- Robert Edelman’s Serious Fun and the History and Historiography of Soviet Sport
The purpose of this section is to reconsider and re-evaluate texts that won the NASSH Book Award in its inaugural decade. Fuller details can be found in issue 37.3. Here Thomas M. Hunt addresses Robert Edelman’s 1993 Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the U.S.S.R.
My first encounter with Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the U.S.S.R. by University of California, San Diego historian Robert Edelman came shortly after my entrance into graduate studies at the University of Texas in the spring of 2004.1 Knowing of [End Page 465] my interest in high-level diplomacy during the Cold War, my faculty advisor Jan Todd suggested that I should consider its relative merits as an alternative model for historical scholarship. I will be honest that the first idea that popped into my head as I read the book had nothing whatsoever to do with the strength of its argument or its historiographical influence—those thoughts would come later. Before turning to such matters I first ruminated upon just how uninformed many of us Americans remain of places abroad. Regarding my own cultural illiteracy, I had assumed prior to reading Serious Fun that the meaning of sport in Soviet society centered nearly solely on international competition—particularly the Olympic movement. And having witnessed the degree to which Soviet teams dominated at that level, I found it difficult to consider the possibility that, as Edelman recalled a Soviet friend telling him in the 1970s, “[n]o one care[d] about all that Olympic stuff.”2
Given my own background as a sports spectator and participant, I am not sure why I so strongly associated Soviet sport with the Olympic movement—after all, the absurdity of hearing someone make a similar claim about sport in my own country might well incite laughter. Like many Americans who lived through part of the Cold War, I admittedly became intensely passionate about gymnastics or skiing or, in truth, any sport so long as it involved a match pitting an U.S. team against one representing the former U.S.S.R. But this hardly defined the vast bulk of my sporting experiences—or those of the average U.S. citizen. For me, the significance of American football far outweighed anything that could be found at the international level. I grew up in Texas, after all—a state famous for its obsession with the game. And having inherited a strong tradition of family involvement in Texas football, I was perhaps more obsessed than most.3
Contemplating these matters years later as I re-read Serious Fun while preparing for this review, I was reminded of a statement made by a character named Sheldon Cooper in the popular TV series The Big Bang Theory. Though a comically nerdy, physically unimpressive theoretical physicist by profession, this individual nevertheless knew a great deal about American football. When a friend declared his puzzlement upon hearing the young scientist posit a thorough account of the rules of the game, Sheldon responded:
I grew up in Texas. Football is ubiquitous in Texas. Pro Football, college Football, High School Football, Pee-wee Football; In fact, every form of Football except the original: European Football, which most Texans believe to be a commie plot.4
Fearing that I might confirm this stereotype should my knowledge on Soviet sport prove inadequate to the task, I agreed to evaluate whether Serious Fun has withstood the “Test of Time” with great humility and some trepidation. To my delight, the task proved stimulating; it made me engage with questions outside my area of expertise and, in doing so, gave me new insights into our profession.
In the main, academic historians are judged on their interpretive constructions and on their use of evidence. In terms of the former, historians decide upon their theoretical approaches and substantive explanations through a process that is at times surprisingly collaborative. Many of the interpretive models used in historical scholarship, for instance, reflect existing debates in the profession.5 In short, historians often go about...