Space and Time in the Sports Continuum

Space and time. These two words aren’t frequently associated with sports, although they impact a historian’s work and influence every communications pro’s tool box.  Yet, as a sports writer and historian, I’m thinking a lot about space and time in the sports continuum.

What does this mean, exactly? It’s understanding that one story, event, or movement is experienced differently from one group of people to another, and that often the remembrance of this shared history will change over time. It’s how France fans experienced the 2006 FIFA World Cup final and Zinédane Zidane’s infamous head butt quite differently than Italy fans. It’s how Boston Red Sox fans remember the 2004 MLB World Series differently than the New York Yankees. It’s how the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Boycotts are perceived differently today than they were at the time. 

At the recent #GoldenGamesNUS conference on sports diplomacy, the issue of time and space in sports came to the forefront. The paper I wrote for the conference, on French basketball diplomacy in China, was just one illustration of how these elements play a role in today’s sports world. My examination of three trips by Les Bleus underscored how quickly playing hoops in the People’s Republic of China went from being an unknown adventure (1966) to exotic (1980) to everyday (2006). 

The larger take-away wasn’t that playing basketball in China was an everyday occurrence by the early twenty-first century. It’s normalization by a Western team certainly raises tons of interesting questions. But more important was the fact that basketball was the natural sport of choice for these two countries. Reading today’s coverage of the NBA in China, one would never know that China has a very deep, intimate cultural history with basketball — one that makes it, alongside France, one of the countries where the sport naturally proliferates. A more nuanced grasp on how basketball in China (and France) has changed over the decades would bring benefits to any casual fan’s understanding of the game and the NBA’s globalization.

Two years ago, in Moscow for the #ColdWarSport Project, I had a slightly different revelation of the time-space-sports phenomenon. When I stood in the middle of Red Square’s massive expanse, I gained a much deeper understanding of how the Cold War and the sports battles it nurtured was experienced in ways entirely different from those I was familiar with (the United States and France). Granted, it wasn’t just the geography that brought about this revelation. Through the papers presented at that conference and discussions with scholars from around the globe, my understanding of the era was enriched. Sport in the Cold War was about much more than just East versus West, Washington vs Moscow. It was about North vs South, South vs South, colonizer vs former colony, regional vs federal, and so much more. Many of those legacies remain with us today and influence our present and future global sports landscape. 

Time and space in the sports continuum may sound too philosophical to be taken seriously on a day-to-day basis. But writers, editors, communications officers, public relations and marketing professionals, innovators, and even diplomats may find the perspective it offers helpful in their routine work.