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Introduction to Anthropology

16.3 An Anthropological View of Sport throughout Time

Introduction to Anthropology16.3 An Anthropological View of Sport throughout Time

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Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. 1 What Is Anthropology?
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Study of Humanity, or "Anthropology Is Vast"
    3. 1.2 The Four-Field Approach: Four Approaches within the Guiding Narrative
    4. 1.3 Overcoming Ethnocentrism
    5. 1.4 Western Bias in Our Assumptions about Humanity
    6. 1.5 Holism, Anthropology’s Distinctive Approach
    7. 1.6 Cross-Cultural Comparison and Cultural Relativism
    8. 1.7 Reaching for an Insider’s Point of View
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  3. 2 Methods: Cultural and Archaeological
    1. Introduction
    2. 2.1 Archaeological Research Methods
    3. 2.2 Conservation and Naturalism
    4. 2.3 Ethnography and Ethnology
    5. 2.4 Participant Observation and Interviewing
    6. 2.5 Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis
    7. 2.6 Collections
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  4. 3 Culture Concept Theory: Theories of Cultural Change
    1. Introduction
    2. 3.1 The Homeyness of Culture
    3. 3.2 The Winkiness of Culture
    4. 3.3 The Elements of Culture
    5. 3.4 The Aggregates of Culture
    6. 3.5 Modes of Cultural Analysis
    7. 3.6 The Paradoxes of Culture
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  5. 4 Biological Evolution and Early Human Evidence
    1. Introduction
    2. 4.1 What Is Biological Anthropology?
    3. 4.2 What’s in a Name? The Science of Taxonomy
    4. 4.3 It’s All in the Genes! The Foundation of Evolution
    5. 4.4 Evolution in Action: Past and Present
    6. 4.5 What Is a Primate?
    7. 4.6 Origin of and Classification of Primates
    8. 4.7 Our Ancient Past: The Earliest Hominins
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  6. 5 The Genus Homo and the Emergence of Us
    1. Introduction
    2. 5.1 Defining the Genus Homo
    3. 5.2 Tools and Brains: Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus
    4. 5.3 The Emergence of Us: The Archaic Homo
    5. 5.4 Tracking Genomes: Our Human Story Unfolds
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  7. 6 Language and Communication
    1. Introduction
    2. 6.1 The Emergence and Development of Language
    3. 6.2 Language and the Mind
    4. 6.3 Language, Community, and Culture
    5. 6.4 Performativity and Ritual
    6. 6.5 Language and Power
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  8. 7 Work, Life, and Value: Economic Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 7.1 Economies: Two Ways to Study Them
    3. 7.2 Modes of Subsistence
    4. 7.3 Gathering and Hunting
    5. 7.4 Pastoralism
    6. 7.5 Plant Cultivation: Horticulture and Agriculture
    7. 7.6 Exchange, Value, and Consumption
    8. 7.7 Industrialism and Postmodernity
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  9. 8 Authority, Decisions, and Power: Political Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 8.1 Colonialism and the Categorization of Political Systems
    3. 8.2 Acephalous Societies: Bands and Tribes
    4. 8.3 Centralized Societies: Chiefdoms and States
    5. 8.4 Modern Nation-States
    6. 8.5 Resistance, Revolution, and Social Movements
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  10. 9 Social Inequalities
    1. Introduction
    2. 9.1 Theories of Inequity and Inequality
    3. 9.2 Systems of Inequality
    4. 9.3 Intersections of Inequality
    5. 9.4 Studying In: Addressing Inequities within Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  11. 10 The Global Impact of Human Migration
    1. Introduction
    2. 10.1 Peopling of the World
    3. 10.2 Early Global Movements and Cultural Hybridity
    4. 10.3 Peasantry and Urbanization
    5. 10.4 Inequality along the Margins
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  12. 11 Forming Family through Kinship
    1. Introduction
    2. 11.1 What Is Kinship?
    3. 11.2 Defining Family and Household
    4. 11.3 Reckoning Kinship across Cultures
    5. 11.4 Marriage and Families across Cultures
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  13. 12 Gender and Sexuality
    1. Introduction
    2. 12.1 Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Anthropology
    3. 12.2 Performing Gender Categories
    4. 12.3 The Power of Gender: Patriarchy and Matriarchy
    5. 12.4 Sexuality and Queer Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  14. 13 Religion and Culture
    1. Introduction
    2. 13.1 What Is Religion?
    3. 13.2 Symbolic and Sacred Space
    4. 13.3 Myth and Religious Doctrine
    5. 13.4 Rituals of Transition and Conformity
    6. 13.5 Other Forms of Religious Practice
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  15. 14 Anthropology of Food
    1. Introduction
    2. 14.1 Food as a Material Artifact
    3. 14.2 A Biocultural Approach to Food
    4. 14.3 Food and Cultural Identity
    5. 14.4 The Globalization of Food
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  16. 15 Anthropology of Media
    1. Introduction
    2. 15.1 Putting the Mass into Media
    3. 15.2 Putting Culture into Media Studies
    4. 15.3 Visual Anthropology and Ethnographic Film
    5. 15.4 Photography, Representation, and Memory
    6. 15.5 News Media, the Public Sphere, and Nationalism
    7. 15.6 Community, Development, and Broadcast Media
    8. 15.7 Broadcasting Modernity and National Identity
    9. 15.8 Digital Media, New Socialities
    10. Key Terms
    11. Summary
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Bibliography
  17. 16 Art, Music, and Sport
    1. Introduction
    2. 16.1 Anthropology of the Arts
    3. 16.2 Anthropology of Music
    4. 16.3 An Anthropological View of Sport throughout Time
    5. 16.4 Anthropology, Representation, and Performance
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  18. 17 Medical Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 17.1 What Is Medical Anthropology?
    3. 17.2 Ethnomedicine
    4. 17.3 Theories and Methods
    5. 17.4 Applied Medical Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  19. 18 Human-Animal Relationship
    1. Introduction
    2. 18.1 Humans and Animals
    3. 18.2 Animals and Subsistence
    4. 18.3 Symbolism and Meaning of Animals
    5. 18.4 Pet-Keeping
    6. 18.5 Animal Industries and the Animal Trade
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  20. 19 Indigenous Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 19.1 Indigenous Peoples
    3. 19.2 Colonization and Anthropology
    4. 19.3 Indigenous Agency and Rights
    5. 19.4 Applied and Public Anthropology and Indigenous Peoples
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  21. 20 Anthropology on the Ground
    1. Introduction
    2. 20.1 Our Challenging World Today
    3. 20.2 Why Anthropology Matters
    4. 20.3 What Anthropologists Can Do
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  22. Index

