Loughborough University, UK
Only publishers really know the value of this type of publication. A Companion to Sport is one of the more recent additions to the Wiley Blackwell Companions in Cultural Studies series. One presumes that the volumes in this series are aimed at a student audience. However, the price of this particular collection of thirty four chapters and an introduction written by the editors makes it almost certain that student readers will be accessing it in their university libraries rather than in their local bookstores. The main problem that I customarily have with collections of this kind (and I write this in the knowledge that I have edited and also contributed to similar works) is that they tend to provide opportunities for the usual suspects to produce slightly amended versions of work that is already in the public domain. Of course, that may well be what students want and need. This collection is rather different though. Many familiar names are on hand as indeed are many familiar themes. But there are also examples of innovative thinking on topics that are probably less familiar even to seasoned researchers on sport. My concern with these contributions is rather different, namely that they may prove be too challenging for all but the brightest undergraduates and will be of more interest and use to graduate students and academics. So it is back to the publisher to decide how best to market the collection as a whole.
In their editorial introduction, sub-titled ‘Sport as Escape, Struggle, and Art’, Ben Carrington and David Andrews, two of our more incisive thinkers on the social significance of sport, argue that ‘students need to develop ways of thinking, seeing, and reading sports that avoid the uniformed [or should that be uninformed?] tirades of the anti-sport lobby and the often naive and idealistic accounts of pro-sports devotees’ (p. 8). For them, ‘the sociological task, then, is to think about sport as an escape from everyday life whilst understanding that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal constraints…’ (p. 8). It is doubtful if any social scientists of sport would disagree. But the question is how are we to do this in new and imaginative ways.
Douglas Booth’s chapter ‘Constructing Knowledge. Histories of Modern Sport’ is undeniably imaginative but arguably too rich for an undergraduate diet. Noting in passing some relatively well-worn ground – Richard Giulianotti and Roland Robertson on globalization, David Rowe on the media and Sheila Scraton and Anne Flintoff on gender, feminist theory, and sport – we come to the rather more novel contribution of Joshua J. Newman and Mark Falcous on political theories of social class, sport, and the body. Class is so often one of the first casualties in the daunting quest for intersectionality that it is refreshing to see a chapter of this sort in the first section of the book which is devoted more generally to sporting structures and historical formations. Newman and Falcous review previous work on social class and sport, accurately point out the challenges that face like-minded researchers in the contemporary era and, nevertheless, conclude that ‘The voice of the critical sociology of sport is as indispensable as ever’ (p. 90). Also located in the opening section of the book are two chapters which consider some of the more recent concerns of sociologists of sport. Parissa Safai writes about sports medicine, health, and the politics of risk and Brian Wilson and Brad Millington contribute an essay on sport, ecological modernization, and the environment. Both chapters are welcome indications that the social sciences of sport must move with the times in order to be relevant whilst Newman and Falcous remind us that we should be careful not to jettison older ideas too readily.Class is so often one of the first casualties in the daunting quest for intersectionality that it is refreshing to see a chapter of this sort.
The other sections of the book are Bodies and Identities, Contested Space and Politics, Cultures, Subcultures and (Post) Sport, Sport, Mega-events, and Spectacle, and Sporting Celebrities/Cultural Icons. Different readers will be attracted to some of these more than to others. For this reader, the coverage of mega-events has surely reached saturation point. Is there anything more to be said? On the other hand, the study of contested space still has much to offer. I am always impressed by Michael Silk’s work on this subject and, although the central argument in his chapter ‘Cities and the Cultural Politics of Sterile Space’ will be familiar to anyone who knows his work, it offers an insightful analysis for the benefit of newcomers. The juggernaut of cultural capitalism, as Silk notes, ‘marginalizes and excludes from…sanctioned places the abject other, and further marks this abject other from the “healthy body politic”’ (p. 279). Less well known than Silk, I suspect, is Jeff Wiltse who offers an original and thought-provoking study of swimming pools, civic life, and social capital. Whilst the social history of swimming pools is necessarily his main concern, Wiltse’s call for ‘appealing and sociable public spaces’ (p. 301) should surely have universal appeal.
I was also drawn to the essays that make up final part of the book including Pirkko Markula’s ‘Deleuze and the Disabled Sports Star’. Like Booth’s contribution, however, this chapter is probably not for the undergraduate reader not least as it has little or nothing to say about actual disabled sports stars which will come as a surprise to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the Oscar Pistorius story. Considerably more accessible is Davis W. Houck’s ‘Earls Loins – Or, Inventing Tiger Woods’. More has been written about Woods than almost any other sports celebrity. Yet, the story is constantly unfolding with ever increasing twist and turns. To Houck’s credit, however, not only does he endeavour to keep pace, he also tells us more about Woods’s father than previous studies have done.
Like all such collections, this Companion has its highs and its lows. There is something for everyone with an academic interest in the social significance sport but not perhaps everything for all. One final quibble – the overall presentation of the volume has more in common with the format of encyclopedias than with standard collections of essays, making for hard reading. But once again, that is one for the publisher to ponder.
Copyright © Alan Bairner 2014