With the body into the culture – Gleam of light in Sport history

July 24, 2020

Did you know that love affairs between young athletes and between them and older men who took care of their upbringing were part of daily life in ancient schools, that gladiatorial battles in the Roman Empire between armed men and against animals were extremely bloody and often fatal, that the Danish health apostle and sportsman JP Müller at the beginning of the last century published a book on gymnastics: “My system”, which was sold in more than 1 million copies both in and outside Europe, that Niels Bukh – the founder of the Academy of Physical Education in Ollerup – and Ragnhild Hveger – The Danish female athlete of the century was extremely closely associated with and admired by Nazi Germany before and during World War II, that the GDR – with only 17 million inhabitants during the Cold War – became the second best nation at the 1976 Olympic Games, the 1980 Olympic Games and the 1988 Olympic Games using a systematic state doping system, that China spent $ 40 billion on hosting the 2008 Olympic Games to gain political, economic and sporting superpower status, and that Russia and Putin’s biggest sporting prestige project until now – the 2014 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games – had a total cost of $ 55 billion, or more than all previous Olympic Winter Games combined. This knowledge and much, much more you can get in the book “With the body into the culture – Gleam of light in Sports history” (Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2020), which has just been published. The book is written by Hans Bonde, dr.phil. in history and professor at the Department of Physical Education and Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen with the participation of sports historian Stanis Elsborg, who is an analyst at the Danish Sports Studies (IDAN) and Play the Game.

Much more than a textbook

The book’s primary target group is high school students and teachers, but it is also aimed at students and teachers at seminars, university colleges and universities as well as people who are interested in the body as a historical, cultural, political and identity phenomenon. Primarly, the book is a textbook, which i.a. illustrated by the many tasks, analyzes, tour guides and questions contained in the book’s six chapters. The book consists of an impressive historical source material, both in texts and pictures, which gives rise to and the opportunity for learning and immersion in the reader. And the two historians demonstrate throughout the book that they possess “knowledge of human beings and the world”, which is crucial to be able to ask and answer questions in a qualified way. In addition, the book is supplemented by a number of podcasts on the channel “Mediano Sport & Perspektiv”, where Bonde and Elsborg elaborate and discuss the book’s main topics. The new channel, which also contains a number of current broadcasts on sports and politics, has become a collaboration between the Danish Sports Studies (IDAN) and the dissemination portal Idrætshistorie.dk.

It is a difficult and complicated task to review and analyze the body as a phenomenon from ancient Greece to today’s Olympic Games. For this reason, the authors have also been forced to make a number of opt-outs and instead focus on selected main body and sports history topics: Sports in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire (500 BCE – 480 BCE), the Danish gymnastics pioneer J.P. Müller and the modern breakthrough (1870-1890), the Danish-German sports cooperation before and during World War II (1933-1945), sport as a means of power politics during the Cold War (1948-1991) and the super power nations China and Russia’s use of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi as national political propaganda.

Source criticism and methodological insight are very importent tools among students and teachers

Unfortunately, in my opinion, there are fewer and fewer high school students, students and teachers who have secure and strong methodological insight and knowledge in relation to source criticism and methodological key concepts. Therefore, the first chapter of the book: “Historical method and theory” is a really good starting point for the following five chapters. Through the use of pictures, films, symbols and sources, the reader is introduced to concepts such as historical awareness and use, credibility and tendency, primary and secondary sources, first- and second-hand witnesses, communication model, visual analysis, “soft” and “hard power” and imaginative national communities. This is a compulsory curriculum if the readers’ skills in sports history is to be expanded and nuanced.

Sports, body culture and politics – from ancient Greece to Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

Many books on sports and body culture in ancient Greece have been published, both in Denmark and abroad. The reason for this is the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), who wanted to improve the upbringing and education of children and adolencents through sport. Coubertin was very inspired by the Olympic Games of ancient and not least that adolencents through sports and fair competitions can learn to behave according to certain rules and acquire certain values. In addition, Coubertin also had a vision that sport can be a means to make the world better and more peaceful, i.a. by meeting youth from all over the world every four years to create peace and understanding between people. And in 1896, Coubertin succeeded in reviving the Olympic Games, albeit in a form and content that is far from the form and content we know today.

There is a connection between the ancient and the modern sports culture, but Bonde and Elsborg also succeed in a distinguished way in pointing out some significant breaks between the role of sport in ancient Greece and the modern Olympic Games, which we have experienced them in recent decades. Slightly simplified, one can say that the ancient sport was completely intertwined with the culture of society in the form of religion, democracy, politics, war, art and sexuality. Today, in my opinion, the Olympics are completely intertwined with gigantic commercial interests between super power nations, multinational sponsors and international TV companies, which strive for an entertainment show without too much disruption. That conclusion was only confirmed after having personally experienced the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games up close and partly having read the book’s chapter on “Today’s Olympic Games: Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014”.

New knowledge abounds in the chapter on the Danish gymnastics pioneer J.P. Müller, which is based on Bonde’s latest research: “The Health Apostle J.P. Müller, volume 1: The bodily modern breakthrough ”(Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2020). The modern breakthrough is most often associated with a spiritual, democratic and literary break-up, but Bonde adds a new dimension to the break-up: a sensuous-erotic break-up, which the health educator J.P. Müller became a pioneer for. Müller’s individual, holistic gymnastics also focuses on nutrition, smoking, sleep, underwear, room temperature, sex and the care of teeth, mouth, throat, hair and feet – and the liberated. naked body thus became a violent revolt against Victorian contemporaries at the end of the last century.

There is also plenty of new knowledge in the chapter on “The Cold War in the Arena”, where sports in the 1970’s and 1980’s became a very useful means in the battle between the Eastern Bloc with the USSR in front and the Western Bloc with the United States in front. Not least the battle between the two Germany: GDR and BRD in the sports arenas and not least in the doping laboratories during the Cold War is at the same time both fascinating and frightening reading. The break of the Wall and the reunification of Germany is in my opinion one of the greatest and best events in world history, where sport – and not least the “new” Germany’s World Cup triumph in football in 1990 – gained incredible importance for the Germans’ self-understanding and identity.

We do not understand the present or the future – without knowing the past

The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) has stated that “nothing changes as often as the past. Each generation creates its own historical picture”. The book “With the body into the culture – Gleam of light in Sports history” can help to give our generation a really good frame of reference to understand and explain our historical picture(s) about the body in the culture… for better or worse. Enjoy reading – MA

You can get more information about the book here:

Idrætshistorie.dk – http://idraetshistorie.dk/med-kroppen-ind-i-kulturen/
Mediano – Sport & Perspektiv – https://www.mediano.nu