Iraqi people wave their flags during celebrations after the Iraq soccer team won the Asian Cup, in streets of the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 29, 2007. (AP Photo via Yahoo)
In a true sports story that seems like a script to a Hollywood movie, the Iraqi Men’s soccer team beat Saudi Arabia in the finals of the Asian Cup on July 29th in Jakarta, with the winning goal in the 71st minute headed in by the Sunni team captain from Kirkuk, off a corner kick by Kurd teammate from Mosul. The Iraqi team was as diverse as anything Disney could think of, with Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds mixed in together under a Brazilian coach. Political leaders throughout the world all had something to say about one of the few instances of good news coming from Iraq; even General David Petreus, commander of American forces in Iraq, took the time to celebrate.
Can sports triumph over politics? Or is it yet another arena to be politicized. The ability of sports to bring together a social group is not just the main message of movies like Remember the Titans or The Mighty Ducks; it is also a main point in many of the anthropological studies of sports. There are a number of good reviews of the anthropological literature on sports. In no particular order, I would recommend Noel Dyck’s introduction to a 2000 edited volume entitled Games, Sports, and Cultures, Kendall Blanchard’s 1995 book The Anthropology of Sport (more like a textbook), or Thomas Carter’s 2002 article in Identities. There are numerous ethnographies that also have a good introduction to the field, including those written by Susan Brownell, Alan Klein, Eduardo Archetti, and Joseph Alter (to name only a few). There are many good ethnographies and edited volumes on all the major global sports such as soccer, baseball, track and field, and basketball, as well as interesting studies on more regional sports.
Much of the contemporary study of sports (especially in European circles) is based upon the seminal work of Norbert Elias, who approached sports as a necessary product of modernity by what he refers to as “the civilizing process.” From Elias’s perspective, a key component of sports is the bureaucratic control of violence through the establishment of rules and organizations that enforce them. Elias further added that sports, as an element of leisure, are an outcome of industrialization, in that work becomes increasingly differentiated from leisure in a dialectical manner. Work in modern societies imposes a rigorous restraint on individuals, increasing a sense of alienation that, according to Elias, is relieved by the “quest for excitement” in leisure (think of Victor Turner’s communitas). Sports are therefore a necessary part of modernity that provides society with a mimetic excitement that gives individuals a liberating, cathartic experience within the iron cage of modern life. Sports, however, must have the same kind of restraints as wider society for society to maintain its cohesion; they are a part of the Weberian process of rationalization. The anthropological literature on sports can be roughly divided into different topical categories, and later this week I will discuss some of them.
Sports and Identity. Sports are presented as a key cultural arena in which a multiplicity of identities (such as ethnicity, nationalism, gender, or class) are created, performed, and essentialized. Sports provide people with bodily means to differentiate themselves from others latitudinally or hierarchically (see Jeremy MacClancy’s edited volume). The connection between sports and identity is most visible in various public spectacles such as the Olympic Games or World Cup Soccer. These studies have showed how sports serve as a double-edged sword – like the example of Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in baseball, sports can both divide and unify, flatten or exacerbate differences. Pierre Bourdieu has an interesting set of articles that lay out a program for the study of sports, especially as a means of understanding social class dynamics.
Nation-states are heavily involved in the use of sports for unifying diverse cultures and communities within its borders (think of the recent victory by the Iraqi men’s soccer team in the Asian Cup), and through its patronage can transform sports into a political arena. In a study of Indian wrestlers, Joseph Alter, for example, demonstrates how wrestling spread an ideology that on the one hand is critical of the Hindu caste system through its interpretation of the body, but on the other hand is critical of the social conditions created by the modern Indian state. In some of these studies, the successes and failures of individual athletes in competition are social projections of regional and national pride and can help integrate diverse societies through an imagined community generated by athletes and teams that physically represent the nation.
Paradoxically, sports also provides a way to transgress national boundaries by re-drawing boundaries based upon the shared practices of a particular sport. Alan Klein’s 1997 ethnographic study of a binational professional baseball team demonstrates not only the possibilities of this transgression, but also its limits. Again, the recent triumph of the Iraqi national team — composed of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds — brought fans out into the streets to celebrate the victory, a celebration later marred by renewed violence. And the Sunni team captain who scored the winning goal stayed in Syria while the rest of team returned to Iraq because of the threat of violence precisely for his brining a little joy to Iraqis; not quite a good Hollywood ending.