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the anthropology of sports.
  • Explain how sports are a form of performance.
  • Identify the role that sports can play for young people.

Sports are also deeply intertwined with the human experience. The anthropology of sports is a rapidly developing field that includes specialties such as physiological anthropology and human growth and development. Sports can be quite diverse; picture a Roman gladiator, a modern-day European football (soccer) player, and an ancient or recent Olympic competitor. Another example of a sport is Trobriand cricket, a bat-and-ball game played by Trobriand Islanders that had evolved considerably since its introduction by Christian missionaries at the turn of the 20th century. Sports are expressions of passions and reflections of the human experience. They have been practiced by many cultures throughout time and across the globe. This section will specifically focus on how sports have impacted human culture and how human culture has impacted sports in turn. It will consider the historical foundation of the culture of sports and briefly analyze the way people interact with sports today, examining how human culture and societal practices are influenced by not only individual athletes but also social structures.

The Anthropology of Sports

Anthropologists understand sports as a cultural performance. The term performance can describe a plethora of actions, including any that are artful, active, or competitive—and sometimes some combination of all of these. Anthropologist Ajeet Jaiswal (2019) describes the anthropology of sports as the study of human growth and development. If one conceives of sports as a sort of performance, one also sees that each performance is unique to the performer. Each athlete, even the most impressive and seemingly unique, is a part of a larger performance. Consider your favorite sport or athletic competition. How long has it been in existence? Does it have roots in ancient times? Often, athletes and sports personalities—from Roman gladiators to more recent English footballers, American basketball players, and Olympic athletes—are considered singularly talented at their respective sports; however, without the broader cultural context that has cultivated gymnastics, tennis, soccer, and basketball, these talents would have no stage on which to perform.

