Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Nation, Nationalism, and Sport: Fijian Rugby in the Local–Global Nexus

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Nation, Nationalism, and Sport: Fijian Rugby in the Local–Global Nexus

Article excerpt

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Few aspects of contemporary life are as focused on the expression and celebration of nationalism as elite sport. At all major international tournaments, athletes in many sports compete primarily as representatives of their countries, and secondarily as individuals, and even if their individuality is showcased, on television screens their name is always accompanied by their national identification. States celebrate prominent victorious athletes in formal ceremonies, such as receptions at presidential or royal palaces and processions through capital cities. The Parade of Athletes in the Olympic Games opening ceremonies prominently feature symbols of every participating nation in the form of flags, uniforms, performative announcements, and other features designed to represent the nation to the world.

Displays of nationalism have the effect of inscribing the nation onto the bodies of athletes and giving the "imagined" nature of the nation a concrete, palpable quality (e.g., Bairner 2001, Cronin and Mayall 2005, Porter and Smith 2013). On the occasion of games pitching one country against the other, fans routinely engage in displays of nationalist fervor, many of which fall under the category of "banal nationalism" (Billig 1995). Other displays can border on ultra-nationalism, as is the case of football hooligans. This nationalism often gives politicians the opportunity to further their own political projects. The practice of sporting activities, even at nonelite levels, can provide a meaning and purpose inflected with nationalism to people's lives, particularly for young men.

When we dig a bit deeper into the relationship between the nation and sport, however, we begin to find considerable complexity, uncertainty, and unease. These qualities are evident, for example, in the fast-tracking of the naturalization of non-native athletes in certain countries (e.g., middledistance runners in Qatar) and the strategic choice that some athletes make to represent countries with which they may have a heritage relationship but not citizenship, but where the competition for national selection is less stiff than in their countries of citizenship (Besnier and Brownell 2016a). The fragility and contingency of the relationship between nation and sport is also evident in the unease generated by athletes competing in international sporting events whom some deem not to "properly" represent the nation. For example, racially marked athletes of Team Britain at the 2012 London Summer Olympics Games became the object of tabloid accusations in Britain for being "Plastic Brits" merely exploiting funding opportunities; and the February 2015 chairperson of the British Football Association advocated new restrictions on the transnational movement of soccer players, arguing that the Premier League, the country's top football competition, would soon be "owned by foreigners, managed by foreigners, and played by foreigners," thus preventing promising local talent from participating in the game at the highest level (Applebaum 2015). These controversies demonstrate that the relationship between the nation and sport is mediated by a host of factors other than straightforward semiotics.

Our focus here is not the paradox of the non-local embodying the local, but a more complex and somewhat opposite situation, in which elite athletes have left to represent other places but continue to embody the nation, while part of the nation is actively excluded from the national sport. More specifically, we analyze how one sport, rugby union (hereafter referred to as "rugby"), is implicated in negotiations of who belongs to the nation-state in Fiji, an island nation in the Southwest Pacific.1 In this country, the embodiment of nationalism through rugby defines a Fiji nation as belonging to the indigenous population to the exclusion of other potential claimants, particularly members of a sizable minority of South Asian descent. …

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