society during its reign.