In Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913–1974, Stefan Huebner has written a solidly constructed, deeply informed history of three successive series of Asian sports events: the Far Eastern Championship Games (1913–1934), the Western Asiatic Games (1934), and the early Asian Games (1951–1974). Huebner uses these athletic competitions to show “transfers of norms, values, and images between Asia and the West and within Asia” (5). His actor-centered history focuses on the elites of West and East who actively organized and spread sports, and the concomitant rise of mass education, in this case physical training. By focusing on the elite, Huebner acknowledges that individual athletic experiences are less important to his analysis than is “Orientalist” discourse. By emphasizing the attitudes and actions of the elite, which means missionaries, sports officials, and civil and major political leaders, Huebner allies himself to the approach employed by Xu Guoqui in his book Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895–2008 (2008), to show sports as political nationalism. A second close relative is the recent global survey of sport and diplomacy found in the essays in Heather L. Dichter’s and Andrew L. Johns’s edited volume Diplomatic Games: Sport, Statecraft, and International Relations since 1945 (2014). This structural approach, which Huebner deploys very well, contrasts with the social histories of Asian sport, for example, by Andrew D. Morris, Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (2004), and my own Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China’s National Crisis, 1931–45 (2013), which use athletic games as a structure for examining sporting lives. Huebner’s book is nicely organized. Each chapter has an introduction to its argument including leading figures and often national ambitions. Following that are contextual materials indicating the relevant history of the host nation of that chapter’s event—India, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, or Iran. These effective summaries of current national and international politics, information on the buildings, stadiums and ceremonies, and discussions of symbolic awards such as medals and trophies, each with national distinction, are in each chapter. Often there is a brief observance of gender, the one area of social history that runs throughout. An assessment or conclusion of some length closes each chapter. Pan-Asian Sports excels within this careful construction. Chapter 1 follows the expansion of the American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) into Asia expounding Western and Christian ideas that figured in amateur sports, such as “Christian internationalism, Christian egalitarianism, and a ‘Protestant work ethic’ … to ‘uplift’ Asian societies to white American Protestant civilizational standards” (13). The YMCA sponsored a short-lived Far Eastern Championship. As shown in chapter 2, anticolonial nationalism forced the withdrawal of YMCA authority, to be replaced by an Asian commonality in order to create sportive regional integration. Such a dynamic was clear in the New Delhi First Asian Games in 1951, as argued in chapter 3. Asian commonality went adrift by the 1954 Manila Games and its decision to exclude communist-ruled countries, which meant allowing the Republic of China (Taiwan) instead of the People’s Republic of China to represent China (chap. 4). Chapter 5 covers the resurgence of Japan in the 1950s, the context that allowed the nation a chance to use the Third Asian Games (Tokyo, 1958) to show its modernity and embrace of peaceful internationalism, again with the exclusion of the People’s Republic of China, all in preparation for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. The Fourth Asian Games (Jakarta, 1962), covered in chapter 6, had none of this seemingly placid atmosphere as the pro-socialist position of the Indonesian government clashed with the ideologies underpinning Taiwan’s claim to represent China. President Sukarno strove to create a national unity through massive construction, a common theme throughout the book, and to unite Indonesia’s differing ethnicities. Four years later, of course, the president-for-life was removed from office and prosecuted. Chapter 7, shows how Cold War politics meshed with national authoritarianism to promote an Asian anti-communism. Thailand, the site of games in 1966 and 1970, was among America’s staunchest allies in the nearby Vietnam War. The Thai military and the monarchists combined to create a personality cult of the king, including the dynasty’s Buddhist culture, to show the nation as a rapidly developing country. The last games covered, held in Tehran in 1974, and the topic of chapter 8, were notable for nation-branding and Iranian-led Asian modernism empowered by Iran’s massive oil wealth and its imperial cultural heritage. Each of these chapters has appealing qualities; my favorite was the nuanced discussion of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s insertion of pan-Asianism as an integral part of the 1951 games. Huebner aims for a rich construction of the games’ national and international purposes. This means nation-branding, regional understanding, and the construction of modernism. The stadiums were important here, but so were roads, bridges, airports, hotels, and such communication innovations as the use of television to broadcast and thereby amplify the audience of the Indonesian-hosted Games of 1962. There are many excellent subsections in each chapter that are distinctive and original. I gained the most from Huebner’s detailed discussion of the Far Eastern Games, but readers will be informed about each competitive series. However, while we are indebted to Stefan Huebner for his carefully drawn insights into the political and nationalist goals of such events, one longs for more social history. The author’s skillful elucidation of all of the host nations’ multiple goals provides a powerful model of how sports are a significant marker of modernity made distinctive by nationality. The book resonates beyond the subject matter to explore new directions in diplomacy and modern East-West relations. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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