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Globalization and sport: the nation strikes back.

Saif Saeed Shaheen's victory in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the recent World Championships in Paris was but the latest piece of evidence of what some commentators believe to be a process that will inevitably lead to the total transformation of international sport. Here was an athlete, born in Kenya and formerly known as Stephen Cherono, winning a gold medal for Qatar, a small but rich state with no previous tradition in distance running, which for all intents and purposes had simply bought the services of its new sporting star. The global-sports economy, it seemed, had hammered yet another nail in the coffin of authentic national rivalry.

Many people believe that nowhere is the triumph of globalization more apparent than in the world of sport. All manner of evidence is produced in support of this claim. Frequent reference is made to the movement of athletes from one country to another, and the significance of global-sporting events is cited. The role of the media in selling certain sports to new audiences is mentioned. So too is the manufacture and subsequent marketing of sports merchandise that connects, albeit in a highly unequal relationship, small villages in India and elsewhere in the developing world with the rich suburbs of North America, Australia, and Europe. As a consequence of these and other related phenomena, it is argued that a global-sports arena has emerged. In itself, the claim is irrefutable. Scarcely any part of the world can escape the influence of a global-sports economy that touches the lives of billions of people whether as active participants, consumers, or exploited laborers. Less convincing, however, are the additional conclusions that are drawn from the essentially simplistic assertion that the world of sport reflects certain important global trends.

Many of those who are most supportive of the idea of a global-sporting universe proceed from indisputable factual observations to much grander and more controversial claims. The first of these claims is the belief that the process that is being described is new. The second contends that, as in other spheres of human activity, the consequence of globalization's impact on sport is increased homogenization. The latter is portrayed as having particularly significant implications for cultural diversity centered on local, regional, and national differences. Let us consider these extended claims.


One can argue that ever since sports emerged in their modern forms during the nineteenth century, a globalization project has been in place. One only has to consider the ways in which many sports were diffused from Britain to the various corners of the British Empire to appreciate the extent of global interconnectedness at a time when the concept of globalization had not even been created. Major global-sporting spectacles such as the modern Olympics and soccer's World Cup also predated the emergence of the idea of globalization. Furthermore, in terms of the notion of a global-sports economy, it should be remembered that athletes were moving from one country to another long before their actions were thought of in terms of global-sports migration. Saif Saeed Shaheen is by no means the first sportsman to represent more than one nation, nor is he the first to be prompted to make his move by material circumstances. For the most part, the migration of sporting talent has its roots in the economic and political circumstances of particular nations. In the final analysis, Hungarian footballers who moved to western Europe in 1956 did so for the same reason as other Hungarians. Much of the labor migration that has occurred during the so-called global era is explicable in precisely the same terms. Although the two cannot be wholly disaggregated, local conditions rather than the invisible hand of global capitalism make people want to move, and it has always been thus.

It should be added too that the idea that the manufacture and marketing of sports goods is a novel phenomenon is also open to question. Since the nineteenth century, sports equipment that has been used in the developed world has frequently been manufactured using raw materials from poor countries in Africa and Asia. One significant difference is that while once the manufacturing itself was carried out in Europe and the United States, nowadays it is much more likely to be conducted in the developing world so that multinational companies can take advantage of low labor costs. But that is a trend within capitalism as such; it is not a clear sign that the sports economy is now more globalized than it was 150 years ago. Indeed, one quickly comes to realize that since its inception modern sport has been internationalized.


However, it would be highly erroneous to assume that internationalization has meant homogenization. In fact, the appropriateness of the concept of internationalization in this context immediately casts doubt on claims that global processes affecting sport have created cultural homogeneity. For example, turning our attention first to major sporting spectacles, the fact is that, despite their global reach, events such as the Olympic Games are international rather than transnational. They involve competition between national teams. The sprinter who finishes fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials cannot simply turn up and compete in the games, even if he or she also happens to be the fourth fastest runner in the world at that particular time. Competitors can only attend as part of national squads. Furthermore, the exploits of talented individuals are celebrated with the waving of national flags, the playing of national anthems, and a medal table that quantifies the achievements of national teams. The age of the global-sporting individual has not yet arrived as far as the International Olympic Committee is concerned. Similarly, Real Madrid cannot enter soccer's World Cup even though the club has assembled a squad of players that is equal to, if not better than, the best that any single nation can put on the field. Arguably, soccer's European Champions' League has assumed a significance at least as great as that of the World Cup, primarily because wealthy clubs are in a better position than national selectors to assemble multitalented squads. But even in competitions of this sort, the contest within the contest is fought out between national soccer leagues. Thus, rumors of a proposed European league remain greatly exaggerated. That is not to say, of course, that the idea of European leagues within the context of sport is wholly frivolous, as the example of American football reveals.

