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Guttmann Classification Essay

Modern sports have demonstrated some primary characteristics that make them specifically modern; these can be best understood in contrast to earlier forms of sports. To understand the differences between older and modern-day sports, it is necessary to recognize the changing nature of the society in which those sports forms are a part. Allen Guttmann has carefully classified the earliest forms of sport in 1978. Several typologies have been developed offering a valuable classification of the features of the modern-day sport. “The main achievement of the Guttman classification is that it highlights, in an illuminating comparative framework, the specificity of the nature of sport in different and distinctive social contexts” (Horne et al 1999).

The framework that Guttmann produced, attempts to establish how sports cultures and forms diverge across time, from primitive times to the present. Guttman believes that sport is socially constructed and not a chronological event or societal occurrence. Throughout this essay, I am going to describe the Guttman classification of the characteristics of modern sport. The seven key features of the classification are secularism, equality, rationalism, bureaucracy, specialization, quantification and records. The insight of the classifications will be applied to the development of a sport, this being Rugby Union.

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Secularism- “Not bound by the religious rule”. In many of the early cultures physical and sporting activities could not be seen as separate from religion. Gradually over the centuries sport became more secular as society increasingly lost its older form of worship. “Today many people argue that modern-day sport acts a new form of religion or quasi-religion” (Wesson et al 2000). To be in agreement with Guttmann, modern sports are no longer related to religious beliefs; they are simply a means of entertainment rather than a means of worship. Religion is sacred and supernatural, sport is profane and material, religion is a spirit of service and love for others, sport is the spirit of self-achievement at the expense of others. I must emphasize that religious values have had little control over the development of rugby unions. However, this does not deny the present trend where many athletes see their prowess as god-given or that they are competing for spiritual reasons.

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Equality – “a person or thing equal to another, esp in rank status or characteristic quality”. This characteristic could include gender, class, religion and race issues. The rugby gospel was spread by the public school and university players in the guise of colonial service officials who took with the message that was a “game for ruffians played by gentlemen” (Ian Morrisson 1998). This suggests a class distinction, as those attending these establishments would have been from a more privileged and prosperous background, thus giving an unfair advantage over those less fortunate. Modern-day rugby is based on the idea that participation should not be regulated by birthrights or social backgrounds and that every player should be set the same competitive conditions; that everyone begins competing as an equal regardless of who they are or where they are from.

Rationalism- “the practice of treating reason as the basis of belief and knowledge” The characteristic “Rationalism, is present in modern sports through complex rules and strategies” (Horne et al 1999). In the game’s infancy, there was a need to standardize the game’s first set of rules and strategies. These were set up at Rugby school in 1846. A need to control the rapidly spreading game saw the inaugural meeting at the Pall Mall Restaurant in 1871. Here the Rugby Football Union was founded. The sport’s first governing body was so well organized and dominant that within ten years of its formation it has instituted as some of the game’s top strategies. More recently, in order to make the game more interesting and entertaining, points were increased from 3 to 5 to give the players further incentive to score tries.

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Bureaucracy- “a state of the organization”. Guttman states “modern sports are controlled through the establishment of complex organizations at international, national and regional levels” (Horne et al 1999). Since 1871 the RFU has been working for the game of rugby. The RFU was originally developed to standardize a set of rules and laws. From here on the RFU’s mission statement was to promote and develop the game within the community so as to encourage optimum participation and enjoyment at every level. The RFU has certainly achieved this. The governing body is commercially and financially one of the strongest unions in the world. There are over 200,000 games organized under the auspices of the RFU. Recently the RFU has set new standards for refereeing and aims to provide qualified referees for every level of the game.

The marketing structure of the RFU operates at all levels, selling the game, and maximizing income, which is used to support the game. At present, the RFU has set up charities to look after players, from injuries to the support of youth etc. Specialization- “adapt or set apart a particular area of interest for a particular purpose”. Guttman considers “specialization and professionalization as the same thing” (Horne et al 1999). Before 1995 rugby union was classed as an amateur sport. Essentially the IRB (international Rugby Board) has been dominated by worthy English gentlemen who adhered implacably to their cherished amateur principles. But as the demands grew, increased media attention, amount of training required etc, increasing pressure was applied, by the Southern Hemisphere unions, in particular, to allow players payments.

Quantification- “express as a quantity. Modern sports are steeped in measurements and statistics. Everything that can be reduced to time, distance, or score is measured and recorded. Standards of achievement are discussed clearly measurable terms, and statistics, are used as proof of achievement. The media has added to the level of quantification in rugby unions. The trend is evident in newspapers, radio, websites and television, you are shown the number of tackles made, tackles missed, handling errors, kicks and scrums etc. Records- “the best performance in sport and most remarkable event of its kind”. Guttman would imply modern sports involve an emphasis on setting and breaking records. Performances are compared between events so that there are published records for teams within organizations, leagues and committees.

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Most importantly are world records. Individual sports need to achieve records as it is valid towards the end result. A sprinter needs to get world record timings in order to be a winner and known as a successful athlete. Team sports do not rely on measurements or timings; instead, they use statistics, which suggests less need to strive records. Rugby union records can be found in the Guinness Book of Records, for example, most world cup wins, highest transfer fees, biggest crowd etc. Modern sports are different from sports in other epoch. In no other time of period did sport exhibit these seven qualities. In summary, sport is not as old as the human race. The structure-function and meaning of modern sport are radically different from the activities, games and sports of earlier time periods. The structure and function not only differ throughout history but also vary across contemporary societies.


  • The Understanding of Sport – Horne et al. 1999
  • Sport and P.E- Wesson et al 2000
  • Play the Game of Rugby- Ian Morrison 1998
  • Rugby and all that- Martin Johnson 2000
  • Guinness Book of Records- 2000
  • Rugby’s New Age Travellers- Stuart Barnes 1997

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