The waning of the year ushers in a holiday feast for big-time sports fans in much of the Western world. In the United States, college football teams compete in 40 bowl games beginning in mid-December and stretching well past New Year's Day. The NBA and NFL both offer games on Christmas Day to watch from behind a pile of shredded wrapping paper. While many soccer leagues around the world take a winter respite, the English Premier League ramps up as the new year approaches; the frenzied pace of play on Boxing Day and New Year's Day can make or break many a team's season.
We also look forward to the holiday season for a few extra days off, perhaps a chance to indulge in some leisure reading by a calming fireplace or in a bustling airport terminal. And, of course, there are gifts to be given, both to loved ones and to one's self. Toward that end, it is the holiday pleasure of the Geopolitics of Sports team to share our holiday recommendations with you. Our list is made up almost entirely of books, but we don't think that's a bad thing. Although these types of lists tend to serve up recent offerings, we've decided to take a slightly different approach, focusing primarily on selections that could become the building blocks of a sports-flavored geopolitical library. If you've enjoyed our columns during this feature's rookie year, we expect you'll find something below that stimulates, enlightens and even entertains.
Politically speaking, modern sports passed the point of no return with the celebration of Nazism at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The very idea of a "geopolitics of sports," however, emerged early in the Cold War. We've examined a variety of Cold War legacies in this column and, more generally, touched on the idea that the Cold War's second round is playing out in the sports world. It's hardly a surprise, then, that the strongest body of literature on the intersection of sports and politics centers on the Cold War period. Here you'll find some of the titles we consider essential.
Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s
By Barbara J. Keys, Harvard University Press, 2006, 288 pages
Keys' work considers sports and politics in the pre-World War II era, but there's no better book to set the stage for what would come after the war. Meticulously documented, the University of Melbourne professor's research draws on archives in the United States, Russia, Germany and Switzerland. The 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin Olympics feature prominently. For all of the primary source work, Keys never loses a sense of narrative and storytelling, and the book is quite readable throughout.
Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy
By Toby C. Rider, University of Illinois Press, 2016, 288 pages
Rider's tome draws heavily on recently declassified documents and archives to provide a fantastic analysis of U.S. soft-power efforts during the Cold War. Paying particular attention to the Olympics, Rider chronicles how the American government collaborated with subversive organizations in countries under Soviet control, attempted to manipulate the International Olympic Committee and deployed a host of other tactics to promote American democracy abroad.
Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War
By Nicholas Sarantakes, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 356 pages
In this book, Sarantakes, a diplomatic and military historian, provides a master class on blending sprawling archival research and interdisciplinary analysis. The book, which represents the most complete analysis of the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, amounts to a devastating critique of U.S. President Jimmy Carter's policy miscalculations. The misjudgment that led to the boycott, in turn, reinvigorated the Cold War, spurred the Soviet bloc's boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and paved the way for Ronald Reagan's decisive presidential win in 1980.
Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics
By Damion L. Thomas, University of Illinois Press, 2012, 232 pages
Thomas offers a nuanced look at one of the most interesting dimensions of the U.S.-Soviet sport propaganda battle in his book. Thomas, curator of sports at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, explores how the U.S. State Department deployed African-American athletes to provide a counternarrative to Soviet claims (and broader international perceptions) about race relations in the United States. Thomas convincingly argues that while these efforts were somewhat successful at the outset of the Cold War, they were ultimately undermined as the civil rights movement came to a head in the 1960s.
The Fall of the House of FIFA: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer
By David Conn, Nation Books, 2017, 336 pages
The world of soccer offers another fine lens through which to explore sport in international contexts. Dozens of soccer titles are released each year, though most tend to be biographies or fan-centric chronicles. There is, however, one recent soccer book of particular interest to us, and that's The Fall of the House of FIFA. In some ways, Conn's work is premature: It's unclear as yet whether FIFA has actually "fallen," and the major corruption scandal that Conn is concerned with is still unfolding in the courts. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in a detailed account of the brazen hubris and profiteering that have exposed FIFA's long-suspected unsavoriness, this book is a must read.
Other soccer essentials for our shelves included David Goldblatt's wonderfully detailed history, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer; Franklin Foer's seminal study, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization; and Raphael Honigstein's performance-focused book, Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World.
