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Sport in Alternate History. Part 1

By Pete Usher.

Gordon Banks making the iconic, impossible save from Pele in the 1970 World Cup.

If that had gone in, it would have been a goal.” David Coleman.

The role of sport in Alternate History is much smaller than one might expect, given the near ubiquitous nature of sport in modern society – it fills regular portions of our daily news, pages of mainstream newspapers, and individual competitions and events are multi-billion pound concerns. And yet, even in the most well regarded of timelines, it remains an afterthought, where Olympic Games are replaced by Global Games or some such moniker, and is barely mentioned (Look to the West being an honourable exception). Even the most well-known alternative history that starts with a footballing event (What If Gordon Banks Had Played?) only do so, by the author’s own admission, to facilitate a different UK General Election result in 1970 and the story that follows.

There are plenty of opportunities to build a sporting story – virtually every sporting encounter has the : “If only the ball had been 2 inches this way” or “if only player X had made this choice, rather than the one they did” moments. There are articles to be written about every major sport covering that, and plenty of minor ones. Single moments are seen as pivotal in the narrative of sporting events, and enter a place in common knowledge, such as “The Hand of God”, “The Ball of the Century”, or “The Immaculate Reception” – these events get A Name With Capitals, so we know they were important. Sporting what ifs turn up every day, and twice on Saturdays.

Maradona and the Hand of God.

And we know that sport is important in the ‘real world’. It is often said that sport is a substitute for war, but a war has been fought over a football match, and went on for only slightly longer (the reality is that it was more complex than that, but the Football War between Honduras and El Salvador has maintained that name since 1969). The Olympic Games have been subject to attempted propaganda, political terrorism, boycotts, and systemic national doping programmes. Israel in in Europe for a lot of sporting events. The balance between money and boycotts of Apartheid-era South Africa have driven huge rifts in sport. Even in the present day, the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been seen in every global sport.

Money and politics are inextricably linked to major sporting events. Corruption and bribery allegations dog the Olympic movement, and the FIFA World Cup, the two largest money spinning events in the sporting world (yes, the Americans have the Super Bowl, but that isn’t quite the same in terms of length or the amount of facilities required). The prestige of hosting and/or winning these events leads to huge investments and intense competition between countries. There is also the modern invention of ‘sports-washing’, where regimes with questionable records on human rights and democracy invest in sports such as football and golf, in order to gain (one assumes) some sheen of legitimacy.

All of these would, you would think, give the proposition of differentiated sporting outcomes something that would give flavour and depth to a world, or even provide the start to a new tale.

But there is an even larger gap in Alternate History when it comes to sports (and games to some extent). This is a genre where skilled authors create alternate nations, religions, political ideologies, voting systems, terminologies, social structures, youth movements, battles, leaders, and so on, all in a believable and interesting way. And yet, within all those worlds created, there does not seem to be one where there exists a fully realised alternative sport, with rules and gameplay noticeably different from anything we know. Why is that?

I think there are a few reasons for this.

1. It’s difficult to be unique

Let’s take football (soccer) as an example. Games involving handling and kicking a ball existed in antiquity across the world, from Greece and Rome, through China, Japan, and Korea, to Native American cultures. Even if football in Britain does not exist, or is not codified, it seems that some sort of team ball sport is likely to arise. And there are lots of related codes – you can track the development of soccer and rugby union to a common point, and rugby league is an offshoot of that, as are both American Football and Canadian Football (the now Eastern Division of the CFL was called the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union until 1959, even though they were not playing rugby). The relationship with Gaelic Football and Australian Rules Football is less clear. This leads to a set of related sports with varying team sizes, degrees of ball handling and kicking, and scoring systems from the simple (a goal is a goal is a goal) to the relatively complex (the 1, 2, 3, 6 (+1 or 2) CFL scoring system), and final scores ranging from single digits to well over one hundred being typical.

The Hawks and the Bombers. It's football. You can tell because they're not using their feet.

Australians, eh?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With all that real world complexity, how does an author create something that is meaningful, without it being different ‘just because’. At any point in history, a given sport is in a constant state of evolution – rules, tactics, even scores have changed many times – sometimes under pressure from TV, sometimes to make the game fairer, or faster, or safer. One could argue that sometimes changes are made ‘just because’, but it remains true that the games changes – for example, the football I watch now is markedly different from that I watched as a child in the 1970s, and not just because of its ever-presence on TV and media. How do you capture that organic growth and evolution?

