Rudyard Kipling is credited with introducing ‘The Great Game’ to the masses in his novel Kim, but it is Arthur Conolly, an intelligence officer with the British East India Company’s Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry, who reportedly coined the term in order to describe the protracted 19th century conflict between Great Britain and Russia for hegemony over central Asia.
Conolly (1807-1842) was a writer, traveler and man of action. While on the road and in disguise, Conolly styled himself “Khan Ali” – can it be mere coincidence that one of Kim‘s characters is named Mahbub Ali? Regardless, if Conolly hadn’t really existed, Kipling would have had to invent him.
In the novel, the orphaned Kim fulfills his destiny and becomes a British agent in the “Great Game that never ceases day and night, throughout India”.
In another excerpt from the novel, Mahbub Ali defends Kim’s desire to return to the Road:
“He went alone before he came under the Colonel Sahib’s protection. When he comes to the Great Game he must go alone – alone, and at peril of his head. Then, if he spits, or sneezes, or sits down other than as the people do whom he watches, he may be slain.”
The term, however, gained yet more resonance as sports became a popular means to prepare young men for the coming wars of the young 20th century. Indeed, ‘great games’ were a direct precursor to the Great War, writes Caroline Alexander in Lapham’s Quarterly:
Complementing a classically oriented curriculum that celebrated the imperial militarism of the revered ancient world, athletic games strengthened the British race, giving young boys the physical training to become hardy servants of the empire, as intrepid missionaries as well as soldiers.
Image: Soldiers playing soccer during the 1914 Christmas Truce