ask an expert: anthropologist Susan Brownell watches world come together at olympic games

UMSL Anthropology Professor Susan Brownell is an expert on the Olympic Games, having studied their history and attended five Games – the first in Los Angeles in 1984. Later this week, she will travel to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for her first Winter Games. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Susan Brownell has spent considerable time researching Olympic Games, both their history and their standing in our modern world, during her career.

The professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis served as editor of “The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Race, Sport and American Imperialism” and authored “Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.” She has also attended five Games, the first in Los Angeles in 1984.

She will add to that tally later this week as she attends the Winter Games for the first time when they get underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

In the latest edition of the “Ask an Expert” series, UMSL Daily spoke to Brownell about the importance of the Games as it relates to anthropology, how they have evolved and an issue that has to be dealt with to secure their future.

As you prepare to head to Korea, what differences do you expect to find at your first Winter Games?

I don’t know. I’m a little worried. I hope it’s not really, really cold. It’s a much smaller scale, and it’s up in small mountain villages as opposed to a huge mega-city. I don’t know what it’s going to be like in terms of getting from one place to another and not freezing to death. I hope we figure it out pretty fast.

Why are the Olympics of such interest from an anthropology perspective?

My main interest in them comes from my interest in ritual and festival. I like to look at them as a global ritual or festival of global humanity, so for me, the interesting kind of empirical question is can we see that the Olympic Games have the effect on a global level that we typically attribute to rituals and festivals at a local level. In other words, does everything scale up?

Does it, in your experience?

I think so. We know that festivals and rituals typically function to create a sense of social solidarity. So are the Olympic Games helping to create a sense of global community and the oneness of humanity? The critics would say, “Well, yeah, but look at all the people who are inconvenienced and not happy about the Games and likely get evicted for the construction …” They’ll point out the dissidents and the people who are alienated by the process. I guess I’ve come to realize we probably need to rethink our understanding of ritual and festival at the local level as well. Because there are always going to be a few malcontents who just don’t buy into the process. The thing is, when you scale everything up, that goes from one or two people to hundreds if not thousands of people. But that doesn’t mean that the overall argument is false.

How have you seen the Games evolve since your first one?

Overall, as a social and economic phenomenon, I think they’ve been pretty much on an upward swing since 1984, so they’re just getting bigger and bigger. The financial measures such as the broadcast rights revenues and corporate sponsorships, the size of the television audience, have been pretty much constantly charting upward.

I think the Olympics began as an opportunity for the world to come together every four years. The fact that we lived in a more connected world now – certainly compared to, say, St. Louis in 1904 – and in many ways are constantly together, has that shifted the relevance of the Games?

I feel it’s the increasing integration of the global economy in particular that actually is the main driving force for the economic growth of the Games that I just mentioned. Because what’s increasingly happening is that the leaders of our global economy – CEOs of major multinational corporations and heads of state and celebrities and billionaires – feel like they have to see and be seen at Olympic Games. It’s been estimated that actually more CEOs attend Summer Olympic Games than attend the Davos World Economic Forum, so I think Olympic Games are both a product of and a contributor to the integration of the global economy because this is where the actual human beings who constitute the decision-makers are getting to know each other and sharing information and building relationships and partnerships.

Why has it become that draw? Why has the idea of coming together to watch athletes been something that has attracted that sort of thing around it?

I think, on the one hand, there’s the theory that this is what it means to be human. This is the way humans operate, and they have for millennia, if not millions of years. Ritual is fundamentally hard-wired into our brains and into the way we form social groups. That’s the broad assumption, my broad assumption. But the specific thing is why sports? I think that just evolved over the years away from World’s Fairs, for example, because it proved to be a more culturally neutral meeting ground than other options might have been, like the arts. The arts – whether music, dance or visual arts – are just a little more culturally bound, so it’s just a little harder to get everybody on board behind them. The other thing is the very effective way in which sports connect up with nationalism. It was definitely helpful, the way in which athletes represent nations in a way that people interpret to represent their nation on the world stage.

Political leaders have over the years certainly used that to their benefit, haven’t they?

That happened right away in the early history of the Olympic Games. Not in the very beginning, because St. Louis in 1904 was arguably the last Games before national ideology started really being consolidated in the Olympic Games. By the next Games in 1908 we had, for example, the parade of athletes. We had award ceremonies. And by 1912 and leading up to World War I, that horse was out of the gate, and it’s been constant ever since. The Cold War, of course, gave it a new valence.

This Games is one of three in a row in Asia. Is there significance to that? Does it signal anything?

