Sport and alcohol have had a long-standing relationship and close relationship as documented in, among other publications, Tony Collins and Wray Vamplew’s (2002) Mud, Sweat and Beers. A Cultural History of Sport and Alcohol. For this new examination of that relationship, Sarah Gee has brought together a number of eminent scholars whose focus is on ways in which this relationship manifests itself in the contemporary world of sport.
When I was invited to review the book, my immediate reaction was that there could have been few better choices. I lived above a pub for the first sixteen years of my life and so great was my interest in what took place in The Unicorn that I vowed that, in the years ahead, I would spend a great deal of time in places just like it. It is one of the only childhood ambitions that I have actually fulfilled. Sport and alcohol have been twin passions throughout my life. I have even drunk with some of the contributors to Sport, Alcohol and Social Inquiry in various far-flung venues. Indeed, the role of alcohol at sociology of sport international conferences might have made for an illuminating additional chapter in the book although my guess is that drinking has become less central to such events with the passing of time and will be even more so if Covid-19 ensures that we shall continue to deliver our papers and ask our questions virtually at future gatherings.
The book is the fourteenth volume in Emerald’s Research in the Sociology of Sport series. It comprises Sarah Gee’s editor’s introduction and ten chapters, the first eight of which explore various aspects of the sport-alcohol nexus in the United States, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Brazil, France and Sweden. The last two chapters address the more general concerns of ethical decisions about researching drinking cultures in sport and conducting field research in sport and alcohol.
Gee notes at the start of her introduction that ‘sport and alcohol are two highly commodified and widely popular social lubricants, whose relationship is rather paradoxical’ (p. 1). It is this presumed paradox that runs through many of the subsequent chapters in the collection. However, whilst it may well be paradoxical for elite athletes to drink alcohol, that seems less true in relation to sports fans who are more than capable of partaking in at least two social lubricants simultaneously even though it may not be in the best interests of their health.
The first three chapters focus on sport-related beer advertising (Chapter 1) and sponsorship (Chapter 3) in the United States and beer advertising in New Zealand (Chapter 2). Each contribution is thought-provoking and demonstrates what advertisers and sponsors are seeking to achieve through their engagement with sport. Missing from the collection, however, are complementary chapters that attempt to elucidate what messages sports fans receive and, to what extent, take on board. Perhaps it was decided understandably that more than enough has already been written about alcohol in fan cultures particularly with reference to football and its attendant problem with hooliganism.
However, the resultant restrictive policies ‘should not be taken to mean that Swedes do not drink alcohol’ (p.32). Your reviewer can certainly vouch for this on the strength of hazy recollections of pre- and post-match drinking with members of AIK’s Black Army during the 1990s, often under the watchful eyes of the Swedish police.
As regards the paradox identified by Gee, arguably the two most interesting chapters are Kate Sylvester and Brent McDonald’s ‘Tactical Drinking in a Female University Kendo Club’ (Chapter 4) and Cecilia Stenling and Josef Fahlén’s ‘The Swedish Alcohol-Sport Paradox: Sport’s Drinking Problem and the Politics of Forwarding’ (Chapter 8). The former draws upon an 18-month ethnographic study of women and kendo-related hegemonic drinking in a Japanese Sports University club. The authors note that ‘how women consume alcohol in Japan is multifaceted and contradictory which reflects the complexities and significance of cultural identity and sociability in Japan’ (p. 80). The study shows that women engage, often enthusiastically, in kendo culture by partaking in the sport’s related drinking culture. Thus, ‘despite how women are positioned as non-contenders in the central games of kendo and wider society, the members’ superlative investment in the women’s club was palpable as they facilitated the use of alcohol to play their social game with all seriousness’ (p. 80). One can add that this is replicated in martial arts clubs elsewhere in east Asia and often even involves elite performers.
Stenling and Fahlén inform the reader at the outset that ‘compared to most first-world countries, Sweden has one of the most restrictive alcohol policies in the world’ (p. 132). The state’s ambition throughout the twentieth century was to ensure sober living. However, the resultant restrictive policies ‘should not be taken to mean that Swedes do not drink alcohol’ (p.32). Your reviewer can certainly vouch for this on the strength of hazy recollections of pre- and post-match drinking with members of AIK’s Black Army during the 1990s, often under the watchful eyes of the Swedish police. As in other countries, beer advertising is closely associated with elite sports clubs ‘with tailored products [e.g. ‘supporter beers’] meant to be attractive to specific clubs’ supporter groups’ and ‘permits to restaurants and pubs in sport facilities, despite the general prohibitions on serving alcohol at such venues’ (p. 133). Therefore, Stenling and Fahlén ask, ‘How Can the Government’s Nurturing of Sports Drinking Problem Be Understood in Light of Its Official Position?’ (p. 139). They conclude that ‘like the government-sport relationship in other policy domains (e.g., crime reduction and social integration), the government’s-sport-alcohol nexus is less related to alcohol than it is to maintaining good faith between the national government and Swedish sport’s central umbrella organization the SSC’ [Swedish Sports Confederation] (p. 142), historically regarded as one of the country’s most significant popular movements.
In relation to studying the relationship between sport and alcohol, Carwyn James, David Brown and Marc Harris’ ‘Researching Drinking Cultures in Sport: Making Difficult Ethical Decisions’ (Chapter 9) offers valuable advice to students and more seasoned researchers alike, as does Sarah Gee’s ‘“Fun Sponge” and Other Conjectures: Conducting Field Research in Sport and Alcohol’ (Chapter 10). It is safe to say that an approach inspired by gonzo journalism such as that used by my good friend John Sugden (2003) is unlikely to receive approval from a university ethics committee any time soon. For the time being, therefore, Gee’s collection of essays provides an excellent introduction to the relationship between sport and alcohol and to its study, and deserves to be followed by additional edited volumes on the same subject.
Copyright © Alan Bairner 2020
Collins, T. and Vamplew, W. (2002) Mud Sweat and Beers. A Cultural History of Sport and Alcohol. Oxford: Berg.
Sugden, J. (2003) Scum Airways: Inside Football’s Underground Economy. Edinburgh: Mainstream.
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