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  • Some Competing Analogies for Sport
  • Kasia Boddy†

There is no shortage of answers to the perennial question of what sport, and sports history, might mean to the person who watches rather than participates. I begin with the rather neutral word "watch" to throw into relief the greater specificity implied by alternative terms. What difference is implied when we speak of "beholders" rather than "spectators?"1 Of the "audience" rather than the "crowd"? Of "die-hard" rather than "fair-weather" fans?2 Should we think differently about those who have an "enthusiasm" for sport, and those who are "deeply committed" and those who suffer a "dependency?"3 The terms we choose depend on the kind of analysis we are doing. The kind of analysis, in turn, often depends on an analogy or identification between sport and a literary or media genre: examples might include the soap opera, the lyric poem, the sacred text, the feature film and the novel. Sometimes these analogies are made explicit; often they are not.4 In this paper, I would like to suggest some ways in which distinctions between "different breed[s] of rooter" depend on the analogy at play.5 All analogies, of course, are partial. Most of the examples I draw upon here involve European athletes performing within Europe, but some involve Southern Europeans in North America, South Americans in Northern Europe, and so on. There are no limits to the global marketplace of performance and spectatorship. While different cultures inevitably develop different analogies to describe their experiences, the general approach that I am attempting to develop, like twenty-first century sport itself, is comparative and international in scope. [End Page 55]

Uses and Gratifications

Media Studies has analyzed "mediated sport" at length and at least since the 1970s has concentrated on its "uses and gratifications"; that is, the focus is less "what does the media do to people" than "what do people do with the media."6 Building on Gramscian ideas of "resistance," "intervention," and "contested terrain," numerous studies have explored the heterogeneous and historically variable "interests" of spectators, depending on class, race, nation, gender or sexuality.7 "The social world of actual audiences," states cultural theorist Ien Ang, "consists of an infinite and ever expanding myriad of dispersed practices and experiences."8 For many commentators, however, common ground can be found in the idea of "pleasure," which in turn is often linked to "identification." "If the pleasures of sports viewing have a structure," maintains cultural theorist Garry Whannel, "then identification is central to it."9

A focus on identification is just one of the ways in which Media Studies indicates that sporting events should be absorbed into the larger category of popular media texts. Sports scientists Kathleen Kinkema and Janet C. Harris, for example, make links between mediated sport and soap operas: "stereotyped characters and storylines, creation and resolution of suspense or drama as a central plot unfolds and exploration of particular themes are components of narrative that are often present in media portrayals of sport."10 Henry Jenkins' ethnography, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), meanwhile, extends the focus to the popular assimilation and use of a wide range of different kinds of media texts. For him, what connects cult television, video games, Hollywood movies, genre fiction, comic books, Japanese animation, and sport is the way in which their fans are traditionally described in pathological terms, suggesting "religious and political zealotry, false beliefs, orgiastic excess, possession, and madness."11 Jenkins prefers to think of fans as "active producers and manipulators" of meanings that are often emotionally complex or ambiguous. The fan's response to the media text "typically involves not simply fascination or adoration but also frustration and antagonism, and it is the combination of the two responses which motivates their active engagement with the media."12

Because popular narratives often fail to satisfy, fans must struggle with them, to try to articulate to themselves and others unrealized possibilities within the original works. Because the texts continue to fascinate, fans cannot dismiss them from their attention but must rather try to find ways to salvage them for their interests.13

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pp. 55-70
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