The need for men to compete in sports against other men or engage in strenuous physical activities with groups of other men has been a central tenet of various crises of masculinity through American history.
In the Progressive Era, boxing, football, hunting, and fishing became very popular activities among the middle and upper classes. There's a reason boxing became respectable, football becomes popular, and hunting laws are enacted at the same time: the support of Progressive masculinity worriers.
Hiking became a popular activity for many reasons in the 1950s and early 1960s, but men looking to escape the feminizing suburban home and demanning gray flannel suit job played a major role.
Our friends at The Art of Manliness buy into this idea whole hog. The post starts in a classic totalizing manner, stating "Men like to compete." Do they now? All men? If I don't like to compete, does that make me less of a man. Have I castrated myself because I'd prefer to read, or I don't know, do most anything else? I guess so.
The post goes on, linking to a 1933 magazine article suggesting 10 manly competitve feats such as the one-legged arm wrestling pictured above, and stating:
All of them pit you against another man in a pure mano-a-mano showdown. All of them call on different muscles and not only require brute strength, but good balance and a bit of skill as well. So next time you and your buddies are bantering about who is the strongest, don’t settle the dispute with a cliche impromptu wrestling match. Challenge your friends to back up their bluster, move the furniture, and let the real games begin.
First of all, who the hell just starts wrestling? Men who engage in a "cliche impromptu wrestling match" need to grow the hell up to begin with. Second, they need to examine very seriously why they feel the need to struggle on the floor with another person, unless you are engaging in some sort of consensual sex act.
Again, the assumption here is that real men like to compete with each other. Now, I can be a competitive guy in the rare times I engage in sports activity, though this is mostly directed at myself and my consistently crappy performance. But I certainly never defined myself as a man over it. And I most definitely do not believe that I need to prove myself whenever I am with other men. This idea of proving yourself plays a central role in masculinity worriers' arguments. What I want to know is who they think they need to prove themselves to? Themselves? Their friends? Women? The nation? All of the above? I go with all of the above. I think these kinds of activities, most certainly including arm wrestling, are about deep insecurities within the souls of some men. I think it has inherently little do with being a proper man. The social constructions of gender can mask people's own personal problems behind ideas of gender. I really believe that people who attach this sort of masculine test to any kind of sporting or competitive activity may lack self-esteem. They need to win, or at least to compete hard, to reaffirm that, in fact, life is worth living.
The sexual overtones of all of this are pretty obvious. It's hardly a coincidence that the most blatant homophobia often comes from those who engage in sporting activities that can simulate sex in interesting ways, as perhaps suggested by the "back wrestling" pictured here. There's a lot of self-denial and sexual repression going on in these competitions. They need to physically interact with someone of your sex is overwhelming for many people, but the social norms allowing for it are not there. So sex has to be simulated in some way.
Maybe I've overstating things here, but I'm not so sure. Masculinity worriers have long been the most virulent homophobes. To give one of many examples, The Marquis of Queensbury rules governing boxing were established in the Progressive Era to make the sport clean enough that men could watch such a manly activity and learn from them without seeing savagery too unrestrained. The Marquis of Queensbury's son was Oscar Wilde's lover. It was the same Marquis of Queensbury who had Wilde thrown into prison for homosexuality, outraged that such immoral activity could exist. Meanwhile, he's throwing himself into rough physical activity in all-male environments right and left.