The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics

The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics

by Niko Besnier, Thomas F. Carter

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Few activities bring together physicality, emotions, politics, money, and morality as dramatically as sport. In Brazil’s stadiums or China’s parks, on Cuba’s baseball diamonds or Fiji’s rugby fields, human beings test their physical limits, invest emotional energy, bet money, perform witchcraft, and ingest substances. Sport is a microcosm of what life is about. The Anthropology of Sport explores how sport both shapes and is shaped by the social, cultural, political, and historical contexts in which we live. Core themes discussed in this book include the body, modernity, nationalism, the state, citizenship, transnationalism, globalization, and gender and sexuality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289017
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/05/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,342,822
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Niko Besnier is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He has written extensively on gender, sexuality, migration, economic relations, language, and sport. He is editor-in-chief of American Ethnologist.

Susan Brownell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She is an expert on sports and Olympic Games in China, Olympic history, and world’s fairs. She is the author of Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic.

Thomas F. Carter is an anthropologist and the director of the Centre of Sport, Tourism, and Leisure Studies at the University of Brighton. He has written on Cuban sport, labor migration, governance, sport for development, and the politics of spectacle. His most recent book is In Foreign Fields: The Politics and Experiences of Transnational Sport Migration.

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Sport, Anthropology, and History

SPORT HAS OCCUPIED A TENUOUS position in anthropology since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Until the new millennium, there was no "sport anthropology" — that is, a critical mass of scholars who focused on the topic and recognized the relevance of one another's work. There was instead only a small number of anthropologists who studied sport. There was no journal of sport anthropology, no international association, and no section or interest group of the American Anthropological Association. In 1974 a handful of interdisciplinary scholars mobilized around the concept of play and established the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play. This led to the publication in 1985 of The Anthropology of Sport by Kendall Blanchard and Alyce Cheska, the first — and for another decade and a half, the only — attempt to define the field. When anthropologists made excursions into the topic, they did so as part of their interest in certain theoretical paradigms or broader issues and then moved on to other topics. With a few notable exceptions, sport was not recognized as a topic that led to major theoretical breakthroughs in the discipline, unlike topics considered more central, such as religion, social class, and nationalism. Thus, this chapter is not a history of the anthropology of sport so much as an overview of those moments when sport received anthropologists' attention. Any attempt to generalize about the "state of the field" runs into the problem that the anthropology of sport was not a unified field that underwent a clear theoretical development but rather one that drafted off the winds of leading topics in the broader discipline as they shifted over time.


By the time anthropology began to emerge as a discipline and discover sport, there was already a body of scholarship on ancient sports loaded with heavy Western-centric baggage. As the Industrial Revolution brought distant peoples into closer contact, a cultural geography of the world began to cohere among both Western academics and their popular audience, a geography in which the primary categories were "Western civilization" and its heirs, "Orientals" (with the primary focus on Europe's closest cultural and military rival, the Ottoman Empire), and "savages" (everyone else). Before the late nineteenth century, there was only one form of elite (and, of course, male) education in the West, and that was one focused on the Greek and Roman classics. Oriental studies emerged in the late eighteenth century to study the Orientals, and the discipline of anthropology emerged in the mid-nineteenth century to study the savages. The West's studies of Oriental and savage Others helped to strengthen a shared identity among educated men who had received a classical education and believed themselves to represent the attainments of "Western civilization."

This shared identity emerged in an era when the old social order based on monarchs and the Catholic Church was collapsing, and in its place the system of modern nation-states was arising. The remaking of the social order was accompanied by some of history's most brutal wars. Classically educated elite men noted the parallel between warring ancient Greek city-states and warring modern nation-states. They knew that, in antiquity, athletic games had been important forums for interstate diplomacy, and so they conceived of reviving the ancient Olympic Games to solve the political ills of their times. Perhaps the first call to revive the ancient Olympic Games appeared in 1790 in France, where the foundational thinkers of the French Revolution had linked sports with ancient Greek democracy.

In 1875 the largest archaeological excavation to that point was undertaken at the site of the Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia, Greece. It was led by Ernst Curtius, a professor of classical archaeology at the University of Berlin, and funded by German emperor Wilhelm I. Archaeology had become a tool of the Western powers, which sought not only to extend their control over physical territories through colonialism and imperialism but also to exert symbolic control over the past by claiming the most spectacular archaeological sites. Governments and wealthy elites funded expeditions in search of archaeological and ethnological artifacts. At a time when millions of artifacts were expatriated to Western museums to symbolize the commitment to civilization and progress claimed by their possessors, the excavation at Olympia was unusual in that Curtius negotiated an arrangement with the Greek government in which all artifacts except for selected duplicates would remain in Greece. Curtius was perhaps the first to see ancient Greek sports and games as emblematic of the restless, competitive spirit that made Westerners the masters of history and everyone else their subjects, or so he claimed. Curtius and prominent classicists who followed him asserted that the ancient Greeks valued competition more than any other peoples, that their competitive spirit ("agonal spirit," after the Greek agon, "contest") was a defining feature of "Western civilization," and that this spirit explained why the Greeks invented democracy and why the heirs of their tradition would inevitably shape the course of world history. The Olympic Games were said to be the quintessential expression of this competitive spirit.

