New book historicizes sport and modernity in a critical theory context

Alan Bairner
Loughborough University

Richard Gruneau
Sport and Modernity
246 pages, paperback.
Cambridge, Cambs.: Polity Press 2017
ISBN 978-1-5095-0157-1

A new book by Rick Gruneau is a major event for the academic study of sport. Gruneau is undeniably one of the most insightful and influential critical sport scholars and has been for many years. In addition to his work on sport, he has specialised in popular culture and media more broadly and communication and cultural theory. For sociologists of sport, Gruneau first came to prominence with the publication in 1983 of Class, Sport and Social Development, which was subsequently published as a second edition in 1999 (Gruneau, 1999). In between, he had co-authored with David Whitson a truly remarkable book on ice hockey in Canada which demonstrated the extent to which the application of critical theoretical analysis can enhance the social scientific understanding of sport (Gruneau and Whitson, 1993). Not only has Gruneau published extensively, he has also made a major contribution to the academy by supervising numerous doctoral students, the majority of whom have gone on to hold academic positions in various parts of the world.

Gruneau’s latest book consists of an introduction, five chapters and thirteen illustrations.  Chapter One examines sport in the ancient Greco-Roman world with an emphasis on body imagery and spectacle.  Chapter Two addresses the origins of modern sport in England as an object and project of modernity. The third chapter considers what Gruneau calls the ‘staging’ of modernity by looking at the growing importance of international exhibitions and the Olympic Games. Chapter Four focuses on German modernism and anti-modernism and contains an extended discussion of the critical theory of sport. Finally, the fifth chapter, which is titled ‘A Savage Sorting of “Winners” and “Losers”, discusses modernization, development and sport.

By Gruneau’s own admission, some of these five chapters are based on work that has already appeared in the public domain in some form or another – Chapter Two in an online Canadian journal, Amodern, Chapter Four in a talk given by Gruneau at the Sixth Rome Conference on Critical Theory in 2013, and Chapter Five in a contribution written for a festschrift for Bruce Kidd.  In addition, Gruneau generously acknowledges the numerous people with whom he has discussed various themes of this book and who have influenced his thinking.  It says much about Gruneau’s standing in the field and his popularity amongst his fellow scholars that the list of acknowledgments reads like a who’s who of the critical study of sport.

Depending on their own interests, readers will inevitably be drawn to specific chapters. All will benefit, however, from a careful reading of Gruneau’s introduction which identifies the roughly similar history of the concepts of ’sport’ and of ‘modernity’. Having led us through some of the key debates about what sport actually is, Gruneau goes on to suggest that, at varying points, his book is influenced by all six conceptions of modernity that he describes in his introduction – epochal, epistemological, experiential, instrumental, relational, and discursive. Overall, however, Gruneau is less interested in writing a history either of sport or of modernity than ‘in historicizing them while exploring their interconnections’ (p. 11).

One can only hope that the current generation of sport social scientists are similarly motivated – no easy task in an era when metrics and bureaucratic box-ticking threaten to take over our professional lives.

Moving on from the definitional complexity that is common to both of the central concepts addressed in his book, Gruneau makes clear, ‘one unifying theme throughout the book is the influence of the twentieth -century tradition of heterodox “western Marxism”’ (p. 6). This leads him to mention the work of Antonio Gramsci, the contribution of which to the critical understanding of sport is often, albeit exaggeratedly, credited to him along with John Hargreaves.  Arguably more informative is Gruneau’s discussion of the Frankfurt School which begins in the introduction and is developed at greater length in Chapter Four.

Gruneau notes that ‘despite the public and scholarly attention given to sport in the early Weimar era, the topic seemed to be of little interest to members of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research’ (p. 138) as it was also to Gramsci. Nevertheless, he argues, there are examples in the 1920s and 1930s of themes that would be picked up in later critical theory, dealing, for example, with mass media, mass consumption and mass culture. Subsequently, the fall of the Weimar Republic and the advent of the Nazi state in the 1930s elevated the importance of sport for critical theorists. Later in the 1960s and early 1970s, many ideas drawn from Frankfurt School critical theory were adopted and fused with ideas from other sources, resulting in a series of counter-cultural critiques of sport from Gerhard Vinnai, Bero Rigauer, Paul Hoch and Jean-Marie-Brohm. Although it is difficult to know the extent to which these critics are known by sociology of sport students in today’s world of post structuralism and intersectionality, I suspect that Gruneau performs a considerable service here by alerting his readers to thinkers who believed, with Marx, that, in the last analysis, society is the product of the economic conditions prevailing at any given time.

Although Chapter Five brings us up to date, it is unfortunate that it is not followed by a conclusion in which Gruneau could have revisited the issues identified in the introduction and the themes that are central to the preceding chapters.  Given that lacuna, it could be argued that the book tails off at the end and leaves the reader wanting more. However, the intellectual virtuosity displayed elsewhere in the book goes a long way towards making up for this.

It is also worth noting that, having completed a working draft of the book, Gruneau was stricken with a near-fatal blood infection and forced to spend several months in hospital. Reading this I was reminded of the health problems encountered by John Sugden, another major figure in the critical study of sport, who, like Gruneau, has gone on to publish the book he was writing before suffering a near fatal stroke (Sugden and Tomlinson, 2016). Why I mention this is because both Rick and John would have been excused had they simply abandoned the projects they were working on. They certainly had nothing more to prove after all as far as their contribution to the academy is concerned. That they have completed these books is testimony to the fact that they write because they have something to say and because they want their writing to make a difference. One can only hope that the current generation of sport social scientists are similarly motivated – no easy task in an era when metrics and bureaucratic box-ticking threaten to take over our professional lives.


Gruneau, R. (1993). Class, Sport and Social Development, second edition. Urbana, Illinois: Human Kinetics.
Gruneau, R. and Whitson, D. (1993). Hockey Night in Canada: sport, identities and cultural politics. Toronto: Garamond Press.
Sugden, J. and Tomlinson, A. (2016). Sport and Peace-Building in Divided Societies: Playing with Enemies. London: Routledge.


Copyright © Alan Bairner 2018

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