A sport history primer with impressive scope but somewhat lacking in depth and cohesion


Jens Ljunggren
Department of History, Stockholm University


Gerald R. Gems
Sport History: The Basics
218 pages, paperback
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2021 (The Basics)
ISBN 978-0-367-54392-1

The prime target group for Sport History: The Basics are students in sport history and sport science. However, the general reader with an interest in social and cultural history as well as those with a general interest in sport are also invited to take part of this overview. The author starts by asking why we should devote ourselves to sport history. He answers the question by arguing that sport history gives us an insight into society’s overall political, economic, social, technological, etc. development. Furthermore, in this book, sport becomes a peephole into society to better understand the historical development of categories such as ethnicity and race, gender, class reactions, religion, identity, migration and nationalism. The author even attributes sport history with the capacity to tell us who we really are as individuals and social beings.

Above all, this book serves as a comprehensive catalog of sport history publications and research perspectives. Interestingly, the author looks far back in time and lists several titles that were published long before sport history was established as an academic discipline from the 1960s and onwards. He also describes when and how different institutions and journals were founded and how sport history has developed as a research field. In connection with this, he refers to researchers according to which sport history to be meaningful must be emancipatory and political. Personally, I am not at all sure about that.

If you are interested in finding book titles and getting an overview of what research that has been conducted in different areas of sport history, you may very well find what you are looking for in this book.

All in all, the book contains nine chapters. To a slightly different extent, each one of them deals with both history and historiography, and the chronological as well as the geographical width of the book is remarkable. The introductory chapter describes how sport history was established and institutionalized both in a number of countries and internationally. In 1967, the International Committee for the History of Physical Education and Sport was founded in Prague, which in 1989 merged with its Western European counterpart to form the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport (ISHPES), which still holds annual conferences. A similar organization was founded in 1991, The European Committee for Sports History (CESH). The first sport history journal was published in Canada in 1970. Two years later, The North American Society for Sport History, NASSH, was founded, and in 1982, The British Society of Sports History. At about the same time even the Australians formed a sports history society, ASSH.

The book’s second chapter, “The work of a sport historian”, briefly describes the development of different theoretical approaches in sport history from social history to postmodernism, and accounts for some of the discussions that have been conducted about these perspectives. The same chapter provides a number of practical insights into what it means to be a sport historian when it comes to research, publishing and teaching. Each of the book’s other chapters addresses a specific area of research: gender, race, nationalism, religion, leisure and mega-events. Finally, the book gives us a further overview over a number of different countries.

The chapter on gender begins with an account of China BC. After a brief overview of the development of gender-relations until the beginning of 19th century, the author leads us into accounts of feminism in England and the United States. These are followed by an historiographical overview of gender research in sport history. The chapter on race starts with the racial theories that emerged in Europe from the late 17th century and accounts for how they were incorporated into colonialism and expressed in American racial laws. African Americans’ sport activities and the racist attitudes these men and women had to confront are described in some detail. Added to this are some examples from the rest of the world. The historiographical part of this chapter provides, among other things, a short overview of whiteness studies.

The chapter on nationalism proceeds from the 19th century’s national upsurge in German turn-gymnastics and in the British boarding schools. It goes on to describe the dissemination of various sports in the world and how the diffusion process was accompanied by nationalism. After focusing, in particular, on Japanese and American nationalism, the chapter ends with a short and comprehensive discussion of how sport can function as a national signifier. The chapter on sport and religion is characterized by geographical breadth and an extended time perspective. Among other things, it deals with the YMCA and how sports have been practiced in various religious contexts. Finally, it briefly discusses sport as substitute for religion. The chapter on sport and leisure shows how leisure has emerged as a societal phenomenon and developed during the early modern period and the industrial revolution. Thereafter follows a brief enumeration of different leisure sports and their respective developments. The chapter on mega-events highlights the Olympic Games, while also a number of different significant national and international sporting events are considered.

Gems is doubtless a highly well-read scholar which certainly is a major strength of the book. Sport history can be used as a catalog of sport history research from different motives and angles. If you are interested in finding book titles and getting an overview of what research that has been conducted in different areas of sport history, you may very well find what you are looking for in this book. However, the book’s catalog-like format is also problematic. Frequently, its accounts are far too brief, and the author tends to jump from one topic to another far too quickly. The book impresses with its long-time perspectives and wide geographical span. It does, however, not convince in terms of cohesion, depth and consistency. It may very well be that an introductory book of this kind does not need to go in-depth on all issues. Still, I would have liked to see more cohesive historical narratives. The book’s fragmented presentation makes it a hard read.

Copyright © Jens Ljunggren 2022

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