Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who combined a methodical mind with a highly commendable determination to amuse his guests, inaugurated the modern rules of lawn tennis in 1873, and they remain the real, unheralded winner of Wimbledon today and tomorrow.
Kicking, gouging, biting and hitting a man while down were an unfortunate part of boxing until 1743, when Brits adopted the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules for modern boxing.
Brits gave golf its definitive form in 1745, in Edinburgh, with a set of fair and crystal-clear rules for using a number of different clubs to hit a ball into each hole on a course with the lowest possible number of strokes.
As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, rugby is named after the school where young William Webb Ellis "with fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it".
Retribution, no doubt, was swift, but Ellis had expressed a desire for higher things that was shared by others. Brits intensely disagreed about what the rules of the game should be, and sagely allowed one sport to divide into two – rugby and football (soccer).
Cricket's Rule 42, playing fair, is the pulsing heart of every game. It is, really, a version of treating others as you wish them to treat you. Players sometimes have to sacrifice a win by playing fair. When they do they are saying they respect a shining ideal.
Judging by much of modern life, rules seem odious to many, but what would a game be without them? In sport we learn that applying rules fairly and consistently expands our freedom and intensifies our pleasure.
Perhaps games and sports are the happy side effect of Brits learning how to develop rules that enshrine fair play in common law?
Funny that no one can imagine throwing out the British-invented games of tennis, badminton, squash, golf, basketball, hockey, rugby, football (soccer) and cricket to which millions of people from around the world have brought their skill and enthusiasm. Yet Brits are prepared to throw away their common law, which also benefits millions of people all over the world, so they can sit sheepishly at the EU table – or, depending on how things go, under it.
Today we have a rich inheritance of stories and images of men and women displaying what sports teach - fair play and how to handle adversity, loss and success with courage and grace.