Globalization and Sport
In a few short centuries, primitive pasture games relying on balls of rocks, rags, feathers or hair transformed into global events with intricate rules, with television and the internet tracking cricket matches in Australia to soccer in Zaire.
Any sport can now attract players or audiences in any part of the globe, and yet conventional wisdom suggests that as an activity takes on global stature, it becomes more controlled and competitive, disconnecting from local origins.
But does the process of global growth necessarily eliminate local connections or fervor? Can innovation accompany tradition? And how do endeavors that require fierce competition reveal a common humanity? Editors Richard Giulianotti and Roland Robertson delve into such questions with “Sport and Globalization,” a compilation of essays written by sociologists and anthropologists.
The nine essays largely assume global-local tensions, and yet also highlight the powerful role of sports in social and cultural change. “As modern sport has become global in scope it has largely lost its playful character and its professional practice has become both a global media spectacle and a serious and financially significant global business,” concludes sociologist Barry Stuart.
Yet despite such global growth, agues political sociologist Chris Rumford, sport still emits a clarion call to the most rigid of characters, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, who anxiously sought International Cricket Council recognition for Afghanistan shortly before their ouster in 2001.
The editors and other essayists in “Globalization and Sport” point to two forms of global growth, referring to the integration of local practices as “glocal” and the overwhelming of local ways as “grobal.”
Some sporting formats adapt more readily than others and some impose more constraints, often through national or international regulatory boards. “Local appropriation is seldom simply assimilating and imitating,” notes William W. Kelly. Styles can emerge in sports that reflect and reinforce both local and national values.
The local does not necessarily resist the global, and yet many researchers tend to privilege the local, much as audiences tend to cheer and admire the underdogs, explain David L. Andrews and George Ritzer.
Sport’s purpose is no longer limited to entertainment, often intermingling with trade, business and politics. Talent, speed and innovation are recognized transnationally in business or sport, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s essay details reasons why some sport phenomena spread while others do not: The most popular cultural products – whether books, food or sports – tend to require little culturally specific knowledge, have an “emotional, sensory or intellectual appeal” that transcends local concerns; and can be effectively marketed across borders, particularly via television or the internet. “In other words,” he writes, “low common denominators, a cheap entrance ticket and immediate gratification are factors facilitating global dissemination.” For Eriksen, soccer is a hamburger, and speed skating is akin to a husmanskost, or a Swedish fish meatball.
Competition and its regulation need not be totally centralized. Global sports such as golf and tennis manage without a world championship, instead competing with a set of world tournaments, with frequent upsets of even the most dominant players, explains Rumsford. Other sports, such as cricket, undergo post-Western transformation as former British colonies tussle with traditionalists over one-day versus multiple-day matches. Rumsford maintains that a global sport such as cricket lacks a single global modernity.
Skill combined with simplicity in regulations, reduced time requirements and viewer friendliness are characteristics that can merge diverse cultures, Eriksen suggests. Likewise, in an essay about Dutch soccer style, Frank J. Lechner joins the editors in pointing out that “Postmodern nations engage complex globalization to produce new identities, defining their particularity in relation to universal standards.”
The most intriguing parts of the book are where historical details of specific sports – cricket, soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, speed skating, baseball – are offered as evidence for the essayists’ arguments on how the local interacts with outside forces, whether protecting, mimicking or influencing. The United States, originator of many cultural trends, is almost “an island until itself when it comes to team sports,” notes Eriksen, as he rejects baseball, US football, basketball or ice hockey as sports with true global reach.
The book is academic in tone, with too many parentheses and “–tion” words, such as legitimization, annihilation, commodification and spectacularization. Still, the essays are provocative and far-reaching, and the book could discover a wide audience beyond sociologists. Anyone involved in the highly competitive, interdisciplinary and multicultural world of sport will want to understand globalization’s influence and patterns.
This student of globalization welcomed a set of essays addressing diverse sports, regions and issues, but would prefer a more specific overarching theme in future collections. One approach might be to compare the movement of sports around the globe with the promotion of governance or religion, pointing to similarities or differences. Another approach could center on economic issues. The book was published prior to widespread recognition of the global economic crisis now under way. Giulianotti and Robertson briefly point out that poverty, unemployment and forced migration in the developing world have “disconnected large populations from their sporting facilities and outlets.” Yet readers can’t help but be curious about a recent abrupt shift in attitudes – from widespread expectations that of rising global wealth to thriftiness and caution about investments – and which sport traditions might endure the current downturn.
Another intriguing approach might center in on conflicts among sports or even disdain for a sports culture. Indeed, the book’s closing essay, by Gary Armstrong, centers on the 2005 national election in Liberia when international soccer star George Weah lost to Harvard-educated grandmother Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and offers a reminder of sport’s limited power. Gender concerns, economic troubles and diverse talents can outweigh the media attention directed at major figures in sports. Despite sport’s special appeal and symbolism, societies expect responsibility from organizers and individual players.
Much of sport’s power is derived from the narratives of players and teams that emerge over time, and over-commercialization, rapid growth, intrusive nationalization, arrogant celebrity hierarchies as well as relentless quests for victory or profits that can taint those stories.