A well-researched and highly readable story of the role that sports played in American Cold War diplomacy

Kristian Gerner
Dept of History, Lund University

Toby C. Rider & Kevin B. Witherspoon (eds.)
Defending the American Way of Life: Sport, Culture, and the Cold War
305 pages, paperback, ill.
Fayetteville, Ark.: The University of Arkansas Press 2018 (Sport, Culture & Society)
ISBN 978-1-68226-076-0

Sport and culture are intimately linked as instruments in the exertion of soft power in international politics. The title of Toby Rider’s and Kevin Witherspoon’s anthology indicates that the theme is not only the US–USSR rivalry but also developments in the American society.

The title Defending the American Way of Life is equivocal. Who was defending what? Several chapters in the book demonstrate that “the American Way of Life” is an ambiguous concept. The US government certainly strove to defend the country form subversion. However, when the US government used sports as an instrument to defend the American way of life, prominent African American athletes rose to the occasion. They managed to use sport as an instrument in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. They changed the American way of life.

The subject of the Cold War and sport has been the object of many scholarly books, among them a comprehensive study by Toby Rider.[1] The anthology under review covers much of the same ground, but because the American way of life is in focus, the different chapters offer new insights. This book is not primarily about the Cold War but about developments in the American society within the framework of the Soviet–American political and ideological battle for global hegemony.

A short review cannot present fully the content of the well-researched and highly readable empirical studies in the book. Suffice it to mention that in this study of defending – and changing – the American way of life the main protagonists are Millard Lampell, Mal Whitfield, Wilma Rudolph, Arthur Ashe and Ronald Reagan, i.e., two footballers, two runners and a tennis player.

Of these “heroes”, Lampell might be rather unknown outside the United States. He was a footballer who became a novelist and as such became blacklisted in Hollywood. His novel The Hero from 1949, was filmed in 1951 as Saturday’s Hero. The work highlights the connection between politics and sports, in this case how politicians used footballers to enhance their agenda. Lampell argued that the Great American Myth was relevant in amateur athletics. For “boys from mill towns and coal camps” success in sports entailed social acclaim.

Ronald Reagan was not poor but he started his career as a footballer. As a politician he promoted the image of himself as an action hero. His main contribution to sports is that as President of the United States he promoted private enterprise and commercialization as the financial foundations of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He tried to make the arrangers give in to Soviet demands for special treatment in the lodging of their athletes in order to gain more attention to the games in order for them gaining more income. His usually tough rhetoric language against the Soviet Union did not aim to destroy its people but to make them complicit in his endeavor and in his ambition to demonstrate “the effectiveness of his neoliberal economic policies” (p. 217). In the last instance the USSR boycotted the games but they were a commercial success anyhow. A decade later the Yeltsin regime in Russia launched extreme neoliberalist economic policies.

The chapter by Kevin B. Witherspoon on Mal Whitfield bears the title “‘An outstanding representative of America’. Mal Whitfield and America’s Black Sports Ambassadors in Africa.” As is very well known, during the Cold War the State Department sponsored cultural and sports emissaries as instruments of soft power to “win the hearts and minds of citizens in nations whose loyalties were yet to be determined” (p. 130). Whitfield was a five-time medalist in the 800-meter and the 400-meter run in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. The State Department realized that he would be an ideal sports ambassador in the campaign to counter accusations of racism in the United States. Whitfield spent almost five decades in Africa as a successful coach and he arranged thousands of scholarships in the USA for African athletes. He was praised for his service to the country by presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W Bush.

Cat Ariail’s chapter on Wilma Rudolph is entitled “One of the greatest ambassadors that the United States has ever sent abroad”. The wording is a quote from the speech by the president of the Amateur Athletic Union when Rudolph received the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award. She was the first Female African American to receive it. Ariail shows that Rudolph became an icon of American athleticism after her victories at the 1960 Rome Olympics in the 100-meter, the 200-meter and the 4 x 100-meter relay.

The word “icon” does not refer to religion in colloquial English. However, in the case of Rudolph the word retains its original Orthodox Christian connotation. Wilma Rudolph opened a window to heaven for African Americans, no less – and no more. Cat Ariail does not mention the incident, but the reader must reflect upon the raised black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the victory ceremony of the 200-meter run in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and the treatment of them thereafter. Thomas M. Hunt situates their symbolic demonstration in its broad contest in the chapter “Sport and American Foreign Policy during the 1960s” Hunt does not refer to the two as icons, but he shows that their performance in the victory ceremony made them into symbolic spearheads of the emerging Black Power movement – icons!

