The sporting life

Sports Culture in Latin American History
Edited by David M K Sheinin
2015, University of Pittsburgh Press
236 pages, paperback

SPEND a short period in any household in Latin America and you will soon become aware that its members across all generations are obsessed with sport. My suegro in Mexico City worships football, and the soccer channel on his television is – literally – never turned off. A retired old man, he wears his Manchester United strip with pride whenever he leaves the house. My cuñado is similarly obsessed with boxing, watching bout after bout into the early hours every day, familiar with every jab and haymaker. My cuñada is a jogger, up at the crack of dawn to run long distances every morning in between competitive marathons, and a veritable consultant on the anatomical mechanics of her passion. And she is a mere 62. My nephews and nieces live in track suits, never off the field for this training exercise or that competition, veritable archetypes of the benefits of physical activity. But sport is not just a way of life for so many ordinary people, from Mexico to Argentina, it is also a cultural and political marker that has helped states and citizens determine their respective realms and define their identities and relationships. This excellent collection by David Sheinin explores the culture of sport and athleticism in the region, a theme that offers scholars many ways to rethink issues of nation-building and modernisation as bottom-up processes and not just the top-down products of political elites. Since the 1980s scholars have grown increasingly interested in sport as a popular pastime, and this owes much to the pioneering work of historians such as JA Mangan who traced the influence of the British middle class in the growth of modern sport in Latin America. Yet as Laura Podalsky points out in the introduction to Sheinin’s collection, the the notion of Latin American sports as derivative may in fact have contributed to the general disregard for the region in this discipline – a phenomenon that is, sadly, found in other areas of study that adopt, albeit unwittingly, a Eurocentric point of departure in the analysis of this region. Given the high profile gained by Brazil for hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, this book takes a step towards correcting that, or at least edging the study of sport into a more self-consciously ethnographic direction. It offers a range of contributions from the cultural analysis of “imported” sports such as boxing and its role in shaping machismo and regional identity in Panama and Colombia to home-grown or non-European activities such as the capoeira introduced by African immigrants in Brazil and gateball, similar to croquet, which was brought by the Japanese. Sport is a lively and interesting topic that will offer almost every reader something: my own interest is rugby, which has grown huge in the Southern Cone where countries such as Argentina are visibly clocking up world-beating expertise that has already qualified them to play in the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, where they could be met by other Latin American teams. Like so many other disciplines in which Latin America continues to surprise us, we ignore the sporting progress and prowess of countries such as Argentina at our peril. – EC