Cultural Imperialism and the Diffusion of Olympic Sport in Africa: A Comparison of Pre- and Post-Second World War Contexts

Article excerpt

Introduction

The diffusion of Olympic sport in Africa in the pre- and post-World War II periods provides an interesting contrast. In the period before the War the spread of sport was largely a colonial affair, conducted through (or at least with the approval of) the colonial powers, and in processes in which the IOC leadership was implicated. Realistically to spread the message of Olympic sport, the cooperation of the ruling political elite was essential. In this paper we explore the ideas associated with this phenomenon and the tensions that existed between some of those in the Olympic Movement who were keen to propagate sport among indigenous groups, and those whose reservations were evident and were largely an expression of political fears of promoting (cultural and political) self-assertion by such groups. The vehicle for our discussion of this period is an analysis of Coubertin's writings in relation to sport in Africa, in particular those produced later in his life when colonial powers had begun to wane.

In relation to the post-war period we focus on the emergence of Olympic Solidarity and its forerunner the Committee for International Olympic Aid (CIOA) in the 1960s and early 1970s. The vehicle for our evaluation here is an analysis of the correspondence and reports relating to the founding and early activities of Olympic Solidarity in this period. From the 1950s to the end of the 1970s, 48 new NOCs were recognized in Africa and Asia (almost 25% of the total of NOCs currently recognized) and thus the political balance of power in the movement was changing significantly. Sport aid in this period was used as a vehicle for 'incorporation' of new states into the movement. The major concerns on the part of the Western elite represented within the IOC were twofold. In relation to sport there was a fear of a threat to the global / universalist claims of the IOC. Oppositional sporting movements such as the Women's Games, the Worker Games and the Communist Spartakiads had been overcome by incorporation in the period before and immediately after the Second World War. The threat of a breakaway movement was manifest in real terms when Indonesia led the movement for the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1965. Secondly, and in broader political terms the Western leaders of the Olympic movement were concerned about the use of sport aid as a vehicle to attract support in Africa and Asia by the Soviet Union in particular.

Finally we seek on the basis of the contrasting of these two periods to evaluate the extent to which cultural imperialism provides the most appropriate perspective to understand the processes identified.

Methods

The approach adopted in this paper seeks to identify the structures and processes in development / at play across these two periods in the Olympic world. Who were the agents involved? What was the nature of the arguments adopted by the various parties to support their position in relation to the diffusion of Olympic sport in Africa? What structural resources were available to those actors and how did the actions of those involved reproduce or undermine such structures? How did the very different structural contexts of pre- and post-war Africa enable / constrain the adoption of particular approaches to diffusion of Olympic sport? To what extent do the events of the two periods lend themselves to a cultural imperialism account of the phenomenon of diffusion of Olympic sport in Africa?

As we have noted, in the pre-war period we consider the discussion of diffusion in Africa through the prism of Coubertin's own writings. Coubertin is selected for analysis since he was founder and President of the IOC, and is generally regarded as the most influential figure in the early period of the Olympic movement. His writings provide evidence of his world view (values, norms, perspectives) in relation to sport and to the imperial powers and their colonies, as well as providing one man's testimony to the rationales underpinning action by the IOC and its members. …