However different in their particulars, officially promoted sports and athletics programs can be loosely grouped into four functional categories. Physical training programs featured mandatory athletic activities, often specialized, that were intended to develop physical and psychological fitness for military service as part of routine duty. Recreational athletic programs supported morale, discipline, and physical fitness through voluntary—but often heavily encouraged—leisure activities. Mass-participation sports programs employed competition as a means to foster physical and psychological fitness while improving morale and esprit de corps. Both recreational athletics and mass-participation sports programs were often deliberately promoted as alternatives to less beneficial pursuits. Finally, elite spectator sports programs provided morale-boosting entertainment while encouraging more active participation in sports and athletic pursuits.
Britain established the Army Sport Control Board in 1918 to govern an expanding number of military sports associations, thus regulating and promoting recreational athletics, mass participation, and spectator sports programs. The board supplemented efforts by the Army Physical Training Corps and its staff of instructors from the Army School of Gymnastics at Aldershot to promote uniform physical training throughout the British army. When Britain entered World War II, it boasted an established and centralized program of military sports and athletics.
Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa followed the British model to various degrees. France had its own apparatus for regulating physical training and promoting recreational athletics. The armies of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden each promoted physical training, recreational athletics, and participant and spectator sports. But Japan may have reaped the earliest substantive benefit from such programs, as it began fighting in China in 1937.
The Japanese armed forces featured systematic physical training and some forms of competitive sport. Physical training played a particularly important role in the development of Japanese fighter pilots. A program of gymnastics, diving, and trampoline exercises incorporated into the lengthy flight training process theoretically improved a pilot's ability to remain oriented and under control during violent aerial maneuvers. While the material contributions of such physical and mental conditioning to the early success of Japanese aviation are anecdotal, the rigorous and unparalleled training did contribute to the mystique and esprit de corps of Japanese fighter pilots early in the war. As the United States began mobilization, American flight training programs responded by adopting some of the same techniques.
U.S. military personnel were the beneficiaries of programs formally established following World War I. Both the army and navy trained all officers to lead physical training, sports, and athletic activities as part of their routine duties. Specially trained instructors supplemented the officers' efforts, benefiting from the expansion of military athletic facilities undertaken as relief projects during the Great Depression. As the nation mobilized, the growing network of military posts offered such facilities in accordance with both official regulations and public expectations. American men and women entering wartime service generally viewed themselves as civilians temporarily in uniform rather than as military personnel, and their government went to great lengths to support that view by providing them with familiar civilian comforts. These included provisions for sports and athletics.
As a result, Americans, perhaps more than the people of any other nation, created an extensive sporting infrastructure that extended to frontline areas. Facilities and equipment for baseball, basketball, and other favored sports became commonplace, and American military newspapers devoted substantial space to sports coverage. That coverage linked soldiers and the home front by including major civilian sporting events. Some concessions had to be made, however; American football, with its substantial equipment requirements and high risk of injury, was deliberately deemphasized in the U.S. military during the war.
Despite some controversy, American professional sports continued through the war to support both military and civilian morale and to promote civilian physical fitness. The health, stamina, and strength of civilian workers were significant concerns to fully mobilized nations. Both the programs and the propaganda efforts of the Soviet Union and Germany demonstrate that concern was not limited to the democratic combatants. Germany, in particular, employed an athleticism to support nationalism and the National Socialist ideology, a famous factor in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Sport also contributed to the cohesion of Allied forces. Both formal and informal competitions flourished when military forces came into close contact. In North Africa, for example, British, French, and American servicemen shared an interest in boxing. Competitions in boxing and other sports, coordinated by an Allied Sports Commission, followed the advance from North Africa through Italy. This social interaction and less formal athletic competition promoted an awareness of common interests and shared participation in the war.
Sports and athletics provided the same unifying function within national or imperial forces. The cultural ties of the British Empire found expression in the shared sporting interests of its military forces. Within the U.S. armed forces, sport provided a venue to express common interests and culture despite gender and racial segregation. Although programs generally reflected gender and racial segregation policies, the shared interest, language, and experience of sports and athletics reinforced American nationalism just as it highlighted the common experiences of the British Empire.
Jeffery A. Charlston
Campbell, J. D. "Training for Sport Is Training for War: Sport and the Transformation of the British Army, 1860–1914." International Journal of the History of Sport 17, no. 4 (December 2000): 21–58.; Charlston, Jeffery A. "Disorganized and Quasi-Official but Eventually Successful: Sport in the U.S. Military, 1814–1914." International Journal of the History of Sport 19, no. 4 (December 2002): 70–88.; Wakefield, Wanda. Playing to Win: Sports and the American Military 1898–1945. Albany: State University of New York, 1997.