Globalization and Sport: The Nation Strikes Back

By Bairner, Alan | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Globalization and Sport: The Nation Strikes Back


Bairner, Alan, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


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.

IS GLOBALIZATION OF SPORTS NEW?

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. …

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