The Swedish sports hero as media construction

Ansgar Molzberger
Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln

John S. Hellström Den svenska sporthjälten: Kontinuitet och förändring i medieberättelsen om den svenska sporthjälten från 1920-talet till idag 277 sidor, hft. Malmö: Bokförlaget 2014 (Malmö Studies in Sport Sciences | Vol. 15) ISBN 978-91-85645-15-2
John S. Hellström
Den svenska sporthjälten: Kontinuitet och förändring i medieberättelsen om den svenska sporthjälten från 1920-talet till idag
277 sidor, hft.
Malmö: Bokförlaget 2014 (Malmö Studies in Sport Sciences | Vol. 15)
ISBN 978-91-85645-15-2

John S. Hellström’s book (The Swedish Sports Hero: Change and stability in the media story of the SwedishsSports hero from 1920’s to the present time) is a Ph.D. thesis submitted in 2014 to the Stockholm based Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. The study focuses on the historical development of the Swedish media representation of five athletes from different times – the boxers Harry Persson (European heavyweight champion in 1926) and Ingemar Johansson (World heavyweight champion in 1959), the world No. 1 tennis player Björn Borg (11 Grand Slam singles titles, five consecutive at Wimbledon 1976-1980), the slalom and giant slalom alpine ski racer Ingemar Stenmark (double World and Olympic champion 1978 and 1980 as well as being the winner of three consecutive World cup titles 1976-78) and the female track and field athlete Carolina Klüft (Olympic heptathlon title in 2004, three-time World and double European heptathlon champion) – which all have in common that they have been celebrated as national sporting heroes. The main research questions of the study are:

How was each of the five athletes represented as a national hero in the media within each different socio-cultural context?

What are the possible differences and similarities that appear in the media construction of Swedish sports heroes from different historical periods?

To which degree have opponent images to the five Swedish sports heroes (for example a figure of the “immoral” foreigner) been used by the media in order to stress out the positive aspects of the country’s own athletes? (p. 16)

Hellström’s work is based on an extensive study of media sources, especially different Swedish daily and tabloid newspapers as well as scientific literature about the cultural phenomenon of sport. The treatise is divided into six main chapters and an accompanying list of sources. The first chapter comprises a long introduction about the international and Swedish state of research alongside explanations of the methodological approach. Within this, Hellström defines the characteristics of a sports hero according to the three main categories excellence, person and audience and describes the differences between a sports hero and a star or celebrity. His next step explains why special periods of Swedish history and the athletes Persson, Johansson, Borg, Stenmark and Klüft have been chosen as subjects of investigation.

In the following chapters 2 to 5 Hellström provides the socio-cultural characteristics of the respective investigation period. With this information as a background, he describes in a profound way how the Swedish media at different times could create a sports hero, maintain this representation and show how fractures in one’s sporting career can lead to a deconstruction of this image.

He even was stigmatized as a “homeland traitor” for his decision to turn his back on the Swedish Davis Cup team.

In chapter two, Hellström’s first analysis is of the (media) career of the internationally successful boxer Harry Persson (1898-1979), who became a national sports hero in 1920s Sweden which was characterized by social unrest and political instability. As central terms of the Swedish media coverage, which was dominated by daily newspapers at this time, Hellström points out “masculinity”, “social class” and “nation”, as well as the importance of race. This is followed by the presentation of Ingemar Johansson’s (1932-2009) career, the only Swedish World heavyweight boxing champion till today, who in 1959 managed to defeat Floyd Patterson in New York by t.k.o. This time, in the prosperous postwar Sweden of the late 1950s, the topic of “modernity” characterizes the media coverage in addition to “masculinity” and “morality”.

Hellström portrays in detail the particular circumstances of Persson’s and Johansson’s careers, with just two boxers represented as sporting heroes in a country that was characterized for decades as holding a fiercely negative attitude towards professional boxing. The dissolving of this superficial contradiction between the glorification of an impressive athlete while rejecting his sport is especially evident in the example of Ingemar Johansson: Hellström points out that Johansson was associated with “modernity” in the media, attempting to create an image of a boxer who fights more technically and less raw.

Chapter 4 is designed as a double chapter, in which Hellström analyses the media coverage of the contemporary athletes Björn Borg (born 1956) and Ingemar Stenmark (born 1956). Both celebrated their internationally outstanding achievements at the peak of the Swedish welfare state in the 1970s and the media coverage of both careers was characterized by the active participation of television. Borg was increasingly criticized by the Swedish press, which complained about the huge sums of money existent in the glamour world of professional tennis and described his moving to Monte Carlo as tax evasion. He even was stigmatized as a “homeland traitor” for his decision to turn his back on the Swedish Davis Cup team. Hellström points out that the media coverage of Stenmark’s career stands in stark contrast to Borg’s. Even if Stenmark, as an alpine ski racer, was part of an exclusive world, too, he remained an amateur because of the rules in the 1970s and was described as an ordinary and nature-loving guy from the countryside. The possibility to earn lots of money in the later phase of his career was not criticized by the Swedish media – the time of sport’s and even media’s increasing commercialization had come.

Bjorn Borg of Sweden returns a shot against John McEnroe of the U.S. during an exhibition tennis match in Showdown of Champions November 18, 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Shutterstock/manzrussali)

This change in society and the media landscape is the framework for the next chapter. As Hellström shows, the great successes of heptathlete Carolina Klüft (born 1983) took place in an era where partnerships of sport and business were taken for granted. But in the beginning of her career, Klüft was often described as a somehow naïve “Pippi Longstocking” of track and field. Hellström speaks of “infantilization” characterizing the Swedish media coverage. He also attests the media less acceptance regarding the process of maturation during a career in the case of a female athlete.

In the final chapter, Hellström summarizes his results and discusses the continuities and changes in the reporting style of Swedish media from the 1920s until today. As a final point, he raises the question if there is still the possibility for someone to become a national sports hero in today’s fast-paced media age – in times of short-lived stardom it seems less likely that somone could become part of the collective memory of a whole nation.

Hellström presents his results in a very convincing way by using a large variety of media sources as proof, and he delivers an interesting study of the historical development of the Swedish media landscape. However, because of the study’s design it is mostly focused on the question of how the Swedish media created national sports heroes in different times during their career. It could have been of interest, too, to take a closer look at the coverage during the post-career life of an athlete. Additional investigation of jubilees or anniversaries of a great successes would have provided further interesting data. This may also have aided in an answer to the question: Is there a provable connection between the media construction of a national sports hero and a long-term “culture of remembrance”?

As highlighted, Hellström’s study is dedicated to the question of how the media does create sports heroes. A stronger discussion on the question of “why?” would have been very interesting, too, and an asset to his study. Regarding the media’s motivation, Hellström makes references to offering entertainment and – of course – to boosting sales figures (p. 255). But maybe there is more that could have been discussed. Particularly, as Hellström repeatedly refers to the application of a “good-evil-scheme” in the media coverage: On the one side, the sincere and honest Swedish sports hero, on the other side, the (morally) questionable opponent. Referring to this, questions could be: Does the population of a country need national sports heroes? And if so, is there some patriotic significance in creating such a hero? Can a single journalist or editorial staff independently make the decision to create a sports hero or is there proof of advice from above to proceed in a certain way? However, the discussion of such questions would maybe have gone beyond the scope of the study design.

Overall, Hellström’s book is very well written, exciting to read and provides a profound insight into Swedish media and social and sporting history over the past one hundred years. At the same time, it also serves as an inspiration for others to carry out similar studies in other countries. By doing this, Hellström’s results could be placed in an international context.

Copyright © Ansgar Molzberger 2016

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