Sport Studies: Evolving But Not Yet Evolved
By Helen Jefferson Lenskyj
Professor Emerita

The field of sport studies has changed dramatically since I first entered it as a graduate student in 1980. Some readers may not be aware of its existence, although others may recall my two Senior College presentations on the Olympic industry: the first in 2014 on Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics: No More Rainbows (Palgrave Pivot, 2014) and the second, in March this year, on The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach (Emerald, 2020). I joke to people who know my history that the subtitle of this book is redundant: everything I’ve written about the topic for nearly three decades has been critical.

Olympic studies is an interdisciplinary area within the subfield of sport studies. By the 1970s, a few scholars from the social sciences and humanities – sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology and political science – were turning their attention to sport and to the preeminent sport mega-event, the Olympic Games. Research in exercise sciences, on the other hand, had a much longer history, with sports medicine dating back more than 100 years. The first conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport was held in Denver in 1980, and the first International Symposium for Olympic Research took place at the University of Western Ontario in 1992. My first experience of a sport studies conference was in 1982 at U of T, when one of the guest speakers, a Toronto Sun sportswriter, made a sexist joke, to the amusement of most of those present.

In this era, sport was seen as a predominantly heterosexual male preserve, as reflected in the small number of female scholars involved and the limited attention paid to women’s sport in the research literature. When my own interest was evolving in 1980, I read a colleague’s statement that accurately claimed one could read all the research on women and sport in one weekend. So I did… and then, as a Ph.D. candidate, I decided that this would be my research focus and the topic of my 1983 dissertation. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a subfield, sport studies was slow to address the underrepresentation of women and people of colour in the ranks of scholars, as well as the dearth of research on women, and on ‘race’ and racism. At the plenary session of a sport studies conference in Brisbane, Australia, in 1995, I presented figures on the very low number of female presenters and topics related to women at that event. As you might imagine, my observations were not well received, with one male organizer labelling them ‘below the belt’. At the same conference, a sportswriter (again) was one of the guest speakers, and his take on the Chinese women’s swim team was predictably sexist and racist.

While women’s issues were marginalized in sport studies, sport was similarly marginalized in women’s studies. Many feminists of that era tended to see sport as so thoroughly masculinized that efforts to redeem it were a waste of time when the bigger equality issues demanded attention. Another ‘elephant in the room’ of sport studies in the early days was the assumption that women’s sport, especially team sport, was dominated by lesbians. According to this logic, sport attracted so-called ‘masculine’ women or, alternatively, playing sport ‘masculinized’ female participants. References to ‘feminine’ soon became code for ‘heterosexually attractive’.

Sexual and homophobic harassment of female athletes posed a serious threat to their wellbeing and created a chilly climate for women of all sexual orientations. It was not until the 1990s that sport governing bodies began to address the issue, which persists today despite the strength of feminist and LGBT movements around the globe. The recent tragic case of sexual abuse experienced by hundreds of young American gymasts at the hands of the team doctor provides ample evidence that much work still needs to be done.

Against this backdrop, most female sport scholars who addressed Olympic-related issues did so from a liberal feminist perspective. They called for greater female participation as athletes, officials and administrators, and more sports and events for women in order to level the Olympic playing field. Few asked whether women wished to join this ‘procession of men’, to borrow Virginia Woolf’s apt phrase, and if so, under what conditions? A more radical approach asks how sport needs to change so that all members of society, across genders, ethnicities, social classes and abilities, can enjoy its benefits. Some, myself included, call for the complete dismantling of the Olympic industry.

Over the last decade, a growing body of literature in Olympic studies has taken a critical approach. In 2012, my co-editor Stephen Wagg, Leeds Beckett University, and I had no difficulty assembling a 35-chapter collection, Palgrave Handbook of Olympic Studies, to which 45 international scholars contributed. Every chapter presented incisive critiques of various aspects of the Olympic Games. If we were to repeat the process today, we could readily produce a two-volume collection.

Equally significant, resistance movements around the globe are scrutinizing every aspect of the Olympics, in particular the iron rule that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) exerts over host nations. Tokyo, for example, was bound by the 2020 host city contract even in the face of the Covid pandemic, and next year’s Tokyo Olympics organizers may find themselves in a similar predicament, at the mercy of the IOC. As is the case with other global social justice movements, a number of Olympic scholars and public intellectuals are active participants in these challenges to Olympic hegemony.

There are, however, some practices that threaten the academic credibility of Olympic studies as a scholarly project. The IOC contributes to the funding of a large number of university-based centres for Olympic studies around the world, and in some cases this poses a threat to academic freedom. I have documented examples from Australian and American universities where representatives from Olympic-related organizations have attempted to prevent the publication of critical research. While I have not experienced this myself, I can definitely attest to the ostracism that Olympic critics face both inside and outside the academy.

Another problem is blurred line between academic and professional activities, evident in the practice of inviting high-profile Olympic athletes, coaches, administrators and journalists to participate as keynote speakers or panellists in sport studies conferences, whether or not they have academic credentials or research experience. Predictably, these women and men try to avoid any critique of the Olympic industry, in part because of legitimate fear of repercussions. On a more positive note, there is now greater awareness and an ever-increasing body of critical literature, grounded in empirical research, that challenges Olympic industry mystique and mythology, as well as documenting and exposing the material costs to individuals, communities, and environments.