contributor perspectives

The 2018 Gift Guide for the Geopolitically Curious Sports Fan

Tolga Ozyurtcu
Board of Contributors
9 MINS READDec 5, 2018 | 09:15 GMT
Some recommended titles for your geopolitics of sports library.

A collection of recommended sports titles.


It's the first week of December, which means that my fellow Americans and I have been inundated with holiday jingles and gifting imperatives for (at least) the past fortnight. It also means that it's time for the second annual edition of "Gifts for the Geopolitically Curious Sports Fan," which is quickly becoming one of my favorite seasonal traditions! In the inaugural edition, I selected books (and a few films) that might serve as the foundation of a sport and geopolitics library. This year's recommendations include some more recent titles to add to your collection. The list skews toward my personal and professional interests. I am primarily a historian by trade, and these books are mostly historical works I've read in service of my teaching, research and writing that I think Stratfor readers might enjoy.

As I reviewed my reading notes from the past year to make these selections, three general categories emerged: the historical globalization and localization of sports, Russia and the legacies of the Cold War, and U.S. domestic issues with potentially global implications. That these categories mirror the "three worlds" schema of the 20th century is unintentional, but perhaps appropriate given the outsize influence of the Cold War in politicizing world sport.


Global Sports, Local Traditions

Baseball Beyond Our Borders: An International Pastime
Edited by George Gmelch and Daniel A. Nathan, University of Nebraska Press, 2017, 495 pages

Le Football: A History of American Football in France
By Russ Crawford, University of Nebraska Press, 2016, 334 pages

The Invention of the Beautiful Game: Football and the Making of Modern Brazil
By Gregg Bocketti, University of Florida Press, 2016, 316 pages

My first piece on the geopolitics of sports for Stratfor examined the history of baseball in Japan and since then, my fellow contributors and I have regularly considered how the diffusion of sports around the globe can inform understandings of soft power, nationalism and other geopolitical themes. This first batch of books is a collection of deep dives into what happens when sports cross borders.

Baseball Beyond Our Borders is an ambitious and impressive collection of baseball writing, featuring perspectives from academics, journalists and insiders alike. This is the second edition, now expanded to include sections on the Middle East and Africa, furthering the argument that America's "national pastime" is now truly a global game. Alongside essays on baseball stalwarts like Japan and the Dominican Republic, readers will find takes on the sport in less expected locales, like Finland and Israel. Obviously a great choice for baseball fans, this book could also function as a nice general introduction to how cultural practices are spread, adopted and localized.

Russ Crawford's Le Football: A History of American Football in France chronicles a decidedly less established American export. If, like me, you like stories about things that take root and survive in unexpected places, you'll enjoy this history. Unsurprisingly, the early history of the game in France focuses on the American military presence. The U.S. leadership funded football competitions and clinics to boost morale and maintain national identity, but Crawford argues that the Americans made little effort to bring the game to the local population. Crawford goes on to examine some failed attempts to develop the sport in France after the American troop withdrawal in the 1960s, before telling the story of Laurent Plegelatte, a physical educator who fell in love with the game and became the father of French football in the 1980s. Plegalatte's legacy can be found in the 200-odd clubs currently playing American football in France; it also serves as a reminder that global cultures are imported as well exported.

If American football in France seems odd, few sports seem more "naturally" at home than soccer in Brazil. To many fans — including Brazilians themselves — the sport and the famously fluid "joga bonito" style of play that Brazil is known for are inextricably linked to Brazilian national and cultural identity. But as Gregg Bocketti elegantly argues, the wholehearted national embrace of the sport was not an inevitability, but was an intentionally nurtured, mythologized and invented tradition. Focusing on the early years of Brazilian soccer, from the 1890s to the 1930s, Bocketti's study is not a comprehensive history of the country's passion for the sport, but an insightful analysis of the power dynamics and sociocultural building blocks that set the stage for the beloved national game, and how the game partially shaped the broader identity of the nation.


