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Reviewed by:
  • Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, and: Colonial Project, National Game: A History of Baseball in Taiwan
  • Judy Polumbaum (bio)
Xu Guoqi . Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xi, 377 pp. Hardcover $31.00, ISBN 978-0-674-02840-1.
Andrew D. Morris . Colonial Project, National Game: A History of Baseball in Taiwan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. xi, 271 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-520-26279-9.

One might ask whether a book that anticipates the staging of a mega-event has outlived its usefulness once that event has come and gone. Alternatively, one might read such a book after the event to see whether its prognostications held up. In the case of historian Xu Guoqi's endeavor to set the stage for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, neither approach is especially germane. China's imminent hosting of its first Olympic Games turns out to be merely the news peg on which to hang an episodic study of the intertwining of politics and sports. Xu's forecasts about the potential meanings and implications of the Beijing Games turn out to be contingent as well as conventional enough not to be embarrassing, regardless of their outcomes.

Olympic Dreams has little that will surprise the well-versed scholar of either contemporary China or contemporary sports. Conceptually, its main contention that organized global sporting competition is a potent instrument of both internationalization and nationalism is neither novel nor controversial. The book follows what by now is a familiar narrative of China's enlarging repertoire of engagement with the rest of the world through the rituals and practices of modern sport, a process accompanied by both ambivalence and enthusiasm and involving accommodations both clumsy and adroit. Omnivorous forays into Olympics history for purposes of illustration or analogy likewise retrace much well-traveled territory.

Nevertheless, this work does make valuable contributions to our knowledge of China and international sports and politics in several respects. It adds a great deal of fascinating detail to the opening salvo of U.S.-China rapprochement known as ping-pong diplomacy, incorporating new information from Chinese accounts as well as U.S. government documents, private papers, and memoirs. In particular, we [End Page 263] learn more about Chinese activities, concerns, and perspectives throughout the back-channel peregrinations that diverted the U.S. table tennis team, en route home from international championships in Japan, to a warm reception in China in April 1971, laying the groundwork for Nixon's China visit early the following year. In addition, the book reviews an often overlooked reciprocal U.S. visit by Chinese table tennis players in the spring of 1972. However, the author may be overstating the importance of this phase of the story, marred as it was by wrangling over security and financial arrangements as well as the Nixon administration's renewed bombing of North Vietnam.

Olympic Dreams also documents in greater detail than elsewhere how the Olympic movement and its agencies became sites of prolonged geopolitical struggle revolving around Taiwan's and Beijing's contending claims to represent the entirety of China. The maneuvering begins in the early 1950s, with the People's Republic of China (PRC) sending a delegation to the 1952 Helsinki Games that arrived late and missed most of the competition, and Taiwan passing up its concurrent invitation. In 1956, the PRC withdraws from the Melbourne Games to protest Taiwan's participation, and cuts off all Olympics ties by 1958. A veritable follies of posturing on the part of all parties—not only Beijing and Taiwan, but also the International Olympic Committee (IOC), host countries, and other IOC member nations, not least the United States—continue into the 1960s and resume at a fever pitch leading up to the Montreal Games of 1976. The furor makes a compelling case study of multifarious confusion, bumbling, and silliness, with plenty of blame to go around—a salutary reminder, perhaps, of how consequential political, military, and economic hostilities can masquerade as absurdity.

Toward the end of the book, approaching what might be expected of Beijing's 2008 extravaganza, the author expresses dismay with China's post-Mao zeal...