The wider neoclassical revival, in which archaeology played a key role, formed the context in which the first modern Olympic Games were founded in 1896, spearheaded by Pierre de Coubertin, a classically educated French aristocrat. For the next two decades, the Olympics served as the original world championships for a number of sports, cementing the link between modern sports, democracy, and Western colonial and imperial supremacy.

In the realm of sport, the past weighs especially heavily on the present because of the way in which history has been used to legitimize different kinds of sporting practice. These processes of legitimization were part of large-scale dynamics whereby a particular construction of history served to justify the power of certain regions of the world over others. But as anthropologist Eric Wolf demonstrated in his Marxist-inspired opus Europe and the People without History, the world, including its seemingly isolated regions, has in fact been deeply interconnected through trade and other dynamics since 1400 CE. He argued that Western intellectual traditions viewed Europeans (the "people with history") as the driving force of historical change, and "primitive" societies (the "people without history") as pristine, unchanging survivals from the past. Wolf advocated a new global anthropology to overturn Western-centric history, insisting that world history had always consisted of a two-way interaction between the Western and non-Western areas of the world. If scholars properly recognized the interconnections between the world's peoples, their works would demonstrate that "the global processes set in motion by European expansion constitute their history as well."

To this day the International Olympic Committee still claims that ancient Greek humanistic "Olympic values" underpin the modern Olympic Movement. Contemporary Olympic sports are given a mythical attachment to the ancient history of "Western civilization," which is supposed to be located in ancient Greece rather than in other logically possible locations, even though ancient Greece was a crossroads of many cultures both "eastern" and "western," which was a major source of its vitality. In fact, the ancient Olympic Games emerged as an institution at the end of the eighth century BCE, a period of increasing interactions among the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. This is known as the "Orientalizing period" because of the large number of motifs in Greek art borrowed from the then more developed states of Syria, Assyria, Phoenicia, Israel, and Egypt. The Greeks came to be maritime traders with colonies throughout the Mediterranean, where Greeks not only interacted with their Others but also were occasionally ruled by them. From the sixth to the fourth century BCE, the Greeks' main Other was the huge Persian Empire, stretching from what is today northeastern Greece to the Indus valley in India. These interactions funneled cultural influences back toward the mainland, with the quadrennial gathering of freeborn Greek athletes at Olympia acting as a centripetal force to pull in new ideas and practices. In antiquity, as in the modern era, "sporting cultures traveled by trade and colonization, as well as by conquest and empire."

In the classical era, the Olympic Games provided a common ground for warring city-states, helping to create a unifying Hellenic identity. In the end they were patronized by Macedonian and Roman conquerors to display their power as well as their admiration of Hellenic culture. In fact, the Olympic Games reached their grandest scale not in the era of city-states but in that of the Romans, when participation was no longer limited only to freeborn Greeks, and all the best athletes of the Mediterranean could compete. Integration into a much larger empire disseminated Hellenic art, culture, and ideals to a much broader segment of the world's populace.

Given the Olympic Movement's romantic linking of the modern Olympic Games to the ancient ones, it is not surprising that both the scholarly and popular imaginations have tended to draw a direct line from the ancient Egyptians to the ancient Greeks to the Roman Empire to British and American sport and finally to contemporary global sport. That the complexities of the archaeological record from millennia ago are frequently simplified is not surprising, since the ambiguous nature of the evidence allows historians and archaeologists considerable leeway in their interpretations — which, more often than not, have been shaped by their own assumptions. While they focus on the Greco-Roman era, they are largely informed by very modern concerns: nudity, athletic events, athletic ideals, games in society, women, athletes, education, and the relationships among sport, spectacle, political power, professionalism, and nationalism. These discussions are not just dull descriptions of material remains; rather they increasingly attempt to draw a connection between the silent arenas of the past and the roar of contemporary sport. In so doing, more recent works are invoking cognitive archaeology's material engagement theory, which considers the minds of the maker and user of archaeological objects as integral to an understanding of the physical object. Recent works by historians of the ancient world have combined literary criticism with contextual historical analysis to provide some of the most informative and illuminating analyses of ancient sport.

For example, Stephen Miller has utilized a unique ethnographic tool to aid his analysis of ancient sports — reenactments. The "revival" of the ancient Nemean Games that he initiated after two decades of excavations at the site has become a quadrennial event attracting hundreds of competitors, many from other countries (figure 3). Miller's reconstruction of the preparation, organization, and operation of the Nemean Games allowed him to make experimental archaeological observations about spectators, lane markers, and the benefits of olive oil to capture the spectacular environment of an athletics event. He also addressed how the hysplex, a kind of starting gate, was used to ensure fair starts to races. Susan Brownell personally experienced the hysplex when she won her age group in the stade (length of stadium sprint) in the 2012 Nemean Games revival — wearing a tunic, running barefoot, and anointed with olive oil.