National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer
By Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist, Brookings Institution Press, 2005, 263 pages
Sugarball: The American Game, the Dominican Dream
By Alan M. Klein, Yale University Press, 1991, 189 pages
Some readers of this column may have been surprised at just how international the world of baseball is (and has been). Over the summer, in conjunction with a podcast on the topic, we suggested the book by Szymanski and Zimbalist, which is one of the finest studies of the globalization of sports themselves (rather than sports as a proxy for globalization). We also recommended Klein's book, which provides great insight into the expansion of the U.S. national pastime into Latin America.
You Gotta Have Wa
By Robert Whiting, Macmillan Publishing, 1989, 416 pages
Transpacific World of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War
By Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu, The University of North Carolina Press, 2012, 344 pages
The baseball podcast and my debut column for the Geopolitics of Sports both investigated baseball's rich traditions in Japan, a territory best chronicled by Whiting's classic and Guthrie-Shimizu's excellent academic study.
Empire in Waves
By Scott Laderman, University of California Press, 2014, 256 pages
The World In The Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing
By Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, Crown, 2013, 416 pages
Last month, on the occasion of some recent technological developments in the sport, we looked at some of the unexpected intersections of surfing, international relations and military history. Anyone interested in the topic would do well to pick up copies of these books. Both offer academic takes, but they are far from dry reads (no pun intended). Laderman's book explores how the sport has often found itself in conflict zones or amid political turmoil, while Westwick and Neushul focus on surfing through the lens of subjects like military technology and civil engineering.
By Phil Knight, Scribner, 2016, 400 pages
While most of our previous picks tend toward the academic, we admit that we occasionally allow ourselves to enjoy some less serious works as well. For anyone looking for a fast-paced, inspirational airplane read that touches on many of the themes of this column, we wholeheartedly recommend the memoir of Nike founder Phil Knight. Ultimately a celebration of all things Nike, Knight's success story is one of resilience, risk and vision: It's not surprising that he crafted one of the world's mega-brands. Since we all know how the story ends, the most interesting parts of the book are the early chapters, especially those in which Knight hits to road and learns to do business internationally in places like Japan and Taiwan. Knight's reflections on this period provide a great perspective on the early boom years of postwar global capitalism.
Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism
By Walter LaFeber, W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, 191 pages
Sticking with a branch of the Nike empire, readers looking to inspire younger sports fans to think in geopolitical terms might consider giving LaFeber's book, which uses the rise and global dominance of the basketball superstar to offer an analysis and critique of globalization in the closing decades of the 20th century. Examining the period roughly between the 1980s and the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, this book is a nice introduction to the discipline, especially for high school and college students.
Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played To Win
By Rachel Ignotofsky, Ten Speed Press, 2017, 128 pages
For an even younger set (and kids of all ages), we're big fans of Ignotofsky's beautifully illustrated book, which includes a cast of female athletes from the legendary track star Wilma Rudolph to lesser-known heroes, like sled dog musher Susan Butcher. Though ostensibly a book targeted to young women, it's an absolute pleasure to pick up and flip through and contains something for everyone.
Directed by Bryan Fogel, 2017, 121 minutes
If you watch only one sports movie this year, it should be this Netflix documentary on the recent Russian doping scandal. Fogel originally set out to make a film exploring the limits of human performance and wound up with a much bigger story. Regular readers will recognize many of the film's characters from past Geopolitics of Sports columns, but I'm hesitant to offer too many spoilers: This is the rare documentary that moves like a thriller, and even those familiar with the story will be thrown for some occasional loops. At the risk of overstatement, "Icarus" might be one of the better documentaries of the century and one of the best sports films of our time. Perhaps the best endorsement comes from my students. When I presented it to my class, time constraints dictated that we split the showing over two days. Many of the students admitted that they had been compelled to finish it immediately on their own after seeing the first half instead of waiting for class to convene again. If I could only get them this excited about the readings.
Accessing "Icarus" requires a subscription to Netflix's streaming service, a wonderful gift for the cinephile in your life. The site has dozens upon dozens of sports documentaries available, but we have a few favorites:
- Frederik and Magnus Gertten's "Becoming Zlatan" (a profile of the globetrotting Swedish soccer genius Zlatan Ibrahimovic)
- George Butler and Robert Fiore's "Pumping Iron" (the seminal documentary on bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, who might literally embody the geopolitics of sports)
- Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer" (a surfing masterpiece that covers much of the ground discussed in Laderman's book)
Or if you'll be spending some time with kids this holiday season, fire up Netflix for Disney's "Cool Runnings" and "The Mighty Ducks," two films that have held up quite well and still deliver some of the positive life lessons that international sports contests have to offer.