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Definition: sport from Dictionary of Leisure, Travel and Tourism

a game or activity that involves physical exercise and skill, e.g. football, hockey or tennis

Summary Article: Sport
From SAGE Key Concepts series: Key Concepts in Body and Society

The rationalization of physical activities into mock-games or sports, with agreed structures or rules, can be found across time, place and culture. Sports may involve physical dexterity with an object, as in football or baseball, or they may rely on an individual's embodied strength, as in weight-lifting or boxing. They may be played in competing teams or in individualized tests of skill and ability. Sports can be categorized into various groups. These include team sports, individual sports, contact and non-contact sports, blood sports – which involve humans hunting and killing various types of animals, known as ‘game’ – aquatic sports and motor sports, which involve racing in cars or motorbikes.

While their contemporary association is with leisure activities, in many instances sports can be directly related to training up the body in ways that might, in other times, have been intended to develop skills for purposes other than pleasure and entertainment. That is, learning to accurately wield a tool through practice in a sporting context – whether it is a spear, a longbow or a rifle – or learning to embody specific capacities of endurance (running, wrestling) or agility (climbing, horse-riding). In other contexts, these abilities secure the survival of the group in having members prepared for success in battle and in hunting down food.

The Ancient Greeks considered sport and bodily health, training and fitness as central to education, sociality and by extension political health (Elias and Dunning, 2007). Sports were a part of their understanding of civilizing processes (Civilizing Processes) and the skills learned in sports were part of what the Greeks (and Romans) saw as setting them apart from ‘barbarians’. However, as Elias argues, such contests were often intentionally violent and could prove to be both bloody and fatal (Elias and Dunning, 2007: 115). Men jousting in medieval tournaments were engaged in ‘sports’ with similar social, political and military functions. In many parts of Papua New Guinea (PNG), preparing for disputes with other clans and hunting food continues to be practised through traditional contests of skill (the Dani's mock-battles are one famous example).

At the same time, with the incursion of modernity into PNG, there is also a national obsession with modern sports that have long been abstracted from such practical purposes (football, cricket, rugby). Dunning argues that that abstraction is the result of a programmatic attempt at the sublimation of aggression into ‘combat sports’ (Elias and Dunning, 2007: 245). In nineteenth-century England this took the form of educationally sanctioned training in sports such as rugby, invented and codified (in 1848) at the eponymous school; and boxing, the rules of which were codified under the name of the Marquess of Queensberry in 1865 with the express intention of lessening the brutality of its playing by the introduction of gloves and other regularizing the practices.

From the examples given, we can see immediately that sports, both in the past and in the present, are interconnected with other categories in this book. Sport is deeply gendered (Feminism, Gender/Sex, Sexuality); it has been used as a means of defining and excluding ‘others’ (Colonialism/Post-colonialism, Difference, Nature/Culture); as we have seen above, it has functioned as a means of transferring or suppressing violence (Civilizing Processes, Violence); it has been used to express nationalistic fervour (Identity); it has proved to be a means to self-construction (Performativity); and in modern societies it is increasingly a focus of discourses around public health in both positive and negative senses (Anorexia/Bulimia/Obesity, Health and Illness, Modification/Dysmorphias).

One of the first things we should notice from the examples above is that they all related to the activities of men. Women were largely excluded from sports until the late nineteenth century. Women might exercise in ways considered appropriate to what was conceived to be their more delicate nature and as may be beneficial to their health (Nature/Culture) – by walking and, amongst the upper classes, horse-riding. But as we saw in relation to Gesture and Habits, physical openness and exertion was considered unfeminine or at least lower class. Women supposedly did not need to be taught to sublimate their aggression in more arduous activities because they were already considered to be passive and weak. The reality is, of course, that women were on battlefields, both as extraordinary individuals (Joan of Arc), cross-dressed and passing as men, as well as camp-followers who might also take part in battles (Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000).

The exclusion of women from sports extended well into the twentieth century and similar bodily assumptions about physical frailty can still be heard in arguments around whether teenage girls should be allowed to play against boys in a range of contact sports, such as football. As health movements rose in the late nineteenth century, often related to or based in eugenics movements, women and girls were encouraged to take up ‘appropriate’ sports for the health, such as cycling and calisthenics. As Lenskyj (1986) shows, the health movements still argued for particular kinds of sports for women, on the basis of their not having harmful (masculinizing) effects on the mothers of the future. Just as women gained access to work, during World War II, so too there were opportunities for them to demonstrate their sporting capacities in the US All-American Girls Baseball League: however, like Rosie the Riveter, when the war ended women were expected to abandon sports for motherhood.

