Barbara J. Keys. Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. 288 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-674-72570-6.
Reviewed by Joshua Large (Universidad EAFIT)
Published on H-Diplo (March, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
The 1930s are generally not considered a heyday of globalization. The years following the 1929 stock market crash witnessed the demise of international free trade and the gold standard, two pillars of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberal capitalism. Meanwhile, that first grand experiment in political transnationalism, the League of Nations, proved itself utterly powerless to mitigate Italian, Japanese, and German aggression. Nonetheless, Barbara Keys, in Globalizing Sport, suggests that in at least one international arena, sport, the 1930s constituted watershed advancement for globalization.
The focal points of Keys’s analysis are the decade’s two Summer Olympic Festivals: Los Angeles 1932 and Berlin 1936, which established, respectively, the templates for slick commercialism and national self-promotion in global sporting events. Discussion of these two Olympiads is nested among other key sporting moments of the decade, including the first three soccer World Cups, the two legendary Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights, and the Soviet Union’s tentative steps into the international sporting arena via friendly (non-tournament) soccer matches against European club and national sides. Central to Keys’s discussion of all these events is a dialectic housed in the book’s subtitle: “national rivalry and international community.” Was (is) sport fundamentally a kind of sublimated tribalism that stoked national and racial prejudice? Or was it the internationalizing, democratic, and inclusive force that its greatest backers claimed it to be? Keys wants to show that these two notions are actually not so opposed as they might appear. The very fact that international sport matured during the 1930s, a period when rabid nationalism and bigotry were on the rise, is indeed testament to “sport's peculiar potency as a means of mediating between national and international identities.... International sport acted as a forum for nationalist rivalry, but nationalist impulses increased the internationalist power of sport” (pp. 3-4). Moreover, sport’s unique capacity to harmonize nationalism and universalism enabled it to garner a particular niche on the global stage: to accrue “a form of ‘international sovereignty’—limited but real” (p. 1). Sport’s peculiar capacity to harness nationalist energies on a collective, international stage, in other words, endowed international sporting institutions with political power. “Much has been made of the way dictators manipulated international sport,” Keys writes, “but international sport also constituted a dictatorship of sorts, and its rule extended even to the dictators” (p. 4).
Keys’s opening chapters chart the internationalization and institutionalization of sport during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was not an uncontested process. Sport was merely “one of many possible varieties of ‘physical culture’” available to the fitness-minded Europeans around the turn of the twentieth century (p. 6). Many Europeans indeed shunned the individualistic and competitive nature of sport in favor of noncompetitive gymnastics in their Swedish (Ling) or German (Turnen) variants. Yet sport’s competitive nature was well suited to—and a product of—the times, a fact which rendered it well equipped to win out over its rivals. Born on the playing fields of English public schools during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, competitive sports like football (soccer), rugby, and cricket were, in part, manifestations of incipient liberal and industrial capitalism. In addition to promoting competition, sports required fixed rules and standardized playing fields, specialized positions, precise timing and measuring techniques, qualities consistent with broader notions of progress and “modernization” (p. 21). Additionally, mass consumption of sport was fueled by urbanization and the advent of railroads, telegraphy, and mass literacy.
If sport was an English invention, it was the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin who did most to institutionalize it internationally. Coubertin’s International Olympic Committee, which staged the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, was the most prominent international sporting federation created in the years before the First World War, along with FIFA, the international soccer federation. These institutions, undemocratic and (especially the former) governed by Continental aristocrats, did much to impose standards and measurements in international competition. In so doing, they introduced an “‘empty time’ into everyday life,” creating rules and calendar cycles (such as the quadrennial Olympics) that transcended national or cultural boundaries (p. 2).
After recounting the triumph of competitive sport over indigenous forms of gymnastics and noncompetitive worker’s sports, Keys charts the rise of the United States to a position of preeminence in global sporting competition and leadership. This is another apparently paradoxical tale, as the most popular sports in the United States, baseball, American football, and basketball, were (with some exceptions) scarcely played outside North America. Yet by the 1920s, sport, despite its English roots, was “increasingly identified with the United States” (p. 68). American-style capitalism and mass consumer culture, embodied in the mechanized, standardized, commercialized, and streamlined principles of Taylorism and Fordism, left its mark on international sport under the indefatigable watch of American sport’s two leading advocates: Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee, and William Gus Kirby, head of the Amateur Athletic Union. Both men were right-wing antisemites and apologists for the Nazi regime. Although they insisted that it must be nonpolitical, both also thought that sport’s fundamentally “democratic” nature set it in principled opposition to communism (p. 74). Both men thus opposed the integration of the Soviet Union into the international sporting fraternity.
The Americanization of sport was in many ways cemented, Keys suggests, by the successful staging of the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. These were the first major Games held outside Europe (the 1904 St. Louis Olympiad was little more than an adjunct to that city’s World’s Fair) and although the depression took a serious toll on participation, Keys argues that the organizational efficiency, marketing, and commercialism of Los Angeles’s effort “stamped the Games as a globally significant festival whose meaning extended far beyond the sporting feats it showcased” (p. 92).