2. Explanations. Constant Explanations.

Everyone* knows** what cricket is, or baseball. As a reader, you don’t have to be familiar with the exact rules to understand a reference to a well-known sport, and there are many common phrases that people use that are drawn from the wide world of sport. The author is right behind the eight ball if they want to avoid using these phrases, and on a sticky wicket if they want to invent new phrases that fit better with the world they have created. It’s one thing to rename baseball as diamondball, for example – there is a logic to similar phrases bleeding into popular culture that won’t throw a curve ball into the narrative. But if you are referring to the Montréal Rules of Ballon de Diamant (apologies to francophones), that may well turn up different phrases. And a more differentiated sport will require more explanations, unless the context of the idiom is clear.

* Everyone is doing a lot of work here.

** As is ‘knows’, but “Many people are aware of cricket” doesn’t have the same ring.

A traditional game of Whack-an-Aussie, 1932.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A new sport, or a significantly altered one, will have this problem in spades. Having to explain that an inner net scores three points, while an outer net scores one point, in a game that is played over three twenty-five minutes thirds, and the ball can only be punched or thrown is going to be time consuming. What would be common knowledge to people in that TL, such as each player only being allowed in two of the four pitch zones, is going to have to be spelt out to the reader. Unfortunately, Wikipedia descriptions of sports are not the most riveting of reads.

The one area of storytelling where this has not been the case is future history, although there is a huge tendency for games to become increasingly violent, such as Aeroball (2000AD), the classic Rollerball (a game so well designed that the cast and crew played it between takes, and there was interest in making it a real thing), the eponymous race in Death Race 2000, or the games in The Running Man. The common denominator here is that the sport or game is a key part of the (typically) dystopian tale, even if there is ultimately a political message involved. And because these are new sports, the rules have to be explained, even if they don’t make sense on reflection.

3. Storytelling.

As we know, the best AH tells a story – sometimes the story is the alternative history that is imagined, sometimes the real story just uses that as a background. And within those larger stories, sport would typically be a segment of that background. If we consider contemporary news media, either radio, television, or print, then sport – at least in non-specialist outlets, will occupy around 10-15% of that output. This is 5 or 6 pages in a newspaper, 2 or 3 minutes in the main news bulletin on television, or 30 seconds on the radio. Pulling that much information into an AH tale is going to take a lot of focus, and needs to be there for a reason. Much easier to leave it out from a written work, where extraneous detail may be a distraction. A different medium allows this as background colour, little Easter eggs for the viewer to find in a film or TV programme for example. A headline on a prop newspaper is easy to mock up, and of little or no consequence to the story. The same headline, mentioned in an AH tale, well that has to be there for a reason, doesn’t it?

4. The plausibility problem

Or, how to avoid any sporting timeline becoming an Insert Team Name Here-fantasy (unless that is the stated aim of the timeline). A classic timeline follows logically from the premise – JFK is not assassinated, this causes certain changes, the butterflies flap their wings, and we end up with President Jerry Springer of the American Socialist Party winning in 2004. There is a momentum to a typical timeline. Readers can (and do) question individual steps on the journey, but the train tends to stay on the track.

No. Just because people play it (or at least, the Muggle version), doesn't make it a sport. It's an example of how not to write an alternate sport.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Whereas the very unpredictability of sport means, at least in my view, that strand is weaker. If Diego Maradona does not score the Hand of God goal in Mexico 86, what is the impact? While it might impact the game, and therefore the whole tournament, will there be any impact after the World Cup? Depending on the author, the impact could be anything from Argentina still winning, to England winning the game but not the tournament. Would it impact Maradona’s role in Napoli winning their first title the following season? You could argue the latter would be unaffected, so a larger change is needed for a sporting timeline to be really different.

5. Nicheness

AH is a niche interest. As rich and vibrant as the SLP community is, it is a relatively small corner of the Internet. The wider AH community is bigger, but there are not millions of active poster, writers, and readers. And within that, not everyone likes sport, as hard as that is to believe. And within that, there are different sports to be interested in. Even football/soccer, arguably the most popular sport in the world, has managed to get 60% of the way through a third thread in the SLP forum, in five years. That's about 14 posts per day – hardly a hotbed of chat. Chat about all other sports combined is even slower. And writing a sporting timeline is even more niche. It may be that the interest just isn’t there. Which is a shame, as it offers so many possibilities...

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