Sport became an open issue of gender discrimination for feminists in the 1960s and sporting leagues were set up in many developed countries, in reflection of the leagues of the highly socially visible male-dominated sports. Despite these moves, gender remains an issue in sport, in so far as women's leagues and women's sports are still treated (patronizingly) as being less worthy: they receive less coverage and lower funding than any male-dominated sport. There are aspects of women's sports that have proved more empowering, such as body-building, where women can reshape their bodies into heavily muscled forms subverting expectations and understandings of the woman as a weaker vessel. Gender is also a site of controversy at a genetic level in sport, as is shown in the very public arguments over whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete as a woman (Gender/Sex, Genetics). Semenya was widely reported to be genetically intersex (, despite the fact that the medical results remain private and that her social identity is female.

The issue of the stratification of sports is complex and leads into other areas of discrimination on the basis of bodily attributes. In colonial contexts, sport has long been a site of segregation. An Australian Aboriginal cricket team from the Western District of Victoria toured England in 1868, but it was not on an equal footing; it was received, at best, as an anthropological exhibition and exotic oddity and, at worst, as a perversion of the game. Well into the 1980s, South African sporting teams were made up solely of whites, which led to riots in some of the countries they attempted to tour. In the US, until the 1950s, African-Americans were segregated into separate baseball leagues (the Negro Leagues) and the first African-American player to enter the major leagues in 1946, Jackie Robinson, was subjected to racist abuse. In the moment captured in the 1993 photograph on the cover of Bale and Cronin's collection (2003) on sport and post-colonialism, Indigenous Australian Rules player, Nicky Winmar, is responding to similar taunts from the opposing team's supporters. Winmar's stance is one of defiance, pointing exultantly to his bared chest, and has had a direct effect on the AFL's policies.

Notwithstanding that sports have been sites of racism, they have also provided important mechanisms for social mobility for athletes from minority groups. For example, US football and basketball scholarships have provided college educations and a pathway out of poverty for many African-American athletes. Similarly, Rugby Union has provided pathways for Maori and Pacific Islander athletes, and all football codes in Australia have offered opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players. However, this has proved something of a double-edged sword in practice, tending to reinforce racist stereotypes of the ‘other’ living in and through the body (Colonialism/Post-colonialism, Nature/Culture), as if purely by instinct and uninformed by intellect.

Sport is also a vehicle for identity, whether individual or massed. Sport can be a means of identity-formation for supporters and players alike, at both the personal and the national level. When team sports were uniformly local and amateur, individual supporters of a team stated a community allegiance to players they may see in action on a regular basis. Extending his arguments around state formation, Elias sees sports contested under national flags as a means to a particular form of masculine identity that reflects indicative stages of those civilizing processes. The intensified, globalized, commercialized post-modern societies of many developed nations have sports that are reflective of intensified globalization and massed professionalization. Individuals still claim membership of a community but, as with other forms of abstracted community that is no longer local, it may extend to teams on the other side of the planet who may never be seen live.

Nevertheless, in games or sports played under a national flag, elements of xenophobia and jingoism amongst supporters are brought out, particularly where long-held animosities exist. Serbian and Croatian supporters are often separated at International Open Tennis tournaments; European and World Cup football seasons regularly herald a spree of nationalistic violence on the streets of the host countries. The Olympics, which were re-founded in a spirit of amateur, apolitical goodwill have often been politicized. The notorious example of the politicization of the 1936 Berlin Olympics was at an overtly bodily level, as the contemporary propagandist documentaries, Olympia: Parts 1 and 2 (1938), show. The intention was openly eugenicist and racist, based on theories of Aryan racial superiority and racial hygiene (Proctor, 1988). Sport has been used as a vehicle of imperial nationalism and has been turned back on the (former) empires teams in the avid support of postcolonial teams. The prime example of this is cricket, a game now dominated at the global level by teams from the former colonies of the British Empire (Maguire, 1994; Searle, 1990).

Sports also foster a very particular kind of phenomenological identity. Like a skilled musician who has practised her instrument until the appropriate bodily movements seamlessly flow as notes are read from the page, as one becomes skilled in a sport the appropriate movements on the playing field become so embodied they appear, and are felt to be, intuitive. This may be the case at the highest level of competitive sports, highly active or relatively passive. However, phenomenological or proprioceptive experience of sports is not confined to elite sportspeople who have made careers of their bodily abilities.

