The Wimbledon trophy following Novak Djokovic’s victory over Roger Federer, London, 2014.
The Wimbledon trophy following Novak Djokovic’s victory over Roger Federer, London, 2014. Keystone / Ben Curtis

Sport and colonialism 

What do pineapples have to do with the sport of tennis? Enough for one to sit atop the world-famous Wimbledon gentlemen’s singles trophy. The cup, which has been presented to each successive winner of the Championships since 1887, is adorned with a small pineapple at its peak. This is connected with the colonial history of sport.

Manda Beck / Michael Jucker

Manda Beck / Michael Jucker

Manda Beck and Michael Jucker work at Swiss Sports History, the platform for sports history in Switzerland, at the University of Lucerne.

European nations conquered large areas of the globe from the 16th to 20th centuries. The spread of colonialism not only entailed the military subjugation and economic exploitation of the colonised peoples, it also involved the settlement of the colonised territories and the debasement of the local ethnic culture. The imposition of the Western way of life and the mission to ‘civilise’ the indigenous peoples was a key driver during this period. The colonial powers would later seek to legitimise their actions by developing theories they referred to as ‘race science’ and attempt to demonstrate that the native inhabitants of the colonies were ‘backward’ in various areas of life. This can be seen particularly in the proliferation of various types of sport. Great Britain was the foremost sporting and colonial power, and thus played a major role in the spread of sports internationally. In the mid-19th century, the British exported their modern sporting pursuits across the globe, including the ‘gentlemen’s game’ of cricket in which the players strive to adhere to the virtues of fair play and discipline. That is one reason why this particular sport became a crucial part of Britain’s social and cultural policy in the colonies. However, cricket also served the colonial British as a marker of their identity. As a game primarily associated with the aristocratic elite, it allowed the members of the colonial administration to perpetuate their British way of life and set themselves apart from the locals. They founded clubs where they could mix with their own kind and celebrate their heritage and supposed superiority over the excluded colonials. Initially, matches were a purely British affair, but the locals later started to set up their own teams. Given the considerable prowess of the British in the sport, they saw playing the newly established teams as another opportunity to demonstrate their superior standing.
An Indian police cricket group, Amritsar, 1934.
An Indian police cricket group, Amritsar, 1934. British Library, Photo 348/(5)
The expansion of cricket and other British sports such as football, rugby and tennis is a manifestation of the colonial mindset that resulted in Western customs and habits being forced on people in the colonies and Western sports being taken up worldwide. In a positive light, it can be seen as a cultural proliferation, standardisation and globalisation of sport and its values, with the same rules applying all over the world. Viewed negatively, it represented the imposition of Western lifestyles and leisure pursuits ‒ a cultural and sporting monoculture inflicted on the colonies. Missionaries, officials and teachers considered sport as a means to instil values such as discipline, camaraderie and courage in the local population. This was fuelled by the notion that the colonies had to be ‘educated and disciplined’. What’s more, athletes participating in the Commonwealth Games were required to swear their allegiance to the crown. No consideration was given to regional and local sports, such as lamb (Senegalese wrestling) or wushu (Chinese martial arts), or to native moral values and customs. At the same time, it must be noted that the sports exported by the former British Empire have given rise to the pursuit of a very different kind of identity politics since decolonisation: the ethnically diverse New Zealand rugby team, for example, likes to intimidate its opponents at the start of every international match by performing the haka, a traditional Maori war dance. And South Africa, the reigning world titleholder, also likes to celebrate the diversity of the rainbow nation and its traditions.
The All Blacks performing the haka at the Rugby World Cup final in New Zealand in 2011. Youtube
In some cases, the balance of power has changed ‒ at least on the playing field. In the middle of October this year, Afghanistan chalked up its first-ever victory over former colonial power England at the Cricket World Cup in India. The British media were suitably shocked. This historic upset was simply unthinkable for most English commentators, who do not yet appear to have moved away from the old colonial mindset. Afghanistan was only admitted to the elite ranks of the Test playing nations in 2017. Test cricket is the highest form of cricket, played at international level in a match lasting up to five days. The list of participating nations consists of former British colonies, from Ireland to New Zealand to the West Indies. There are no teams from the African or American continents with Test status.
Map with the Test cricket nations displayed in red.
Map with the Test cricket nations displayed in red. Wikimedia
Colonialist and racist stereotypes stubbornly persist in the sporting world to this day, although they are far less prevalent now than during the colonial era. In the 1980s, when the best middle distance runners hailed from the United Kingdom, this was put down to high-quality training and a long tradition of running. Later, when more and more black athletes from the USA, Jamaica and African nations began winning, the British and others sought to explain this by referring to the genetic advantages and disadvantages of ‘race’. In the meantime, science has shown that there is no such thing as distinct human ‘races’. While there may be minimal genetic differences between us, factors such as where a person lives, where they come from and what kind of economic conditions they live in have a much greater impact on that individual’s physical ability.
800 metres race at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Athletes Mohamed Makhlouf, Sebastian Coe, Archfell Musango and Jimmy Massallay are pictured shortly after the start (from left to right).
800 metres race at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Athletes Mohamed Makhlouf, Sebastian Coe, Archfell Musango and Jimmy Massallay are pictured shortly after the start (from left to right). Wikimedia
Nevertheless, we continue to speak about markets, deals and transfers in the world of football. African players are considered talented, but many Western trainers still think of them as having to be ‘tamed and disciplined’. And in African countries themselves, hundreds of thousands of young footballers dream from an early age of being signed by a European club. For a few of them, that dream will come true with the help of obscure intermediaries. But most will get pushed around from club to club like modern slaves and end up playing in the lower leagues of Eastern Europe before being threatened with deportation when they are past their sell-by date or have to end their career due to injury. Is it possible to imagine a sporting world entirely free of colonialism? This is an area which has not yet been sufficiently researched. It is high time that we took another look at the globalisation driven by the British Empire and other imperialist states, as well as by global trade, against the backdrop of sports history. Plimsolls and rubber balls are major innovations in the sporting world, along with pneumatic tyres for racing bikes and cars, but they would be inconceivable without the colonies: the colonial journey of rubber into the world of sport and its later synthesisation and vulcanisation still remain to be explored. But it is surely no coincidence that John Boyd Dunlop, the former veterinary surgeon who invented the first inflatable tyres, would go on to build a global racing tyre empire from Ireland, which was under British rule at the time. The Dunlop company became an important name in sport, and is still known today for its tennis racquets and balls.
Advert for Dunlop tennis balls.
Advert for Dunlop tennis balls. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Back to the pineapple on top of the Wimbledon trophy. No-one has ever confirmed exactly why it is there. The general theory is that it is attributable to pineapples being a symbol of wealth. The fruit originates from South America and was conveyed by seafarers during the colonial era to other tropical regions of the world, where it started being cultivated. Due to its highly perishable nature, it was almost impossible for those living in northern climes to get their hands on the fruit while it was still edible. In other words, it was a treat to which only the nobility could aspire. It was not successfully cultivated in greenhouses in Europe until the end of the 17th century: first in the Netherlands, then Great Britain. Hothouses were extremely expensive to build and costly to run, and it took three years before the pineapples were ready for harvesting. And then there was the hefty price tag when it came to buying one. All of which fits nicely with the image of tennis at that time as a sport for the elite.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at

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