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  • Sport in History:Challenging the Communis Opinio
  • Alan Tomlinson† and Christopher Young

In 2004, the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH), publisher of the Journal of Sport History, commissioned Wayne Wilson to undertake a bibliometric analysis of the society's output and its journal.1 Wilson reported three findings that raise serious questions about the nature, impact, and ambitions of research into the history of sport. First, according to "Historical Abstract" or "America: History and Life," most key conceptual or analytical terms such as "multicultural," "gender relations," or "globalization," appeared in the historical mainstream before they did in NASSH proceedings. This is not necessarily a problem—cunning citation chasers go theoretical rather than adhere to painstaking primary empirical study—but the timing of the engagement with interpretive ideas is. The median time lag between the historical mainstream and the writing of and on North American sport history was nine years. Second, the journal itself was close to the bottom of the list in the Journal of Citation Reports, limping in at 1,636th position, with only sixty-one titles below it; from 1974 to 2002, the Journal of Sport History was cited only sixty-five times and, of these, only twenty-five were not self-citations. Wilson's third finding was that a limited number of sports dominated the journal: unsurprisingly, the Big [End Page 5] Three of U.S. sports (baseball, basketball, American football), Olympic sports and, with a profile way below these, boxing.2 This was not a declining trend: it sharpened through time with these sports taking up increasing percentages of the publication. Wilson wondered why sports such as automobile racing, with thirty-six million spectators in the U.S., had not attracted its chroniclers (perhaps automobile racing's historians were not attracted to the Journal of Sport History as an outlet for their findings, or as a forum for their interventions, given its tendencies and its profile). A picture emerges here of a productive and committed professional community (to establish a journal, in 1973, one year after the formation of the society, and to sustain it for more than a third of a century, is no mean feat), but one that operates in a narrowly defined academic world.

The Wilson commission and findings are challenging if not damning, and though an analysis of the succeeding years of the Journal of Sport History would be likely to show a broadening of this agenda—from a special issue on aboriginal sport to engagement with theoretical and epistemological critiques, from the expansion of the "Forum" section to work on the cultural or linguistic turn in history—some of the Wilson findings still hold: in particular, that "sport history" pursues a specialist agenda that is not shared with the "history of sport," and that the theoretical questions are put to one side, until some utterly unavoidable intervention or opportunistic appropriation of a concept or an idea.3 Wilson's focus was upon proceedings and journal output, and big-idea books and bold historical syntheses may have fared better in the citation stakes. Allen Guttmann's From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (1978) was devoured by scholars in specialist sport history, the sociology of sport, American Studies, and other disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, and has had extensive citation impact.4 But the main point here is plain and unavoidable: sport history as such features relatively insignificantly in the broader historical agenda and, where it has been given consideration by mainstream historians, detail is sometimes so shrunken or condensed that the significance of sport is underplayed or misrepresented.5 In this opening contribution to this collection of articles in the journal's "Forum" we reconsider some of these recurring questions and challenges. They are not merely national ones, though writing on the history of sport has been drawn to the identification of national models, as contributors to our network on "Sport in Modern Europe" have made clear, and as Thierry Terret also noted in his capacity as re-elected president of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport (ISHPES).6 Terret commented too that sport historians tend to gather more in national and...


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