Should scholars of sport be keen on sport?


When I published a monograph on the obscure origins of human racing in Finland six or seven years ago, a reviewer in an athletics magazine admonished me for scrutinizing running as if I was holding an ‘insect’ under a microscope.

The veteran journalist obviously thought that I should have adopted a more solemn or even adoring approach to this type of locomotion. Instead, I took his criticism as a compliment of the highest order. For me, respect for fellow humans (e.g. athletes) doesn’t translate into reverence for social constructs (e.g. modern sport). The human need for motion and physical exercise cannot be understood as an endorsement of the propagandistic claim according to which ‘sport is eternal’. There is a huge variety of non-competitive body cultures that have been undeservedly overshadowed by modern high-performance sport.

Yet the fact is that if you are researching sport, you are almost automatically assumed to be a sports fan. Sport journalists have been famously called ‘fans with typewriters’ and certain scholars are hardly different from them. This is incidentally why I often feel awkward about being introduced as a sport historian. I would rather not be associated with people who give lectures on their favorite teams, write hagiographic tomes complete with footnotes, and analyze this or that championship’s top scorers over lunch.

I don’t feel happy about the appellation ‘historian of sport’ either. The American academic Mark Dyreson has nonetheless distinguished sport historians from historians of sport, arguing that while sport historians churn out mere chronicles, the latter ones are an altogether more serious lot. Would I feel the same if I was a sociologist or philosopher? Probably I would. Of course, there are also ‘real’ sport scholars, such as physiologists and psychologists, and they are not one bit ashamed of rubbing shoulders with elite athletes and promoting the cause of performance enhancement.

A case in point is the Jyväskylä-based Research Institute for Olympic Sports which takes pride in being a ‘customer-oriented interdisciplinary research, development and service organization for elite sports’. Similar institutes can be found across the globe, institutes teeming with hardcore sports fans equipped with cutting-edge gadgets. This brand of scholars is part and parcel of the technocracy of sport.

Humanists, by contrast, should be wary of becoming intimately entangled with the world of competitive sport. I, for one, believe that the more daylight there is between the humanistic scholar and the sport system, the more innovative his or her research is going to be. After all, you don’t expect historians of the Third Reich to be ardent Nazis, do you?

As regards totalitarianism, my first academic career revolved around Soviet history and politics. After a brief intellectual honeymoon with the extremely complex character of Leon Trotsky, the tragic hero of Bolshevism, I lost my faith in all varieties of Communism. Those thought systems and their adherents turned into something to be dissected by the analytical tools of my choice (for what they were worth). Why should I insist on compromising my integrity by becoming overtly infatuated with competitive sport either?

What my erstwhile magazine critic perceived as aloofness towards sport in the 2006 monograph of mine was precisely that. In my view, such detachment should be declared mandatory for all humanists. In the best case, the outcome could be reminiscent of Verfremdungseffekt, or defamiliarization effect, as a result of which a trite topic suddenly looks totally different – as if you were witnessing the discovery of a whole new insect species.


  1. Perhaps for the same reasons that I prefer Artaud to Brecht, I think it equally valid if not infinitely more vital for partisan punditry to emerge as a critical methodology, not merely a popular mode of postmodern performance, but as a means by which humanities scholars communicate and reflect upon their own humanity.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here