Call it "Long March" Madness. It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: What was born in the United States to a Canadian father, crossed the globe with YMCA missionaries, and was endorsed by Chairman Mao Zedong for its emphasis on communal hard work? But it's not a joke. It's essentially the history of basketball, which by many estimates is the most popular sport in… China.
In the coming week, upward of 25 million Americans will tune in to the conclusion of the NCAA basketball championship tournament, or March Madness as it's more popularly known. But this number pales in comparison to the 300 million Chinese — that's nearly the population of the entire United States — who regularly play basketball. Invented at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA by Dr. James Naismith (the aforementioned Canadian), the sport arrived in China by the turn of the 20th century, transported by missionaries who understood the ritual power and pleasure of sports in bridging cultural distance. By 1949, when Mao had scrubbed the trappings of Western influence in the name of nationalist-communist rule, basketball was so entrenched in Chinese culture that it could be unironically embraced as an idealized communist sport.
This truncated history lesson is a novel bit of trivia, but it also underscores something about the nature of sports as a fundamentally human undertaking — one that can be interpreted to support any number of ideologies, used to foster peace and understanding, or wielded to foment difference and conflict. Thus, the way we see it, sports are fundamentally geopolitical.
Who We Are
My name is Dr. Thomas Hunt. Over the coming months, I and my colleague (and good friend) Dr. Tolga Ozyurtcu will be bringing you a number stories that collectively examine the complex relationship between sports and international politics. In writing this inaugural post, I have set two goals for myself. The first is simply to introduce Dr. Ozyurtcu and myself to the Stratfor community; the second is to convince you of the potential of this space to enrich your thinking about the international political environment. Dr. Ozyurtcu and I have spent years writing and editing books and academic articles for scholarly audiences. But we've always wanted a mechanism through which to discuss our ideas with a broader set of readers. In our view, the Geopolitics of Sports column provides just such a forum.
Moreover, and at the risk of seeming immodest, we believe ourselves uniquely suited to this endeavor. I began thinking about the legal complexities of international sports some years ago while I was in law school at Baylor University. After receiving my law degree, I entered an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin, where I took classes in history, public affairs and sport studies that enriched my nascent conceptions of the geopolitics of sports. Following my doctoral graduation, I had the great fortune of receiving a faculty position at UT, where I spent a fair share of my early time revising my dissertation on the international politics of drugs in sports into a book-length manuscript. Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960-2008 has, I hope, been at least somewhat successful in its attempt to say something truly meaningful about the global political system. Since then, I have undertaken several other scholarly projects — most of which focused on the Cold War and post-Cold War politics of sports.
My thinking has benefited greatly from the insights of my brilliant students and fellow academicians. Among the most talented is my partner on this column, Dr. Ozyurtcu. In fact, although he is too modest to admit it, Dr. Ozyurtcu is my superior in much of his thinking about sports and society. Having begun his career by conducting groundbreaking research on California's Muscle Beach as a site through which to understand "the body" in American culture, he has researched a variety of subjects such as sport development, sporting subcultures, and sport and cultural geography. Dr. Ozyurtcu has also developed an innovative set of undergraduate and graduate classes at UT on the management of sports organizations and the sociological, philosophical and ethical aspects of sports and physical activity. He is truly one of the most gifted teachers whom I’ve had the honor of meeting in my professional career. You will enjoy getting to know him.
A Lens to the World
This is all to say, though, that Dr. Ozyurtcu and I have devoted considerable portions of our professional careers to trying to understand the links between sports and the larger world of politics. And the more we think about them, the deeper those connections seem.
International sports are, in our opinion, worthy of serious consideration on their own merits. The fact that around half the world's population of 7 billion watched some aspect of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro says something about the magnitude of athletics as a social endeavor. But sports also have utility as a lens through which to contemplate so much more about global affairs.
International sports are, in our opinion, worthy of serious consideration on their own merits. The fact that around half the world's population of 7 billion watched some aspect of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro says something about the magnitude of athletics as a social endeavor.
Sports, of course, often serve as a tool by which governments send political messages to audiences at home and abroad. To give but one well-known example, it's hard to rewatch the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing (as I have my students do every semester) without seeing this utility firsthand. On rare occasions, sports have even become a sort of proxy by which conflicts between nation-states have played out. The U.S.- and Soviet-led boycotts of, respectively, the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics serve as classic Cold War cases of such surrogacy. More recently, the manner through which international sports organizations have dealt with the recent revelations of state-sponsored doping in Russia have reflected many of the same geopolitical dynamics at play in Moscow's broader relationship with the West.
These are the types of stories we will be covering over the life of this column. This is an exciting opportunity for us, and we hope that the results prove interesting to you!