Anthropologists who study sports do so within a larger context of sports and society. Interests of anthropologists researching sports might include archaeological research related to sports tools, cultural anthropological research pertaining to how humans interact with sports, or even biological/physical anthropological research on biological maturation or physical growth (Damo, Oliven, and Guedes 2008).

Statue of an athletic man extending his arm behind him to throw the discus in his hand.
Figure 16.17 A Roman bronze reproduction of Discobolus, by the ancient Greek sculptor Myron. Throwing the discus, still an event in contemporary track and field meets, has been traced back to the original Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. (credit: “Myron (fl c 460-440 BC) - Diskobolus (Discus Thrower), Plaster Replica with Broken Left Hand, Right, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, May 2013” by ketrin1407/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Sports artifacts such as the weapons of gladiators and tools used in old and recent Olympic sports have offered significant contributions to the anthropology of material art. Picture your favorite sport. It likely involves a specific tool that is a representation of that sport. Notable examples of such tools and artifacts include the lacrosse sticks of the Iroquois, hammers from the oldest Olympic hammer-throw competitions, and the modern-day American football uniform, which is designed for safety and decorated to represent affiliation, professionalism, and individual athletes.

Sports have also offered theatrical performances since ancient times. Picture the gladiators of ancient Rome entertaining the wealthy who could afford the best seats or wealthy English footballers entertaining those who are likely less wealthy. The status reversal of sports entertainers and audiences in modern-day sports represents the dichotomous nature of social status and is just one of many examples of cultural change throughout time.

The Evolution of Sports

For most of documented human history, sports have been a significant part of the human experience for both audience and participants. Archaeological artifacts pertaining to sports, including colosseums, weapons, and artistic representations of competition, have been traced back to as early as 2000 BCE in China. These ancient sports featured competitions that tested the strength, stamina, and techniques of performers, such as footraces and physical fights. Today, many nations around the world participate in a version of the Olympic Games that were popular in the ancient Greek village of Olympia. Early events included a marathon run and wrestling. The Olympics were revived in the late 19th century, with the first modern games occurring in 1896 in Athens, Greece. Though rules and regulation may have been less stringent and defined in the sports of previous centuries, competition as entertainment has existed for millennia.

Lacrosse players wearing professional uniforms and helmets in the middle of a game.
Figure 16.18 These professional lacrosse players are take part in a game that originated with the Indigenous people of what is now Canada. (credit: “Tailgate Bayhawks Game Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium” by Maryland GovPics/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Sports can provide much more than mere entertainment to people and societies. Today, when thinking about modern sports, a person may think of professional athletes such as National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kobe Bryant or National Football League (NFL) great Walter Payton. In early competitions, the wealthy attended sporting events in which the athletes were typically not wealthy or privileged. In modern times, the commercialization of sports has largely reversed this trend, with “common” people attending sporting events to watch wealthy athletes compete. The business of sports has created opportunities for financial and cultural success for people with exceptional athletic abilities. The success of athletes such as Kobe Bryant created opportunities for other athletes, paving the way for the success of people who may not have otherwise thought it possible to experience the fame, notoriety, and financial success of a modern athlete (Chacko 2020).

Heisman Trophy in a display glass.
Figure 16.19 Ed Smith was a running back in college and the NFL in the 1930s. As homage to his skill, he was asked to model for the Heisman Trophy, which has immortalized the now iconic “stiff arm” pose he took. (credit: “A Quick Stop to See the First Ever Heisman Trophy Statue @UChicago” by Cole Camplese/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Youth Sports

Recreational sports for youth are common in various cultures. This can be especially important in marginalized communities, where youth sports are often viewed as deterrents from (or alternatives to) potentially dangerous activities or preventive structures that support youth development and community by focusing on positive actions that reduce adverse social behaviors. Youth sports programs are often community-building initiatives. One such initiative is the NFL’s Play 60 program, which challenges NFL football players to engage in activities with underrepresented communities, encouraging kids of all skill levels to come together to play sports.

Among Indigenous Americans, an aggressive style of basketball called reservation ball, or rezball for short, is prominent in reservation communities. Rezball is different from traditional basketball, as the techniques used encourage relentlessly aggressive play and quick shooting. For youth on reservations, this may be one of a limited number of recreation opportunities. Rezball is documented in the Netflix docuseries Basketball or Nothing and a 2009 ESPN story about the role of rezball in the culture of Native American children.

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