If the Hollywood treatment in 1932 did much to expand the global appeal of the Olympics, Keys contends that the Berlin Olympics of 1936 took both organizational scale and (especially) national propagandizing to entirely new levels. The Berlin Games, from their clever innovation of the Olympic torch relay, through the grand spectacle of their opening ceremony, to their brilliant facilities, equipment, press coverage, integrated transportation infrastructure, and ancillary hoopla truly showed the way for today’s “mega-event” extravaganzas. They were also, for the most part, a public relations triumph. Many countries, including the United States and Britain, had seriously threatened boycott, yet many foreign visitors to Berlin came away thoroughly impressed with the German achievement, if not necessarily sold on the Nazis themselves.
As the clearest example of the newfound prominence of modern international sport in the 1930s (although the first three soccer World Cups were also held during the decade, these were tiny events compared to today’s iteration) the Berlin Olympics would seem to offer the most compelling support for Keys’s thesis. And indeed, her dialectical treatment of nationalism versus internationalism puts a deft and often subtle gloss on the complex and apparently contradictory impulses behind the Nazis’ embrace of international sport and its ostensibly liberal and democratic ethos. In other respects, however, her treatment of the Berlin Games is symptomatic of the book’s broader problems. Here as elsewhere, Key’s commitment to the notion that international sport garnered for itself a limited but meaningful international sovereignty occasionally compels her to overstate the case for such sovereignty and/or its importance. She writes, for instance, that by threatening to boycott (a move that would certainly have led to many others following suit) the Americans “cajoled the Nazi regime into small but significant concessions, including the inclusion of two athletes of mixed ancestry on the German team” (p. 87). Small concessions indeed, but significant? Elsewhere she observes that although the Nazi propaganda machine may have been partially successful on the international sporting stage, this “entailed compliance with international norms that many Nazis found distasteful” (p. 131). Undoubtedly many Nazis did find “international” norms distasteful, but did their brief and entirely pragmatic bending to them have any long-term effect? Allowing a couple of token half-Jewish expatriates to compete, while at the same time suspending readily visible forms of persecution for the duration of the Games constituted a very small price for the public relations coup the Olympics handed the Nazis on a silver (or gold) plate.
Elsewhere, Keys indeed acknowledges that “the ‘Olympic pause’ … was short-lived and left no lasting imprint on the Reich’s murderous racism” (p. 136). And certainly it would be wrong to imply that she is taken in by all the democratizing-egalitarian rhetoric the likes of Avery Brundage were fond of spouting. For instance, she offers the astute observation that Brundage and his ilk’s fetish for “amateurism” was “a cover, in many ways, for class” (p. 81). Nonetheless, an unresolvable tension between the need to show international sport’s political transcendence in the 1930s and the need to transmit the reality of sport being manipulated as cynically and effectively as any other of the era’s institutions (The League of Nations, the Versailles Treaty, Neville Chamberlain) does rear its head on other occasions I will not enumerate here.
Rather, I will conclude by briefly returning to the question of competitive sport’s embeddedness in capitalism. Keys’s study is not built around this issue, though two recent books, Tony Collins’s Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History (2013) and Michael Lavalette’s edited volume, Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play (2013), are. Perhaps, however, a somewhat greater emphasis on the political economy (rather than merely the politics) of international sport would have helped resolve some of the book’s aforementioned issues. What enabled the leaders of international sporting institutions to traffic so blithely in the gross contradiction between their high-minded universalist rhetoric and their latent (or explicit) elitism, bigotry, and ideological agendas? What enabled them to so seamlessly conflate national interest and identity with global interest and identity (“what was considered most American was also considered most universal,” as Keys aptly quotes of American cultural diplomacy in general)? I would suggest that this kind of code switching is at the heart of liberal capitalism itself. Virtually any neoclassical business or trade textbook will partake of similar (often sport-inspired) contradictions: talk of “level playing fields” and “non-zero-sum games” universally benefiting all participants sits in unperturbed company with quasi-social Darwinist language about competitiveness, the utility of winners and losers in global trade, and, of course, national self interest. International sport became a successful and lucrative niche within the global system in part because it so powerfully dramatized capitalism itself, so ably packaged and marketed this drama, and because its governing bodies so effectively channeled liberal capitalist ideology. All this made international sport politically powerful; it did not, in any meaningful sense, make it autonomous of the underlying system. The Nazis understood this reality and exploited it.
But of course, international sport is not simply a capitalist simulacrum. Keys is no doubt correct to situate much of sport’s success in the provision of a (generally) nonviolent forum for national and ideological rivalries to play themselves out, as the Cold War era in particular would later demonstrate. However, the fact that sport provided a global stage replete with universal measurements, rules, and rhetoric for such spectacle surely does not alter the fact that the content and prevailing spirit of these events remained profoundly national.
Such concerns aside, it must be noted that Globalizing Sport is a highly readable book that clearly and concisely tells a very complex and interesting story. It is also very well researched, making good use of archival sources in English, French, German, and Russian. It therefore ought to appeal to a broad audience, one which this new paperback edition (the first edition was published in 2006) will hopefully encourage.
. Morrell Heald and Lawrence S. Kaplan, Culture and Diplomacy: The American Experience (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), 4; quoted by Keys on p. 88.
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