The sub-disciplines sport history and philosophy of sport join forces to enhance our understanding of the phenomenon of modern sport

Gunnar Breivik
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

R. Scott Kretchmar, Mark Dyreson, Matthew P. Llewellyn & John Gleaves
History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity
342 pages, hardcover, ill.
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics 2017
ISBN 978-1-4504-2420-2

The modern scientific study of sport was intensified and developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the establishment of a variety of sub-disciplines such as sport and exercise physiology, sport medicine, sport sociology, sport psychology, and sport philosophy. Sport history had a longer tradition but sport philosophy as a specific study area was formally established with the inclusion of sport philosophy in the program of the Pre-Olympic Scientific Congress in Munich 1972 and, the same year, the establishment of the Philosophic Society of the Study of Sport in the United States. While the sport scientific sub-disciplines gained strength and scientific rigor from their mother disciplines, they lost something in integration and holistic understanding. For educational purposes there is thus a need for more integrated and cross-disciplinary approaches. A new book in the history and philosophy of sport tries to remedy this somewhat by bringing at least history and philosophy together towards a more integrated and blended approach. As far as I know only the book by Robert Mechikoff and Steven Estes from 2010, A History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Education has tried something similar.

R. Scott Kretchmar has for a long time been one of the world’s leading sport philosophers and he has brought with him another philosopher, John Gleaves, and two sport historians, Mark Dyreson and Matthew P. Llewellyn, to write a new textbook that is very welcome and in many ways a success. Not only does the book contribute to an integrated historic and philosophical perspective, but it also has a wider subject matter which includes not only sport in the narrow sense, but other forms of physical activity related to exercise, health, recreation and dance. This makes the book interesting for people involved in profession areas such as physical education, coaching, athletic training, corporate fitness, the recreation industry, sport management and personal training.

Many problems in the modern world, such as health problems caused by a sedentary lifestyle, can only be solved by looking across arenas like work, transport and leisure. The focus must be on human movement as such. The study of movement in its various forms goes under different labels, but in the US the term ‘kinesiology’ has been used for some time. Since the term physical education was too narrow and the study area had low academic status it was convenient to find another name. ‘Kinesis’ means in Old Greek ‘movement’ and ‘kinesiology’ is thus the study of movement. In the Nordic countries this term has not been used, even if my Norwegian School of Sport Sciences since my Rector period 1999-2005, called its study area ‘the human being in movement’ and thus has movement in general and not only sport in the narrow sense as its study area.

The book under review is thus a textbook in kinesiology that is relevant for students and scholars in movement sciences across the broad spectrum of professions where movement and physical activity are centrally focused. The book aims at helping the readers become active and involved in the study of philosophical and historic perspectives. Each chapter in the book includes student exercises where students can use what they have learned to solve problems or answer questions. The exercises can also be used for debates in the class room. Each chapter starts with a list of chapter objectives and ends with a section of wrapping up and looking ahead.  One also finds specific history lessons or philosophical analyses included in the text.

One of the best and most important things about the book is that it places the history of sport in the wider social, cultural and ideological context where it belongs.

The text is organized chronologically. The book begins with the physical activities of hunter-gatherers or hunter-foragers, as the authors prefer to call them. Then follows the transition to farming cultures as they developed in the Western civilization, but also in Asian, African and American civilizations. The book has a fairly detailed account of Greek and Roman sporting activities and then points out similarities and differences in physical cultures through the Middle Ages. The Modern history begins around 1500 and the authors look at how events in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific revolution laid the groundwork for the modern sporting world. The book then examines the British sports and its importance for the diffusion of modern sport around the world, sometimes in contrast to indigenous cultures. Sport here functioned as a vehicle for imperialism. Then follows the launching of modern Olympic Games, the emergence of World Cup soccer, and the broad array of new physical activities including lifestyle sports. In this context, the book discusses problems of modern sport such as gender and racial equity, the modern spectator sport, and commercialism. The book ends by looking into the future of sport, health and physical activity.

The historic account is accompanied by ethical and philosophical questions such as: What is the nature of sports? Can brutal sports, as they existed in antiquity and today, be morally defended? Is it right to use pharmaceutical and other artificial means to enhance performance? What is the role of ‘know-how’ and practical knowledge in sport? In which sense are games ‘beautiful’?  The book also goes into deep and difficult problem areas such as the body-mind problem and the difference between dualistic and holistic accounts.

In general, I think the authors have done a very good job bringing the history and philosophy of sport together. Of course, the integration is not seamless and at some points the philosophical part is brought a bit abruptly into the historical text flow, and maybe not at the best place. An example is the inclusion of Huizinga’s theory of the culture of play in the chapter about hunter-gatherers while it might better be placed in a section about the modern leisure society. But in general, I think many of the philosophical problems are discussed at places where they originated historically or have relevance and bearing.

One of the best and most important things about the book is that it places the history of sport in the wider social, cultural and ideological context where it belongs. This makes the history of sport much more interesting, whether it is the discussion of sport-like activities among hunter-foragers, the portrait of Mesoamerican sport culture, or the analysis of British imperialism and its diffusion of sports around the world.

The discussion of philosophical problems and value questions are in many places not only interesting but innovative. For instance, the authors discuss three different versions of dualism called ‘substance dualism’, ‘value dualism’ and ‘behavior dualism’. As a contrast to dualism the authors introduce a form of holistic perspective, called ‘holistic kinesiology’ where Eastern traditions also get a voice. The authors also exemplify and discuss very well specific problems where the three basic ethical theories: virtue ethics, deontological theories and utilitarian theories have bearing and illuminating power.

The historical perspective of the book is brought right up to the present entertainment sport and the global sport culture. Ideological and ethical problems connected with race and gender issues are thoroughly discussed. So is the conflict between the international mainstream sport culture and local or national sport cultures. Eichberg’s studies of folk games and various countercultural physical activity movements, such as the lifestyle sports, are discussed to some extent. Another example here would be some parts of the Norwegian Friluftsliv tradition. But since the authors are American we cannot expect that typical Nordic sport traditions, like winter sports, friluftsliv and folk games, get much space.

The authors have produced an interesting and well written textbook that deserves to get many readers also in the Nordic countries.

Copyright © Gunnar Breivik 2018

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  1. Dear Gunnar Breivik,
    Thank you for mentioning my 2010 textbook- A History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Education. As you correctly note, my text was the first text that included both history and philosophy. It may interest you to know that I am in the process of completing the seventh edition of this widely used text. If you would like a copy to review, please let me know and I will have the new seventh edition sent to you later this year. It is a very comprehensive text that is designed to be both scholarly and “reader friendly “.

    Robert A Mechikoff


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