Russia and the Olympics

The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968: Sport as Battleground in the U.S.-Soviet Rivalry
By Erin Elizabeth Redihan, McFarland, 2017, 276 pages

The Olympic Games, the Soviet Sports Bureaucracy, and the Cold War: Red Sport, Red Tape
By Jenifer Parks, Lexington Books, 2017, 196 pages

Putin's Olympics: The Sochi Games and the Evolution of Twenty-First Century Russia
By Robert W. Orttung and Sufian N. Zhemukhov, Routledge, 2017, 135 pages

From seemingly never-ending doping scandals to hosting a literally militaristic, quasi-Olympic event, Russia is a constant in the geopolitics of sports. The country's interest in the political uses of sports provides ample fodder not only for me and my fellow Stratfor contributors, but also for a sizable contingent of scholars and authors. If you buy only one book on sports and Russia this year, it should be Erin Redihan's The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968. While Redihan's basic premise — that the Cold War was partly played out in the Olympics — is nothing new, her book is nonetheless a valuable contribution to the scholarship on the subject. Thoroughly researched and quite readable, the book contextualizes pre-Cold War sports in both the United States and Soviet Union, before tracing the on- and off-field rivalries that characterized the decades between the end of World War II and detente. Redihan convincingly argues that both nations' sport-related policies reflected broader political realities and that the politicization of the Olympics, while bemoaned by some traditionalists, was a driving force behind the Olympic Games' global appeal.

While Redihan's history might appeal to armchair historians and sports buffs, the books by Parks and Orttung and Zhemukhov are decidedly academic studies, narrower both in scope and target audience. Parks' exploration of the Soviet sporting-political infrastructure is a richly researched, valuable contribution to the study of Cold War sports. Whereas most scholarship on the subject focuses on international politics and diplomacy, Parks ably teases out the interplay among the Soviet sport governance apparatus, state political leadership and the International Olympic Committee. Parks concludes with a close analysis of the bidding and buildup to the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and offers some interesting parallels connecting the 1980 event to Russia's 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

The Sochi Games are at the heart of Putin's Olympics, a look at the functions and uses of sport in contemporary Russia. Orttung and Zhemukhov — both Russia scholars at George Washington University — draw upon their expertise and a range of sources to deconstruct the Sochi games. The authors argue that the Olympic bidding and hosting process allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian state to pursue a number of political, economic and military ends, from censorship to the invasion of Crimea. Orttung and Zhemukhov's insights will not surprise Stratfor readers and observers of the region, but their work offers a notable case study.


Athletes as Protesters

The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism
By Howard Bryant, Beacon Press, 2018, 288 pages

The Revolt of the Black Athlete: 50th Anniversary Edition
By Harry Edwards, University of Illinois Press, 2017, 232 pages

While most of my writing in this space covers sports in international contexts, it has been hard to ignore the ongoing debates in the United States about the NFL, player protests and patriotism. With President Donald Trump regularly inserting himself into the conversation, it is certainly a political matter, if not explicitly geopolitical. It has been a frustrating national conversation for many Americans, one that tends to lack adequate context and a refusal by many to confront the racial dynamics of the player protests and related critiques of those protests.

Journalist Howard Bryant's The Heritage is the type of book that could elevate the national conversation. Bryant clearly demonstrates that the separation of politics and sports that many commentators clamor for borders on the impossible, that those who wish to turn back the clock to when ballplayers were just ballplayers are suffering from false nostalgia. From the actions of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and John Carlos and Tommie Smith to the inaction of figures like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to the current era of Colin Kaepernick, Bryant focuses on the outsized platform available to black athletes in the United States and traces how sportspeople in different eras have chosen to use (or not use) this platform. As the publisher's description notes, "The Heritage is the story of the rise, fall, and fervent return of the athlete-activist." It is a book both inspirational and frustrating, but one worth reading and thinking about, especially for Americans concerned with the state of domestic sports.

Bryant's history is particularly timely, as this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympics, during which Smith and Carlos raised their fists in the famous black power salute. Smith and Carlos were in part inspired and mentored by Harry Edwards, the activist and professor who was the "architect of the Olympic boycott." Edwards' seminal Revolt of the Black Athlete received its own 50th anniversary treatment last year, updated with a timely new introduction and afterword by the author. It was Edwards who led an influential student and athlete football boycott at California's San Jose State University in 1967, in turn inspiring dozens of similar protests and the eventual founding of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the movement that pressed for an African-American boycott of the 1968 Summer Games. While only a handful of athletes stayed home, when Smith and Carlos took their now-legendary stance on the podium, they did so wearing Olympic Project pins, in addition to their famous black gloves. Edwards' original text is still a classic of 1960s activism: incisive, angry and pulling no punches. The additional commentary in the new edition allows Edwards — still a faculty member at San Jose State — to reflect on the lessons of history and how those lessons are often obscured, ignored or forgotten. Bryant's book is probably the better starting point on the subject, but Edwards' work remains a vibrant snapshot of its moment and a deceptively timely critique.

Happy holidays and happy reading!

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