Roundtable–Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s

As we discussed in PLSC250, Woodrow Wilson set out an idealistic vision of the post-WWI world in his famous “Fourteen Points” address to Congress in 1918. As we all know, the vision was almost immediately undermined and finally turn asunder when Nazi Germany showed the rest of Europe–and the world–that military and economic power would triumph over cooperation and peace. Barbara J. Keys has written a compelling monograph on a little-researched aspect of that era–the role of sport in international politics. Of course, many are familiar with Hitler’s use of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as a propaganda tool, but that is but one event. In Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s, Keys demonstrates “how sports revealed international contact zones as well as distinctive qualities of nationhood.”*   Here is a lengthy excerpt from Thomas Zeiler’s introduction to a roundtable at H-Diplo on the Keys’ book:

  “I see great things in baseball.”  Although we cannot confirm that poet Walt Whitman actually authored this famous quote back in the 1840s, we do know that he later believed the sport to be a shaper of American character that reflected the country’s democratic institutions, striving disposition, and rising geo-political and economic greatness.  In the
middle of the next century, intellectual historian Jacques Barzun also viewed the sport as a mirror of national traits.  In God’s Country and Mine:  A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (1954), he offered the oft-quoted words, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  A half century after this publication, we come to Barbara Keys’ masterful work on how sports revealed international contact zones as well as distinctive qualities of nationhood.  Arriving in the age of globalization, her study properlysituates sports as a transnational movement amidst and between the national of Whitman and Barzun and the vast global arena.

Of course, as readers will discover, Keys’ focus is not on baseball, but she does examine the primary influence of nationalism on sporting events, particularly the Olympics movement and also other aspects such as athleticism and soccer.  Among many others, the main contribution of this book to the literature on diplomacy, sports, and culture regards Keys’ analysis of the tension between the manipulation of sports as an expression of national identity and sports’ position as a transnational carrier of culture abroad. 

*From Zeiler’s introduction to the roundtable in H-Diplo.

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