Western Centrism in Olympic Studies and Its Consequence in the 2008 Beijing Olympics

By Brownell, Susan | Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Western Centrism in Olympic Studies and Its Consequence in the 2008 Beijing Olympics


Brownell, Susan, Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research


The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games will be only the third time the Olympic Summer Games have been held outside the West and its former colonies, after Tokyo 1964 and Seoul 1988. If one adds the 1972 Sapporo and 1998 Nagano Winter Games, these will be the fifth Olympic Games outside the West. China in 2008 is arguably the least Westernized nation yet to host the Olympic Games. It will also be the first East Asian country to hold the Games that is not host to U.S. military bases. When measured by the numbers of Westerners who will be in China, it will be the greatest-ever meeting of East and West in peacetime. The Beijing Olympics mark the moment when the most populous nation in the world, and the one that is located farthest from the political centres of the West both geographically and culturally, becomes incorporated into the global system more than ever before in human history.

As we saw from the protests surrounding the international torch relay and the ultra-nationalist response among some segments of Chinese society, the process of China's incorporation has not been smooth. It seems apparent there is a deep-seated mistrust and fear of China in the West, a fear of an unknown "Other." Actually China is not that unknown anymore after 160 years of close interaction with the West. This interaction began on a large scale with the Opium Wars of the 1840s, and continued into the semi-colonial period when the Western powers forced China to open ports for trade. Missionaries flocked to China in large numbers, finding a meaning in their lives that was lacking in their home countries. They introduced Olympic sports into China along the way. Western women found a greater freedom in China than they had back home, and, mistakenly thinking that male-female equality was the way of the West, Chinese reformers took up the cause of physical education for women. One of its products was the fact that in 2004, China came second to the U.S. in the gold medal count largely due to the fact that women won 59% of its gold medals, as compared to 33% for the U.S. and 41% for Russia in third. In the World War II period China was a base for British and US operations against Japan. During that period the U.S. led an attempt to form a coalition government of the Communist, Nationalist, and other political parties. This history is just now being rewritten in China after decades of the Communist Party's claiming almost total responsibility for the victory over Japan. A relatively brief period of isolation occurred in the 1950s through the late 1970s due to the West's embargoes against the Communist government, but for the last 30 years the linkages between China West have rapidly expanded.

China should no longer be strange to us, but it still is. This strangeness has been manufactured, and we as academics have played a key role in manufacturing it.

The People without Sport History

In his anthropological classic, Europe and the People without History, Eric Wolf observed that the Western intellectual tradition tended to view Europeans--the "people with history"--as the driving force of historical change, and "primitive" societies as pristine, unchanging survivals from the past--the "people without history." He argued that if we looked more carefully at the interconnections between the world's peoples, then we would understand that "The global processes set in motion by European expansion constitute their history as well." (1) His book was an ambitious attempt to write the history of the interconnectedness of the world since 1400 by focusing on trade. Olympic history could very well be a history of the interconnection of the world through sport, but the history of the interconnection between China and the West through sport is nearly nonexistent. China was dismissed from the history of sport in Western scholarship of the nineteenth century, with the result that when it reentered the international sportsworld in the 1980s, it was one of the "people without sport history. …

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