Damion L. Thomas is the museum curator of sports for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Museum was established by Act of Congress as late as 2003, and it was opened to the public in September 2016. Surely the splendid achievements of African American Athletes were important contributing factors behind this centuries-long overdue official recognition of African American history as part of US history. Damion Thomas devotes his chapter to US sports diplomacy towards the South African apartheid regime: “Defying the Cultural Boycott: Arthur Ashe, the Anti-Apartheid Activist”.

The USA needed South Africa as a strategic partner in the battle for Africa with the USSR. The US government attempted to limit international condemnation of the apartheid regime, although many in the US joined the boycott movement. The tennis star Ashe was top-ranked when he defied the global boycott of South Africa and played in the South African Open in 1973. Ashe thought that the victories of a Black player over white opponents would result in destruction of apartheid and racism in South Africa. After the tournament Winnie Mandela, wife of the imprisoned freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, approached Ashe in secret, admonishing him to ask the South Africans what he could do help their struggle.

Damion Thomas notes that Ashe was a Black conservative and although he was uncomfortable with the rather confrontational posturing of the Black Power Movement, he wanted to be socially active. He chose to be active in the anti-apartheid campaign. He finally learned that his own victories on the tennis court would not lead to change. He realized that he had to accept the demands of the South African fighters for freedom: “By the end of the 1970s, Ashe had become a strong proponent of the cultural boycott of South Africa” (p. 169).

The defense of the American way of life against the perceived threat from the USSR resulted in changing American society. Defending the American Way of Life has an exhaustive index. This makes the book into an encyclopedia of the sports achievements of African Americans in the postwar era and of their contributions to the civil rights movement in their home country.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2021

[1] Cold War Games. Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Toby C. Rider. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press 2016.


Table of Content


    1. Sport and American Cold War Culture
      Toby C. Rider & Kevin Witherspoon

The War of Words: Presenting and Contesting America Through Sport

    1. Projecting America: Sport and Early U.S. Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960
      Toby C. Rider
    2. Millard Lampell: From Football to the Blacklist
      Dennis Gildea

Winning the “Right” Way: High Performance, Amateurism, and the American Moral Compass

    1. The “Big Arms” Race: Doping and the Cold War Defense of American Exceptionalism
      John T. Gleaves & Matthew P. Llewellyn
    2. Preserving ‘the American way’: Gerald R. Ford, the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports, and the Fight Against State-Funded Sport in America
      Nevada Cooke & Robert K. Barney

Making Men and Defining Women: Femininity, Masculinity, and the Politics of Gender

    1. “Wolves in Skirts?”: Sex Testing in Cold War Women’s Sport
      Lindsay Parks Pieper
    2. America’s Team: The U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team Confronts the Soviets, 1958-1969
      Kevin B. Witherspoon
    3. To Win One for the Gipper: Football and the Fashioning of a Cold Warrior
      Katelyn Aguilar

Addressing the “Achilles Heel”: Race and the Cold War at the Periphery

    1. “An Outstanding Representative of America”: Mal Whitfield and America’s Black Sports Ambassadors in Africa
      Kevin B. Witherspoon
    2. “One of the greatest ambassadors that the United States has ever sent abroad”: Wilma Rudolph, American Athletic Icon for the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement
      Cat Ariail
    3. Defying the Cultural Boycott: Arthur Ashe, the Anti-apartheid Activist
      Damion L. Thomas

Manipulating the Five Rings: Public Diplomacy, Statecraft, and the Olympic Games

    1. Sport is Not so Separate from Politics: Diplomatic Manipulation of Germany’s Postwar Return to the Olympic Movement
      Heather L. Dichter
    2. Sport and American Foreign Policy During the 1960s
      Thomas M. Hunt
    3. In Defense of a Neoliberal America: Ronald Reagan, Domestic Policy, and the Soviet Boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games
      Bradley J. Congelio

Conclusion: A Post- Cold War Perspective

    1. Olympic Spectacles in the Next “American Century”: Sport and Nationalism in a Post-Cold War World
      Mark Dyreson
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