The Antropology of Sport, Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics

Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell, Thomas F. Carter, The Antropology of Sport, Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics, Oakland: University of California Press, 2018

Despite its title, this book does not introduce the reader to the anthropology of sport. Rather—and perhaps more interesting, as the epilogue makes clear—Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell, and Thomas Carter want us to consider how broader anthropological concerns about contemporary society can be examined “through the lens of sport” (257). They argue that sport is unique in embodying more fundamental anthropological questions than any other human activity: the mutual articulation of personal and structural aspects of life, the human body as mediating the local and the global, the persistence of inequalities, and “the future of the nation‐state in a neoliberal world order” (258). The uniqueness of sport as a lens in this regard is perhaps overstated, since a similar argument can be made about other ubiquitous human activities such as popular music, but the idea is still creatively stimulating.
In an anthropological sense, sport as organized competition involving human bodies at play is a very old practice. Besnier, Brownell, and Carter take an “encompassing definition of sport, paying particular attention to what brackets it off from other activities of everyday life, how it is characterized locally … and how it is positioned against the mainstream activities recognized internationally as ‘sport’” (5). They correctly observe that anthropologists have largely neglected sport as a subject for serious and detailed study of the sociocultural processes that make human life meaningful. The book makes crystal clear the rich material that sport provides for multiscalar ethnographic analyses of the local, regional, national, international, and transnational power relations involved not only in shaping individual athletes’ very bodies—literally, politically, and symbolically—but also in reproducing and reforming local and global forms of gendered, racialized, and class‐related difference and inequality.
The authors outline the long history of sport using archaeology and history, starting with the ancient Olympic Games and Greek and Roman sports, such as chariot racing and gladiator combat, and taking its modern form in the transformations of the Industrial Revolution. They also bring in anthropological understandings of the universality of play as a human activity as well as of sport in terms of ritual theory. This anthropology is simply described and not engaged with critically. A short section on recent anthropological analysis of body building and baseball in terms of nationalism and masculinity could have been fleshed out in more detail.
We learn how sport in its modern form began in mid‐19th‐century Britain but emerged from activities that were not termed as such in ancient Greek Olympic and Panhellenic Games. Here we are offered a sketch of the role of sport in Western colonialism and imperialism and their connection to the establishment of major international associations such as the International Olympic Committee and the Fédération internationale de football association. The authors examine modern sports systems and globally dominant sports (such as cricket and football) as integral to Western domination, serving imperial, colonial, and civilizing purposes. These included forms of masculine “muscular Christianity” (45), which resonated strongly in the United States’ version of sport imperialism that relied on establishing YMCA branches around the world. The role of sport in post–World War II decolonizing processes is a fascinating tale of creative forms of resistance and ways for the colonized to take revenge on the colonizers on the playing fields.
Sport as a parallel to imperial projects highlights increasing conflicts between the development of Western medicine and the diversity of non‐Western understandings of health and well‐being as intertwined with exercise. That is, while Western biomedicine became the science of treating illnesses with surgery and drugs—a still dominant approach in sports medicine—many non‐Western traditions remained focused on the intimate connection among exercise, health, and “metaphysical fitness” (84), as in Indian body culture.
Sport as an international endeavor can either challenge or reproduce hierarchies of class, race, and ethnicity, and the authors offer a chapter on how this plays out in different sports and sociocultural settings. Rugby, for instance, is a national passion involving all social classes in Pacific Island nations like Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, while in France and Japan it is an elite‐class sport. Like the next chapter on the anxieties and the ideological constructs of sex, gender, and sexuality in sport, this chapter does not offer new insights for readers familiar with the anthropology of these main forms of differentiation. These two chapters are, however, the most directly useful for undergraduate teaching because they clearly define the main concepts and provide good examples from both Western and non‐Western contexts.

Perhaps the most conceptually insightful chapter is on international sport as cultural performance through mega‐events. Here the reader encounters social and cultural theory of performance and ritual in relation to sport with ethnographically rich examples of the role of religion in sport, such as in Fiji where the term rugby theology has been coined to capture ideas and practices that connect “godliness, moral discipline, and religiosity with professional success” (166). We are also introduced to the dramatic changes that television and the commodification of sport have brought, which the authors discuss with classic exchange and gift economy theory.
The internationalization of sport allows for the performance of national identity and nationalism, which Besnier, Brownell, and Carter loosely frame using Michel Foucault's notions of biopower and biopolitics. This will not inspire many new thoughts for students and scholars with basic knowledge of concepts of governmentality, nation building, or citizenship and mainly draws on such predictable notions as Benedict Anderson's imagined communities and Eric Hobsbawm's invention of tradition.
As the authors show in a final chapter, local as well as international sport is now to a large extent managed and controlled by transnational systems of economic and political power, in which new and old tensions, alliances, and forms of inequalities among nations, institutions, and corporations are created and reproduced. They point to sites and practices where ethnographers can best study these systems, such as following the movements of aspiring and elite athletes between the Global South and North and examining the financial, social, and political challenges and opportunities put into play by such mobility.
This is a well‐written and accessible text, but the lack of engagement with more recent social and cultural theory in relation to the broader themes considered is somewhat disappointing. To give just two examples, intersectional approaches to sexuality, gender, race, and class could reveal the inherently interdependent dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that frame the body and identity work in sports, and the discussion of sport through mega‐events could be expanded theoretically with recent conceptualization of events as occurrences of powerful ruptures that may resignify the past and reshape individuals as well as international politics—just think of the raised black fists at the 1968 Olympics. At its best, the book can stimulate new research in a highly fertile but understudied area of anthropology. The detailed historical outlines and the basic and clear definitions of key concepts such as ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, cultural performance, nationalism, globalization, and, of course, sport can be especially useful for undergraduate students.