Anthropologists bring new perspectives to the study of sports


Sepandarmaz Mashreghi
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell & Thomas F. Carter
The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics
333 pages, paperback, ill.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 2018
ISBN 978-0-520-28901-7

The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics is co-authored by Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell and Thomas F. Carter and published in 2018 by University of California Press. The authors begin with a rather overstated, and yet intriguing, claim that sport is one of the unique human activities that brings together emotions, politics, money, morality and physicality in the lives of ordinary people. Although such a claim is not unique to sport, and there are many other human activities that can embody fundamental anthropological questions (for example pop music, and culture in general), for those of us who are interested in sport the claim is a stimulating thought. Many of us will also agree with the authors that sport is an under-researched area within the larger field of anthropology (and, in fact, the social sciences), and yet it is entangled with so much of people’s lives around the globe.

The book is written in eight chapters that are concerned with history, colonialism, health, race, gender, mega-events, nationalism and world system. These chapters, each of which can stand alone, are written in an accessible manner that resembles an introductory textbook with a more informative style. That is, although plenty of examples are provided in each of the chapters, discussions and analyses stay at an introductory level. As such this book can be of interest to students of sport, just as well as to sport enthusiasts. In fact, considering the fact that I am not an anthropologist, this feature suited my purposes perfectly. Reading the book, I gained an overview of the above-mentioned topics without getting lost in the language and science of anthropology.

The authors highlight the conventional definition of sport, “as an invention dating back to mid-nineteen century Britain” (p. 3) and claim that such understanding of sport is rather limited. Instead, they argue for, and use, a more encompassing definition of sport while being mindful of the Western-centric historical processes; “paying particular attention to what brackets it off from other activities of everyday life, how it is characterized locally, how it is understood by others, and how it is positioned against mainstream activities recognized internationally as sport” (p.5).

In fact, Olympic Games emerged in an ‘orientalising period’ of ancient Greece, during which the Greeks’ culture and practices were heavily influenced by and borrowed from western Asian states, i.e., the Iranian federative system, Assyria, Phoenicia, etc.

In the first chapter, the authors turn their attention to ancient Greece and its position as the birth place of modern sport. They discuss how British, French and German scholars have been responsible for constructing ancient Greeks as the pioneers of modern sports. Ernst Curtius and his followers, for example, claimed that the ancient Greeks’ competitive agonal spirit, manifested in the Olympic Games, has a been a defining feature of Western civilisation. Besnier and colleagues are quick to remind us that this construction is imagined, since ancient Greece had been a crossroads of many cultures. In fact, Olympic Games emerged in an ‘orientalising period’ of ancient Greece, during which the Greeks’ culture and practices were heavily influenced by and borrowed from western Asian states, i.e., the Iranian federative system, Assyria, Phoenicia, etc. The construction of this particular imagined history (where ancient Greece becomes the birth place of Western civilisation and hereby modern sports) has legitimised different kinds of sporting practices as well as justified power of certain regions over others. Yet, the myth of the ancient Greek and its Olympic Games still underpins modern sports organisations and movements. It seems as though, in the realm of sports, there are many non-Greeks who are quite attached to the fictional ancient Greeks and their imaginary Olympian past.

Another chapter which I found interesting was the chapter on gender, sex and sexuality. The authors draw examples from various sporting forms, histories, ideologies and legislations related to gender and sex in order to complicate the simplistic notion of gender binaries present in modern sports.  They conclude that the insistence on separating men and women in sports is grounded on ideology rather than science, and that there is “no foolproof test for separating men from women” (p. 157), nor any solid scientific evidence that testosterone may bestow an advantage in sports. They argue that the binary opposition of male and female in sports forms a cherished ideology that must be maintained and defended against anxiety and threats. Moreover, the prevalence of homophobia and transphobia in sports are symptoms of this anxiety about gender. They conclude that “clearly, in the eyes of many sports officials (who have almost all been male), the hierarchical distinction between male and female must be maintained, even if it is a great cost to living human beings” (p. 157).

Image credit: Sasin Tipchai.

A very intriguing feature of the book is how the authors, on several occasions, disrupt the linearity of time by collapsing history to juxtapose certain ideas and events, from past and present. For example, the authors link modern sports to Roman sport, claiming that there are too many uncomfortable similarities. For example, how Romans used to admire, exotify and eroticise sports celebrities from outsider ethnic backgrounds while simultaneously fear them is awfully similar to the treatment of African athletes in today’s sports. In addition, the use of sports by local politicians who hosted grand games in order to win support for their political parties is reminiscent of the modern mega sporting events. In this way, social, political and economic organisation of modern sports has much more in common with Roman sports than with the ancient Greeks and their Olympic Games. On another occasion, the authors discuss how the concept of gift economy present in the Afghan sport of Buzkashi (goat dragging) can also be seen in (mega) sport events such as the Olympics. Buzkashi was often hosted by a Khan (an elder) who relied on the help of his loyal kin and others who wanted to win favours with him. In comparison, the modern sporting (mega) events would not be possible without a large network of volunteers who donate their time. This donation labour is reminiscent of the Afghan Khan’s support network provided during the Buzkashi. Sport event volunteers are motivated by loyalty or by the prospect that such experience can facilitate their future opportunities; This is not so different from the Khan’s loyal allies or those who wanted to be in his favour in order to enhance their future prospects.

The presence of such interesting historical/contemporary overlays made the reading of the book more enjoyable for me and provided a break from the sometimes monotonous and repetitive tone of the text. As discussed before, the analyses in the book are rather introductory which after a while, in combination with the somewhat repetitive examples that are centred around the Olympic Games, make the book sound more like a report. Still, these same features also make it possible to read each chapter independently, and contribute to the book’s accessibility. Overall, I recommend reading the book, not so much to gain deep knowledge about anthropology of sport, but rather as an opening for examining broader anthropological concepts such as race, gender and body politics “through the lens of sport” (p. 257).

Copyright © Sepandarmaz Mashreghi 2021

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