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Reviewed by:
  • Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague by Marc Perelman
  • Douglas Hochstetler
Perelman, Marc. Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague. New York: Verso Books. Pp. ix+120. Appendices and bibliography. $14.95 pb.

In his book, Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague, scheduled for publication on the first day of the London 2012 Olympic games, Marc Perelman presents a scathing critique of global sport and, in particular, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Olympic Movement. The author writes from his perspective as Professor of Aesthetics at the Universite Paris Ouest-Nanterre Le Defense. As the title suggests, Perelman takes a harsh perspective on sport, although he has in mind, for the most part, elite athletes at the international level of competition. Perelman describes these individuals with a very broad brush, writing, “Athletes are happy in their suffering and suffer for their happiness. In their minds, the bliss of a medal around the neck is doubtless beyond price. The price, the heavy price, will be paid by the body” (p. 23). While this brings to mind the recent medical attention on concussion-related injuries in American football, surely not all athletes (even at the elite level) train and compete with such heavy risk of physical injury.

Beyond individual athletes, Perelman contends that sport impacts contemporary culture at large. He likens sport to an infectious disease, writing: “The everyday lives of billions of individuals are thus contaminated, consumed, infected by its constant assaults, its capacity for insidious infiltration, its innocent-seeming mischief” (p. x). This quotation, while provocative (and indicative of subsequent claims throughout the book), arguably overstates the situation. Sport does impact the lives of countless people across the world. Yet there are many who have, by their own volition, not caught this virus that is sport. They simply do not care about competitive athletic events, nor have they been impacted, in any real way, by this “virus.”

Perelman organizes the book with nineteen succinct chapters. He begins by examining the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 1980 Moscow Olympics, 1978 World Cup in Argentina, and finally the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. Perelman argues that these events played “a fundamental role in the advent and consolidation of the regimes and governments in question, and of the institutions and individuals associated with them” (p. 4). He chastises sport administrators, in particular the IOC, for ignoring the “social-political place occupied by sport” (p. 4).

The author follows this chapter with a critique of the Olympic Charter itself. He writes that the Charter “constitutes a formidable ideological mechanism used not only to conceal but to fabricate lies, mystifications, untruths and illusions whose component elements are woven into the text itself” (p. 20). For example, Perelman questions the validity of sport as “harmonious development of man”—“what conceivable harmonious development could come from sport?” (p. 24), he asks. Sport, according to Perelman is “anti-art,” devoid of an aesthetic quality and “no sustained reasoning, conceptual logic, careful strategy or even doubt are required to fathom the nature of athletic competition” (p. 26). [End Page 359]

Perelman does allow that “a modicum of understanding, friendship, solidarity or even fair play may persist or survive in relaxed, informal, friendly or warm-up activities . . . [however] serious competition unleashes behavior and actions of the worst sort: aggression, violence, bribery, cheating, chauvinist and nationalist attitudes, you name it” (p. 27). I have no qualms with the latter part of this claim—high-stakes competition can, at times, provide a setting which seems to bring about the worst in human behavior (Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt in the 2006 World Cup comes to mind here). However, as is the case throughout the book, Perelman does not acknowledge the potential for positive outcomes. Apparently he has not seen Olympic or even professional athletes cavorting before and after competition, demonstrations of respect and care for certain.

Not surprisingly, Perelman takes aim at drug and doping scandals in sport. “Modern sport today,” Perelman argues, “without doping, could not exist” (p. 65). He continues to claim that “[d]rugs and sport are now indissociably linked. Doping constitutes sport in its totality and as a totality” (p. 68). There is no doubt that this issue has been...


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