By the early 1900s some well established spectator sports already had major organised events during the year which amounted to a season in or near London. These have continued throughout the twentieth century: the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race on the Thames in March, the Derby Day horse race at Epsom in April, the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships in July. They are still well attended and popular events a century later and with television coverage are viewed by even more people today.
During the twentieth century there was a gradual change from the 'gentleman amateur' tradition that had dominated most Victorian sports to a new professionalism, but this varied considerably between different sports. At the start of the twentieth century, the leading national sport in England (though not the rest of the UK) was cricket. It was already organised on a county basis, which in London meant the Middlesex County Cricket Club at Lord's in St John's Wood and the Surrey County Cricket Club at the Kennington Oval. These two venues continue to dominate today and are still run as rather exclusive private clubs. In 1903 the MCC had 5000 members, with many more hoping to join, and it could attract crowds of 30,000 to matches at Lord's. By its very drawn out nature cricket is a game attended by the leisured classes more than those who have to put in a full day's work. Despite its upper class associations, cricket has remained widely popular and, through its British Empire and Commonwealth links, it became London's major international sport long before football.
Professional football in England was largely a northern game before 1914, but all the current London clubs had been established by then. It was very much an urban working class game and team support at that time was highly territorial. If you lived in the East End you supported West Ham or Leyton Orient; in west London it would be Chelsea, Fulham, QPR or Brentford. Two clubs which had started as works teams moved grounds before 1914: Millwall, originally the works team of a jam and tinned food company on the Isle of Dogs, moved south of the river in 1910; Arsenal, starting as the works team at the Woolwich Arsenal, moved north of the river to Highbury in 1913.
The 1901 Cup Final, played at Crystal Palace, was the first ever football match to be filmed and drew an unprecedented crowd of 110,820 probably because London's top club of the time, Tottenham Hotspur, were playing.
The match was a draw, but Spurs beat Sheffield United 3-1 at the replay. Since 1923 the usual venue for the Cup Final has been Wembley Stadium, turning this north west London suburb into the home of English football. Another London club, West Ham, lost the first Wembley final but they and other London teams have had many cup victories since. Football was already the major form of male entertainment in Britain before the First World War, and it has remained so ever since. In the late twentieth century, television coverage and rising interest in the World Cup as the biggest single sport international event have encouraged rather than diminished this phenomenon. The irony is that although team and territorial loyalties have remained as fierce as ever, by the end of the twentieth century very few of the players for the top London football clubs were born Londoners. Even local football has become truly international and multicultural.
No other individual sport has achieved the popularity of football in twentieth century London. The city has hosted huge sporting events like the third modern Olympics at White City in 1908 and the 1948 Olympics at Wembley, though neither of these had any lasting impact on London. Many different sporting activities have had periods of rise and fall, partly through association with particular social groups and often depending on the cost of participation. Boxing, for example, has always been a working class East End sport and tennis remains very middle class though not, of course, confined to Wimbledon and the south west suburbs. Golf was very much an aspirational and exclusive suburban sport in the 1920s, and the maps promoting new commuter housing estates in Metro-land always included little flags to show their proximity to golf clubs.
By contrast, a new spectator sport that first came to London in the same period was resolutely populist and open to all: greyhound racing. It was an instant success because going to the dogs offered the only legal outlet for cash betting accessible to punters who could not take time off work to go to race courses but could go out for an evening. Attendances fell steadily from the 1950s and by the end of the century only five major dog tracks survived in London. Speedway motor cycle racing had a similar period of rise and fall in London, starting in the 1920s, incredibly popular in the 1930s and 40s but declining to just one main venue by the 1990s.
Swimming became extremely popular with Londoners of all classes when nearly every local council opened indoor baths at the start of the century. Outdoor lidos were briefly fashionable in the inter-war years, and although most of the London lidos were facing closure by the 1980s there are signs of an outdoor revival at the start of the 21st century. Even indoor pools were being closed by local councils in the 1990s as they faced financial cutbacks and a large proportion of inner London children still leave school unable to swim. In the 1970s there was a trend for councils to build multi-purpose leisure centres including sports halls, gyms and sometimes an indoor pool but by the 1990s it was private health and leisure clubs that were booming in London. Personal fitness was promoted as a part of a fashionable lifestyle, but participation came at a price.
The cheapest ways to keep fit in the city, which both became popular in the late twentieth century, are cycling and jogging. In the 1930s there were an estimated two million cyclists in Greater London. Numbers declined as car ownership rose in the 1960s and 70s, but Londoners have recently rediscovered cycling both for work and leisure on a huge scale. Jogging has also boomed since the 1970s and has led to the most pectacular popular sporting success of all in the modern metropolis, the London Marathon. Started by former athlete Chris Brasher in 1981, this has become the world's biggest annual charity fundraising event. It is also the most inclusive of all sporting occasions because virtually anyone can participate. In 1981 7,747 entrants were accepted for the first London Marathon; twenty years later it was, astonishingly, more than half a million.
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