Leeds Symposium Report

Report on ‘Sport in Conquest’

A symposium held at the University of Leeds, 1-2 October 2010

Convenors: John McLeod (University of Leeds) and Alexis Tadié (University of Paris-Sorbonne)

After an opening presentation by John McLeod and Alexis Tadié, which suggested some lines of inquiry for the symposium, the first paper by Supriya Chaudhuri, entitled ‘Subaltern Narratives: Football in Indian Modernity’, analysed the definitions, perceptions, and representations of football within the context of colonial and postcolonial India. She showed that football was predominantly a vehicle for subaltern narratives, and that cricket as ‘India’s national game’ had obscured the role played by other sports — some, such as hockey or badminton had been introduced by the colonial powers, others such as wrestling or stick-fighting were indigenous to the country. The paper displayed the links between football and politics, in particular in Calcutta, eliciting new kinds of interactions between communities and castes, as well as new forms of patronage. The parallel with the rise of literary modernism (and indeed the historical synchronicity) enabled the speaker to suggest how modernism also provided a philosophy of the sport. The second paper, by Claire Gallien, also took India as its frame of reference, and explored cock-fighting as both an English, colonial ‘sport’, and an indigenous practice. Under the title ‘Cockfighting in Eighteenth-Century Colonial India’, she explored the perceptions of cockfighting in England, in particular in the seventeenth century, showing that it was defended as useful and profitable against the advance of the perceived effiminacy of manners. Zoffany’s painting of Colonel Mordaunt’s cock-fighting enabled the paper to dwell on the colonial consequences of the uses of the game, the ways in which the game both masks and displays relationships of power.

The next session concentrated on sport and race, first through a paper by John Whale entitled ‘Imperfect Sympathies: Regency and Contemporary Responses to Black Fighters in Britain’. Through the exploration of the representation of black boxers in Regency England, John Whale’s paper analysed the history of pity, sympathy, as well as the workings of the liberal imagination. The two examples of Bill Richmond and Tom Molineux enabled a complex analysis of the links between body, exoticism and nation. In particular, the model of corporal perfection constituted by Molineux suggested an aesthetic appeal that bordered on the sublime, at the same time as it suggested the immediate possibility of its destruction. Through an analysis of various texts, in particular Egan’s Boxiana, the paper explored the various discourses around the athletes, and their transformation. In ‘Representing Sporting Communities in Black British Literature and Film’, Dave Gunning looked at the close links between sport and the community and explored the question of participation in sports. The paper looked in particular at a series of fictional and non-fictional texts that staged the questions of community, race, and urban culture. Gunning explored how black British literature often casts doubt on the ability of sport to broker new multicultural forms of community in the changing social landscape of post-war and contemporary Britain.

Philip Dine’s paper, ‘Big-game hunting in Algeria from Jules Gérard to Tartarin de Tarascon’, pursued the exploration of the links between sport, masculinity and colonialism. He showed the ambiguities and contradictions of big-game hunting, in the context of French Algeria, exemplifying how it was built into a template for colonial domination, and drawing attention to the invisible history of native hunting. The narrative of Tartarin enabled an analysis of the ironies of the representation of colonial hierarchies and abuses, suggesting at the same time a preservation of the colonial order. David Murphy’s paper on Lilian Thuram, ‘When Symbols Start to Speak: Lilian Thuram and the French Identity Debates’, analysed the various positions taken by the former French footballer, in particular in matters not of sport but of race. It showed how Thuram has been using his sporting capital to take a high-profile stance in matters of education, race, nation. His tactical universalism to defend minority rights is firmly in the lineage of Césaire. Edward Nye, in ‘Anthologising A bicyclette’, came back over the anthology of writings about cycling that he had published with Belles Lettres, to investigate the relationship between literature and sport, moving beyond the level of the thematic. Like Supriya Chaudhuri, he drew attention to the links with the rise of modernism; he also insisted on the new vision of reality that the bicycle afforded, on the exploration of its formal beauty. Finally, he explained how literature could also recount the admiration of the physical and mental performance of the human body in sport.

John Bale’s ‘Travel Writing : Representing an African Body-Culture’ explored the phenomenon of the ‘high-jump’ as reported by travellers to Rwanda in colonial times. He emphasised the role that a discourse about sport could have in the deployment of colonialism. He investigated four categories (surveillance, appropriation,  idealisation, negation) to bring to light the complexities of a (‘messy’) discourse about African athleticism. He showed that the mode of idealisation, in particular, offered an idealisation of the Tutsis, and a negation of the Hutus, that would have consequences down to the 1980s. Graham Huggan’s analysis of the Bollywood film, Lagaan, ‘Just Not Cricket: Lagaan and the Anti-Conquest’, explored the complexities of the discourse around cricket and civility in the context of colonial India, as depicted in the film. He showed that the symbolism of the film was neither a subaltern tale of agency or a nationalist parable, but could perhaps best be described in the ‘anti-conquest’ mode, where sport came to be seen as a disguise, as a masking strategy. The paper’s final point was that Laagan functioned as a globalised product, where cricket was of the present, and did neither repeat the rituals of the colonial past nor did it embody an aspiration to independence. The final paper of the conference, Clem Seecharan’s ‘“The Proof of the Pudding”: C.L.R. James, Frank Worrell’s Captaincy and West Indian Nationalism at the End of Empire, 1960-3’, looked at the role of the great writer C.L.R. James in launching a campaign for the nomination of the first black captain to a West Indian cricket team. In following the method and insights of James, namely that you cannot understand sport, in this case cricket, without a proper understanding of history, the paper proceeded to bring out all the links between sport, class, race and politics in the context of the emerging federation of the West Indies, leading up to the realisation, in 1960, that the team could only become world champions under the captaincy of Worrell.


This brief summary of the papers does not do justice to the diversity and complexity of the analyses of long and perceptive presentations. We hope that a publication of the findings of these papers will allow a dissemination of the conclusions of the first symposium of what is hoped will be a productive network. The links between sport on the one hand, and literature and culture more generally on the other, were explored with great attention, refusing the simple idea of a representation of sport in literary works as the object of inquiry. In both cases, perhaps, a question of definition is crucial to an understanding of the field: what counts as sport? What counts as literature? How are the rules negotiated? And a history of rules and their defiance is certainly central to an exploration of the relationship between literature and sport. One of the first ways to envisage the relationship was through analyses of sporting and literary modernities and modernisms. The aesthetic of sport, and its exploration in literature, were addressed; sport could be seen as a figure for writing but also as a literalisation or embodiment of aesthetic creativity. Likewise, the issue of time came to be seen as central both to narrative and to sport in a number of papers and ensuing discussions.  The categories of race, nation, gender, class, are operative both in sport and in discourses about sport: sport can sometimes be seen as a key figurative manœuvre in the realisation of colonial and ideological thought and discourse; but it can also open the prospect of disturbance of these idelogies. The relationships between the individual and the collective (the sporting conviviality and the fortunes of  sporting communities vs the negation of community through sport), between spectacle, participants, and objects of admiration (in particular the disjuncture between the exaltation of sport and the pain and destruction that it can engender), between the local and the global, between performance and discourse, between conquest and defeat, were teased out in all their complexities. One final emphasis of this conference was on the fragility of sport, on the fine line that divides the official from the subaltern, sport from its political exploitation, the glorious body from its impending destruction, and it seemed that literature was particularly apt at exploring the nature and the fragility and the reversibility of this fine line.

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