29 May 2015

Winners never Quoit: The Decline of an Ancient Game

The development of modern sport is of great interest. Why have some sports made great strides towards global significance, and others fallen by the wayside? Why is Football (Soccer) played in just about every corner of every nation of the world, while certain folk sports seemingly never got out of the borough?
Meticulously researched

Over the past few weeks I've been reading Neil Tranter's meticulously researched book 'Sport, Economy and Society in Britain 1750-1914', and have spotted a curious trend.

In the book there are regular descriptions of the changing nature of a host of pastimes. The general flow of the text suggests, as time goes by, a shift of body and movement cultures from play, through games, to sports. And alongside this shift it seems that a range of symbiotic activities attach themselves to these emergent sport forms: gambling, patronage, even commercial sponsorship.

What surprises me however is that all of the sports mentioned in the book are very much alive and well (in one form or another) today. Except for one. Horse riding, football (soccer), cricket etc. have all survived the test of time, and indeed have been transformed into international or global sports. But where has quoiting gone?

Quoits, or quoiting, has been played in Britain at least since the arrival of the Romans. It has been a game linked with pubs since the 12th century, and English kings have even outlawed the practice.

So, what are the reasons for the decline of Quoiting?

I want to suggest a handful of reasons for the decline in the game since the late 1800s, as well as give a possible explanation for its failure to reach beyond the shores of the British Isles.

In the era when most other sports were 'taking off' (to borrow a phrase from sport sociologist Joseph Maguire), the sport of quoits was facing twin dilemmas. Firstly, despite international matches between England and Wales being set up from 1896, there was much infighting between the two International Bodies. The key matter for dispute was the distribution of gate receipts. This led to the international competitions being suspended in 1903 after just 7 years of contest. Differences were not resolved for another 8 years (1911).

Secondly, Quoits suffered much more profoundly from the effects of the Great War than many other games. The game was popular with miners in particular, but these men were in huge demand in the war years, either at home producing the coal to fuel the war effort, or at the front lines digging beneath enemy territory and laying mines. Pastimes for these men were put on hold. Between 1896 and the time the war was over in 1918, there had been just 10 years of international competition. The Second World War also led to the abandonment of international tournaments between 1940 and 1948.

The Welsh Team at Tidal Basin, London. 1913
(taken from William Dice Davies Facebook page)
Throughout the 1930s the most significant impediment to the spread of the sport was the continued failure to codify and standardize the rules across the home nations. Scottish quoiting was played on a longer pitch, and disagreement continued about the height of the pin, the weight of the quoit, and even the system for scoring.

In the United States at around the same time there was a huge upsurge in the popularity of the associated game of 'Horseshoes' or horseshoe pitching. Since it was easier to score 'ringers' (where the horseshoe lands around the hob or pin) it was seen as far more fun to play horseshoes than quoits. Quoits began to fade in popularity.

Other failings of the sport include its inability to tempt TV companies to show live matches. On one solitary occasion in 1939, the B.B.C. broadcast a Scotland vs Wales International match at Glyn Neath. The sport also depended on the production of iron-forged quoits, and this was by no means a common industry. In 1954 it was reported that Johnstone Forge Ltd, the last company in Great Britain which made iron quoits, had closed.

The sport of Quoits failed in most of the same places that many other sports succeeded: early codification and standardization, broadening of popular appeal, regular international competition, and - later - TV coverage.

There are still a handful of local leagues, particularly in Wales, as well as a few in Scotland and the North of England. However, chances are good you wont see Quoits being played at the Olympics any time soon.

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