That sport was practiced by other civilizations besides the Greeks and Romans has not gained nearly as much attention from scholars. In much of the archaeology of sport, it is virtually impossible to move beyond the Mediterranean world, widely assumed to have served as the cradle of Western civilization. Like a long line of historians of ancient sport before him, Nigel Crowther in his 2010 book Sport in Ancient Times provided only brief chapters on China, Japan, and Korea and did not engage at all with South Asian sport. He did acknowledge Mesoamerican civilizations, but not the North American areas of Cahokia, the Southeast, and Great Lakes city-states, where early forms of stickball games were apparently played.

One of the enduring legacies of nineteenth-century biases has been the continued life of the idea that the ancient Greek concept of agon is a defining feature of Western civilization from the Greeks until today. The notion that a cultural focus on contests was unique to the ancient Greeks is still accepted today to some degree by prominent classical scholars. One of the few scholars to dissent with the stereotype of Western competitiveness was Johan Huizinga (1872–1945), a Dutch medieval historian and author of a foundational theory of play. Impressed by French sinologist Marcel Granet's interpretation of ancient Chinese culture, he argued that "the agonistic principle plays a part in the development of Chinese civilization far more significant even than agon in the Hellenic world." Huizinga was decades ahead of his time; his contributions to the study of play will be discussed below.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Germany had been the world center for classicism, and much of the leading scholarship on ancient sports in the classical world had come out of its universities. In the wake of Germany's romantic and ultimately catastrophic obsession with ancient Greece and "Aryan civilization," postwar German scholars were most incisive in criticizing the omission of non-Western cultures from the history of ancient sports. One was Wolfgang Decker, who demonstrated for the first time that Egypt had a rich sports tradition before Greece (nineteenth-century classicists considered Egypt an "Oriental civilization"). Another, Ingomar Weiler, criticized classicists' fixation on the Greek pursuit of individual excellence — expressed in Homer's proverb Aien aristeuein, "Ever to excel" — arguing that it played a role in racist scholarship that denied the existence of competition and sport among non-Aryan races.

Henning Eichberg was the only scholar to enter into the debate from an anthropological perspective. A German scholar based in Denmark since 1982 and trained in history and sociology, he conducted fieldwork on sports in Indonesia and Libya. He sharply criticized what he considered to be neocolonialism in sport studies, observing that "by thinking in terms of an 'absence' one tends to reproduce the colonial inequality on a new level: modern sport remains the measure — the others 'don't have it yet.'"

However, almost none of these works have been translated into English, except for a few of Eichberg's essays. As a result, the question of Western-centrism in ancient sport history has not been seriously taken up by anglophone scholars; furthermore, while the subfield of classical sport history has borrowed many anthropological theories, few trained anthropologists have published in the field. The history of Greek and Roman sports as a whole could benefit from closer collaboration with anthropologists.


Anthropology emerged in this context, and much of its early history was intertwined with classicism and classical archaeology. Thus, US-based archaeologists sought to find spectacular sites in the Americas that could produce artifacts to rival those dug out of the classical sites that had already been claimed by Europeans. The disciplinary divide between classical and anthropological archaeologists remains today. Moreover, both classical and anthropological archaeology were intertwined with the growth of mass popular culture. P.T. Barnum is often considered the originator of "popular culture," commodified entertainment ventures that earn their profit by attracting very large and not particularly educated audiences who pay small admission fees. Opened in New York in 1841, Barnum's American Museum (which was not a museum in today's understanding of the word) displayed ethnological artifacts along with exotic animals, historical artifacts, paintings and sculptures, waxworks, freak shows, and other curiosities, drawing the idea from the Enlightenment-era "cabinet of curiosities" but making it available for mass consumption. After his museum burned to the ground in 1870, Barnum took his first circus on the road. In the United Kingdom, a Victorian "culture of display" emerged through newly created public museums. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in London in 1851, often referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, was the first exposition that aspired to be international, kicking off the fashion of "world's fairs." In the early years of anthropology the novel institutions of museums and world's fairs provided the financial underpinning for professional positions. Circuses and world's fairs mixed Greco-Roman reenactments such as chariot races, gladiator contests, and wild-animal shows with boxing contests, equestrian and rodeo performances, and acrobatic performances, as well as displays of humans from Asia, Africa, and North America who occasionally engaged in sport-like activities.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 • Sport, Anthropology, and History
2 • Sport, Colonialism, and Imperialism
3 • Sport, Health, and the Environment
4 • Sport, Social Class, Race, and Ethnicity
5 • Sport and Sex, Gender, and Sexuality
6 • Sport, Cultural Performance, and Mega-events
7 • Sport, Nation, and Nationalism
8 • Sport in the World System
Epilogue: Sport for Anthropology

Selected Bibliography


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