The phenomenological experience of sport is also a part of the identity formation of those who are skilled but who have been excluded from professional sports, as noted above, and those amateurs who may be less skilled but are passionate about their chosen sport. Sport as discussed under all the categories dealt with to this point has been focused on bodies that strive to compete and that exhibit a socially valued physical excellence. There are bodies that do not meet socially valued standards of physical excellence who have been excluded on that basis. We have already given two examples, of sexism and racism. Even for those who are not excluded and do succeed in amateur or professional sports, the pressures of competition can lead to attempts on the part of athletes to modify their bodies beyond the bounds of naturally occurring physical capacities. This is an extension of the body modification undertaken in standard training, from fuelling the bodily machine with regimens of targeted nutrients, and corrective surgeries such as knee replacements (Cyborgs), to re-balancing hormonal flows with steroids. It is not hard to believe that athletes will be attempting genetic enhancement before long.

Sports are often about the body beautiful. However, any discussion of sport and the body in society must deal with absences based on sexism and racism, it has to deal with the absence of physical excellence. The Paralympic Games were founded after World War II initially for physically disabled soldiers and with improved prosthetics some track and field athletes in these games are now capable of exceeding the times of able-bodied world records. The Special Olympics, for athletes with intellectual disabilities, are less competitive. These games retain that sense of amateur achievement, pleasure and enjoyment that is less visible in peak able-bodied sports and are socio-politically motivated to celebrate the diversity of bodily experience. Sports also function at another level of socio-political motivation, in their inclusion in public health campaigns. Many governments promote sport within schools more than as a means to training up young bodies to greater civility, but also as a part of preventive public health measures. Like other civilizing processes, sports can be seen to follow similar patterns of self-regulation, internalization of norms and reshaping of the mind as well as the body. Sports, in public health discourses, are re-framed as a means to a healthy life and one free of what are termed preventable diseases (for example, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure). What this often means in practice is focusing on the weight of individual children who do not meet metrical standards for body shape and health (see Anorexia/Bulimia/Obesity).


A good place to start is any recent edition of Coakley's (2004) introductory reader on the sociology of sports. Shilling (2008) also has an excellent overview in a chapter on sports and their relationship to the body in society. For a comprehensive theoretical approach to the meaning of sport in everyday life, both in the past and the present, Elias and Dunning (2007) is excellent. Rippon (2006) is an explication of the famous example of the (Nazi) politicization of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and racism in sports. Bale and Cronin (2003), the cover of which is mentioned above, provide an excellent collection of readings of sport from post-colonial perspectives that includes the exploitation of child-workers in former colonies in the service of sports industries. Lenskyj (1986) is an early but approachable and comprehensive treatment of sexism in the history of sports. Evans et al. (2004) are specifically interested in the uses of sport in education while Miah (2004) is concerned with the potential effects of gene technologies on sports and athletes. For a discussion of the commercialization of sport and the pressures athletes face see Blake (1996). Eichberg (1998) takes a sophisticated philosophical approach to extending the ideas on the meaning of sport in social formations found in Elias, Foucault and Habermas.

  • Bale, J.; M. Cronin (eds) (2003) Sport and Postcolonialism. Berg Oxford.
  • Blake, A. (1996) The Body Language: The Meaning of Modern Sport. Lawrence & Wishart London.
  • Coakley, J. (2004) Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies. Mosby St Louis.
  • Eichberg, H. (1998) Body Cultures: Essays on Sport, Space and Identity. Routledge London.
  • Elias, Norbert; Eric Dunning (2007) Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Blackwell Oxford.
  • Evans, J.; B. Davies; J. Wright (2004) Body Knowledge and Control: Studies in the Sociology of Physical Education and Health. Routledge London.
  • Lenskyj, H. (1986) Out of Bounds: Women Sport and Sexuality. The Women's Press Toronto.
  • Maguire, J. (1994) ‘Globalisation, sport and national identities: “The empire strikes back”?’, Society and Leisure, 16(2): 293-323.
  • Miah, A. (2004) Genetically Modified Athletes. Routledge London.
  • Proctor, R. (1988) Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Harvard University Press Cambridge MA.
  • Rippon, A. (2006) Hitler's Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Olympic Games. Pen and Sword Military London.
  • Searle, C. (1990) ‘Race before the wicket: Cricket, empire and the white rose’, Race & Class, 31: 31-48.
  • Shilling, Chris (2008) Changing Bodies: Habit, Crisis and Creativity. Sage London.
  • © Kate Cregan 2012

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