- Defending the American Way of Life: Sport, Culture, and the Cold War ed. by Toby C. Rider and Kevin B. Witherspoon
Toby Rider and Kevin Witherspoon’s Defending the American Way of Life is a fantastic installment to the historiography on sport and the Cold War, a field that has really blossomed over the last decade. Indeed, both Rider and Witherspoon, along with several of the essayists in their collection, have written excellent books addressing how Cold War politics transformed competitive sports at the national and international levels. This book’s thirteen essays—crafted by scholars from multiple disciplines, including history and kinesiology—guide readers through some of the field’s most important findings, while also shedding light on new topics. Each chapter is sharp and concise, and together they cover an extensive amount of ground. They would all work well in an undergraduate classroom as fodder for discussion or comparative writing.
The essays are divided into five sections and bookended by a contextualizing introduction and a forward-looking conclusion. Generally, the United States is the key actor, but this is truly an international history. Part 1 covers how the great powers used sport to build a narrative about national identity that ostensibly justified and glorified their respective economic and political systems. As Rider explains, when it came to the United States, athletics were supposed to prove that “Americans played the ‘right’ way and deified the importance of sportsmanship, fair play, and abiding by the rules of competition” (23). Words and action, however, were not always aligned. In part 2, readers learn about America’s extensive efforts first to paint the Soviet Union as a cheat for using performance-enhancing drugs and then to develop its own doping system that led to several U.S. athletes losing their Olympic opportunities after getting caught taking illicit drugs. A chapter on the President’s Commission on Olympic Sport and the fraught legacy of amateur sports in America shows other ways the United States became invested in assuring success at international athletic competitions.
Sport also fueled Cold War narratives about gender norms in capitalist and communist systems. American women were to be protected, domesticated, and coddled; Soviet women were freer, stronger, and equal to men, including in athletics. Part 3 shows how these tropes had tangible effects on the ways male and female athletes trained in the United States and the Soviet bloc, as well as in what sports they competed at the international level. Soviet [End Page 97] women’s dominance in the events that Western pundits labeled “masculine” resulted in international sport sex-testing, in part because Americans kept accusing Soviet women of being men. However, for many notable men in the Cold War era—including Ronald Reagan—any measure of athletic glory was proof of virulent masculinity, which for them translated to powerful policy currency.
Part 4 takes on race, which is perhaps the most studied aspect of Cold War sport history to date. The confluence of the civil rights movement and a global contest over the legitimacy of America’s democratic and capitalist principles created all kinds of tension and anxiety for the United States. The government went to great lengths to cover up the truth about race-based discrimination in America and tried various ways to deploy African American athletes as evidence of the country’s support for equal opportunity. The three essays in this section highlight Olympic sprinters Mal Whitfield and Wilma Rudolph and tennis star Arthur Ashe as individuals whose personal histories became intrinsically linked to broader Cold War dynamics. Black athletes had different experiences and outlooks in their roles as ambassadors for America, of course, but each faced the heavy responsibility of balancing their pride, privacy, and ambition with the task of personifying national and international struggles for racial equality.
Finally, in part 5 readers learn about how several presidential administrations approached the Olympics as a tool of public diplomacy to...