A professional American football league is currently in operation in Europe with teams based in a number of major cities. On the basis of such developments, one assumes, advocates of the homogenization thesis are often tempted to embellish their claims with talk of a process of Americanization. Not only does globalization lead to cultural homogeneity, but also the content of the culture, sporting or otherwise, that has resulted is essentially American--or so the argument goes. In fact, American sports per se have had remarkably little effect on the rest of the world despite the economic, military, and political preeminence of the United States, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. One reason for this is that, at least in terms of those who play sports or who actually attend events, sporting space is finite. Just as soccer has found it difficult to penetrate the psyche of the true American sports fan, so North American sports have found little room for maneuver in Europe and elsewhere, despite the best financial efforts of bodies such as the National Football League. In some parts of the world, such as Japan and certain Caribbean islands, where the sporting space was not already overcrowded, American sports have been successfully diffused. But most Europeans who like baseball have acquired the taste while living temporarily or more probably for an extended period of time in the United States. On the other hand, most Swedes who love hockey do so not because of their exposure to the National Hockey League but because of the sport's not inconsiderable history in their own country.

All of that said, it is necessary to repeat that there does indeed exist a global-sporting economy (in which the United States is a major player) that operates hand-in-hand with transnational media. This relationship has a massive impact on the ways in which people consume sport. Most Europeans may have rejected American sports, but they cannot deny that the way in which they now watch their own sports is hugely influenced by what happens on the other side of the Atlantic. Squad numbers, sophisticated scoreboards, and even the dreaded cheerleaders are not European inventions, but they are now undeniably part and parcel of European sporting events. Developments such as these illustrate the extent to which the global and the local interact. That is not the same as saying, however, that the global is successfully replacing the local.

Arguably, as people seek ways of dealing with a world in which events in one place have obvious (and at times fatal) repercussions for people living elsewhere, a retreat into the protective shell of the local has increasing appeal. This impulse has clear implications for the capacity of sport to resist homogenization, despite the emergence of a global sporting economy. Gaelic games in Ireland provide a perfect example. If the doomsday scenarios put forward by advocates of the globalization/ homogenization thesis are credible, there is simply no future for Gaelic football and hurling or indeed for myriad other native ludic activities that are practiced throughout the world. It would be foolhardy to say categorically that their future is wholly secure.

For the time being, however, the Gaelic-games movement seems to be more vibrant than ever. Its success is due in part to the ability of its governing body, the Gaelic Athletic Association, to harness aspects of the global-sporting economy for its own purposes. Satellite television makes a global audience possible, whereas once major games were relayed only within Ireland courtesy of the national broadcasting company. Replica shirt sales have rocketed. Massive sponsorship deals have been arranged. All of this interest is proof that native games need not be entirely backward looking. On the other hand, part of their success is owed to the persistence of local rivalries--between Cork and Kerry or simply between parish teams--and national resistance--doing something, in this instance, that the British do not do. This is a world away from a homogeneous sporting culture in which there is little room for national traditions, far less for regional and local rivalries. Needless to say, many of those fervent devotees of Gaelic games also buy into more mainstream elements of the global-sporting economy--by supporting Manchester United, for example, and purchasing the requisite merchandise. For the time being, though, an attachment to the local and the familiar retains great appeal in a world in which global events and the less familiar can often invoke fear.

Returning to this year's world championships in track and field, Saif Saeed Shaheen's victory was undeniably impressive. The poignant image thereafter, however, was not of him draped in the national flag of Qatar but that of the forlorn silver medallist, Ezekiel Kemboi, holding the Kenyan flag. Here was a competitor who had done all that he could for himself and for his proud sporting nation. It would be foolish to ignore the extent to which representing one's nation remains a cherished ambition for countless young people throughout the world. Kemboi will be back. Kenyan athletics also will be back, no matter how many mercenaries can be recruited by other countries. As regards nations in general, despite the huge influence of the global-sports economy, they have not gone away--as yet--and it is unlikely that they will do so in the foreseeable future. Globalization, or at least the various processes that are categorized under that heading, has offered a challenge to the close ties that link sport with the nation. The game is not over yet, and its outcome is by no means inevitable.

Sport in Divided Societies (Meyer and Meyer, 1999). He has written extensively on the relationship between sport and national identity in Ireland, Scotland, and Sweden.

Alan Bairner teaches the sociology of sport in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University, UK. He is the author of Sport, Nationalism, and Globalization: European and North American Perspectives, published in 2001 by the State University of New York Press. He is also the coauthor of Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland (Leicester University Press, 1993) and joint editor of
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Author:Bairner, Alan
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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