Clearly, it’s important. It’s the first time in Olympic history that we’ve had three consecutive Games outside the conventional western powers. Does it really represent a shift of power away from the west? Is the west in decline and East Asia on the rise? I don’t think the answer to that is quite as clear just because, as I mentioned, to me the bigger thing that’s going on is at a global or transnational level.

With the cost of hosting the Games getting as high as it has in recent years, is that a problem?

It appears to be because of the issue with fewer cities bidding to host Games and, perhaps even worse, a lot of cities trying to mount bids that then got scuttled by public opinion. So it is something that the International Olympic Committee is going to have to work out over the coming years. There’s just this conflict of interest built in because of the way the Games are currently financially structured. On the one hand, you’ve got this transnational world that needs the Games. But all that money up there with the CEOs of multinational corporations is not directed into the building of the infrastructure of the Games. It does go into television rights, broadcasting fees and sponsorships and also on-the-ground entertaining that they do, and that’s an influx of revenue into the local economy. But the building of the infrastructure tends to be borne by the taxpayers. That’s the problem.

You’ve got these international sport federations that want bigger and bigger venues so they can sell more and more tickets. But the bigger the venues, the more expensive they are to build and the less useful they are to the local people afterward. So just dealing with this tension is something they have to think through.

Is that really something that poses a long-term threat if it’s not dealt with?

I guess my bigger perspective is these are powerful people that need and want the Games. They’ll work it out, and they’ll make it happen. But in the short run, it is perceived as a threat to the Games, and I think the International Olympic Committee definitely considers it a threat to the Games, and they feel like they need to work this out.

You started out talking about how your interest in the Olympics is related to your interest in studying festival and ritual. Describe the festival aspect of the Games. What’s it like outside of the competitions that we see televised?

The biggest festival is really the torch relay, which never really gets much television coverage in the U.S. In other countries, they’re a bit more excited about it, but for whatever reason, U.S. TV doesn’t give it much coverage. It’s been going around the country every day, and it’ll be winding its way toward Pyeongchang, toward the Olympic stadium, for the day of the Opening Ceremonies. That’s just a party.

When you’re at an Olympics, what sorts of things are there for people to do beyond the competitions?

Most people actually are not doing tourism. Local tourism industries are always hoping people will come and see their sites. But, no, they’re there for the sports. I think people are mostly going from one event to the next, and they’re maybe hanging out in restaurants and bars in the meantime.

But the phenomenon I’m going to be researching in Pyeongchang that I also researched in Rio is a relatively new phenomenon that’s been increasing rapidly. It’s called hospitality houses. National Olympic committees and corporate sponsors and even, increasingly, different kinds of organizations will rent a space near the Olympic sites, and they’ll use it to entertain. Some of them are open to the public, some aren’t. They provide meeting spaces for largely corporate types. Hanging out in the national houses or the other hospitality houses – it’s proven to be quite popular with the populace as well because many of them are free or at least much cheaper than the sports events. Some people really get into the displays of national culture that are going on there.

It is really funny because it’s quite similar to World’s Fairs. At World’s Fairs, nations erect pavilions, and they display what they want to promote about their national image and also products and technology. That’s proven actually to be quite popular in Olympic cities at the same time that the World’s Fair has been in decline.

There’s a history of Olympic Games as geopolitical events. Having a Games on the Korean peninsula amid the current flare up in tensions sort of fits in that tradition, doesn’t it?

The convergence between the Trump-Kim Jung Un war of words and the Olympic Games is kind of interesting. I guess we’ll figure out whether the negotiations between North and South Korea – successful negotiations to bring them together and mount some joint teams – whether that is anything other than superficial symbolism. It is an encouraging development. They had actually mounted many combined teams in the past. They often marched together into the Opening Ceremonies together. But I think it was 2008 when that fell apart and didn’t happen. So it’s kind of interesting that they’ve managed to resurrect it. I think it had been defunct until now.


Brownell, who joined the faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at UMSL in 1994, is the rare anthropologist who has made sport a central focus of her study throughout her career. That started with her dissertation on the “The Olympic movement on its way into Chinese culture” in 1990 at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

She recently co-authored a book titled “The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics ” with University of Amsterdam Professor Niko Besnier and Thomas F. Carter, director of the Centre of Sport, Tourism, and Leisure Studies at the University of Brighton.

It explores all the ways athletic competition brings together physicality, emotions, politics, money, and morality and touches on themes such as the body, modernity, nationalism, the state, citizenship, transnationalism, globalization and gender and sexuality. Find more about the book here.

Written by: Steve Walentik

Note: This post is republished from UMSL Daily, with permission

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