Sorbonne Conference Report

The conference, which took place over two full days, on 26 and 27 May 2011, was opened by Alexis Tadié, who, on behalf of all the organisers, thanked the participants for having made it to Paris, often from afar, and sponsors for their generous support to the conference. Tony Mangan reiterated a few words of thanks and sketched out the timetable for the publication of the papers in a fortcoming issue of the International Journal for the History of Sport.

The first session, which was devoted to “Literature, Nationalism and Sport”, started with a paper by Zinon Papakonstantinou, entitled “The Athletic Body and the Body Politic in Classical Athens: Literary and Historical Perspectives”. In this presentation, he analysed the different genres of poetry, ranging from “victory poetry”, which celebrated the victory of a particular athlete, to the praise of the body, and, later, the glorification of the body, where the literary description may be seen as complementing the vision of the male body, in statues for instance. The complexities of the reception of athletes have to be stressed, taking in the respect shown towards athletes, the rewards for athletes, as well as the occasional dissenting voices. The satirical turn of Aristophanes, who satirised sport, probably articulated jokes that were shared by the audience. The food-eating body of the athlete, who “sleeps his life away”, has to be seen against the reception of a normative, masculine body. In this sense, the complexities and contestations of the body were essential in Athens and central to political life. In the second paper in this session, Bob Cottrell argued in “Writers and America’s National Pastime” that there was a strong and distinguished tradition of writing about baseball in American literature. From Twain and Whitman (“It’s our game — the American game”) to Malamud or Mark Harris, baseball is seen as the quintessential game, as a democratic game in tune with America. The paper showed through numerous examples how this tradition was woven into American literature. In the third paper, entitled “Cycling in Circles: Flann O’Brien’s Free-Wheeling Stories in The Third Policeman”, Flore Coulouma turned to the Irish tradition of writing about sport, and about the cultures of the bicycle, showing through a close reading of Flann O’Brien how cycling was linked to mechanics, to chemistry and physics, and to metaphysics, defining a culture of the bicycle. She also emphasised the strong satirical element which is linked to the treatment of what is, in Irish culture, so much more than a sport. The last paper in this session was given by Sébastien Darbon, and was entitled : “Un genre hybride : l’autobiographie fictive. Réflexions sur l’écriture en anthropologie du sport”. In this presentation, S. Darbon reflected on the modes of writing about sport as an anthropologist. He suggested that a device, such as that of fictional autobiography might both account for the concrete, sensitive view of sports, and for the necessary synthetic and wide vision of the historian. This character can therefore be seen as a cluster of ideas. Fictional autobiography, as proposed by S. Darbon, articulates the literary dimension of sports and the required historical precision in their analysis.

The second session, “Sport, Colonialism, Postcolonialism started with Abhijit Gupta’s portrait of “A Bengali in Paris: Gobor Guha vs Jack Johnson, c1913”. Gobor Guha, man of letters, musician and also wrestler, was one of number of Indian fighters who came to Europe in the late nineteenth century. A. Gupta showed him to be in tune with the rise of sports and nationalism in turn-of-the-century Bengal, but also to have later embraced a career as a speaker about Tagore, Gandhi, indeed as an “internationalist” follower of Tagore. This paper raised the important question of what it meant for a professional wrestler to profess literary culture. In the second paper, John McLeod turned to Caryl Phillip’s Playing Away and concentrated on his screenplay of the 1986 film. The ambivalence of sport as both a theatre for British racism but also as an alternative for the development of multicultural relations has to be stressed, sport being apt at both concentrating and expelling prejudices. The screenplay tries to find new modes of connection within the non-homogeneous Black community. Sport, in this sense, is a way of thinking about wider social issues, of exposing tensions within communities. The third paper, by Mukul Kesavan, “Cricket, Cosmopolitanism and the Nation in Contemporary fiction”, analysed three recent novels about cricket: Romesh Gunesekara’s The Match (2008), Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) and Shehan Karunatilake’s, Chinaman (2011). He showed that each novel reacts differently to cricket, The Match being more about exile and anxiety, while Netherland can appropriately be seen as a “postnational” novel, and in Chinaman, it is cricket that makes the novel possible. Unlike Netherland, whose hero is a true cosmopolitan, the two Sri Lankan novels suggest that contested nationalism might find in cricket a possible redemption.

The plenary lecture was delivered by Daniel Roche, and under the title “La puissance et la gloire : essai sur la distinction équestre”, it offered a history of horsemanship culture in the early modern period, particularly in France and England. His first point was concerned with the social uses of horses, showing that nobility was also defined through owning a number of horses, and through a series of codes and practices. The second point was concerned with the transmission of images, namely through manuals and treatises on the one hand, and through institutions on the other (such as the French “académies équestres”). The third point in the lecture was concerned with war and with the numerous questions raised by the use of horses in war (such as the important question of whether there is such a thing as a “war horse”). And the lecture ends on the last flourish of horses in war, in the Second World War, with the Italian charges on the Russian front.

The second day opened with a session devoted to “Sport, Culture and Politics”. Nicholas Attfield’s paper, “Music, Olympism, Fascism: Berlin, 1936”, questioned the received view of the Olympics having been appropriated by the Nazi regime, in order to show that the trajectory of Olympic ideology had always taken advantage of such displays, in particular in the writings and thought of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a great music lover, a follower of Wagner. For Coubertin, the games were a highly structured spectacle that engaged with the « total aesthetics » of Wagner. Heinrik Meinander’s paper then followed. Entitled “The Flying Finn in Print: Paavo Nurmi and the Cultural Construction of Finland”, it showed through three novels published in 1936, 1978, and 2001, the ways in which literature could address such a subject as long-distance running. The pastoral but also ironical modes allow for an investigation of the links and evolution of the relationship between sport and nationalism in Finland. The third paper, by Peter Horton, ‘Tumultuous Text: the Imagining of Australia through Sport”, concentrated on the centrality of sports and leisure early on in Australian literature. Reading a number of popular novels, in particular the Nat Gould novels about horses, one was led to understand how various aspects of Australian life (such as bush ethos, but also racism) could be made into a narrative. Ying Yu’s paper, “Beijing Olympic Games and the Advocacy of ‘Sports for All’ in China” unpacked the concerns of elite sports in China, contrasted these with mass sports, analysed the role of the media, and showed how the actors in the “sports for all” campaign could find a place in the national conversation about sports.

The last session, entitled “Literature, Spectator, Audience”, opened with Sandra Collins’s “The Imperial Imperative : Sport in the Service of Modern Japan”. It reflected on the evolution of the diffusion of sports in the Japan, in particular through sports stories, sketching the change from sports in  the service of imperial Japan, to a contemporary celebration of multiculturalism in Japanese terms, in particular in mangas. The second paper was a presentation by Tony Mangan of Alex Waugh’s The Loom of Youth. He analysed the reactions to the publication of this novel, published by a young Alex Waugh, which exposed the fundamental flaws of the public school system. Based on archival enquiry, his paper dealt with the attack against the system which was produced by the publication of this novel. Supriya Chaudhuri’s paper, “In the Ring: Gender, Spectatorship, and the Body”, dealt with boxing and with the gendering of sports. She showed how boxing brings to an extreme the gendering contradictions implicit in physical culture. She also analysed the cultures of spectating in boxing before ending on a consideration of boxing in Bengal, in particular on women’s boxing. The final paper by Alexis Tadié, “From supporter to reader: the fictions of football”, turned to a number of recent fictional texts about football to try and show how the cultures of the spectator, of the fan, of the hooligan feed and define the modes of reading.

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