- An Interview with Robert Edelman
Robert Edelman, Professor of History at the University of California at San Diego, is one of the pioneers of the now burgeoning field of sports history and the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Sports History.1
Edelman’s original scholarly interests were altogether different and rather more typical for his generation of the 1960s–70s. Having received his PhD in 1973 from Columbia University, he began his career as a scholar of late imperial Russia, publishing two important monographs on politics and society in the 1905–17 period.2 As he recounts in his interview, his encounter with the history of sport began almost accidentally in 1986, when he was asked to present a paper on Russia for a conference on international sports history. From this initial foray would ultimately come two award-winning monographs—Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR and Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Worker’s State—as well as influential articles, including “A Small Way of Saying ‘No’: Spartak Soccer, Moscow Men and the Communist Party, 1900–1945.”3
While Edelman’s turn to the history of sport constituted a midcareer shift, his personal interest in sports has been a constant through his life, beginning with his childhood passion for the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose heroic victory over the villainous New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series, he recalls, seemed a kind of triumphant morality play (a view wholeheartedly shared by at least one of Kritika’s editors). This interest then shaped his earliest experiences as a student and then graduate student in the USSR, unintentionally [End Page 417] laying the foundations for his later research. Along the way (and alongside his day job), he even worked as a stringer for the Associated Press covering the National Basketball Association (NBA). His experiences remind us of how passions (and, dare we say it, even pleasure) can overlap most productively with our scholarly endeavors.
The year 2018 is an auspicious moment in which to feature a discussion with Edelman, for Russia’s role in world sport has been especially prominent. On the one hand, banned from fielding a national team at the Winter Olympics, a decision that clearly affected such individual athletes as the gold-medal figure skater Alina Zagitova, Russia has continued to struggle with an ongoing doping scandal.4 As Edelman points out, however, this problem is less a holdover of Soviet-era practices or a feature unique to particular socio-political systems than it is a product of a more widespread drive for national prestige, among other factors.5 On the other hand, Russia is also hosting soccer’s World Cup this summer, the world’s most widely viewed event, sporting or otherwise. (The expected viewership for this year’s tournament is a staggering 3.5 billion people.) Yet this opportunity to perform on the international stage also comes at a time of renewed diplomatic tensions, spurred most recently by the poisoning in Britain of a former Soviet spy with a military-grade nerve agent. As Edelman’s work has amply demonstrated, this confluence of events is hardly unique, for sport and sports history are both always embedded into larger social, economic, and political contexts and have much to say about them. Indeed, one of the great achievements of the field has been to stake broader claims, demonstrating the imbrication of sport with the history of popular culture and consumption, political and national cultures, and gender and race.
Though history is not prophecy and Edelman does not engage in the business of prediction, he is an informed and engaging interlocutor. We thus especially invite soccer fans among our readers to enjoy Edelman’s observations about the World Cup. As they say in Spanish, “Go-laaaa-zo!” May the best sbornaia win! [End Page 418]
Your pioneering work on Russian and Soviet sports helped establish the field of Russian sports history. In Spartak Moscow, you recount how you discovered Russian soccer as an enjoyable pastime while a graduate student in Moscow in 1970 and only later realized its potential as a research field. How did your experience of...