World Building: How Sports Impacts the Wider Culture
by Tim Wade
I have lived in the Australia, Japan and the U.S., and as a huge sports fan I have really enjoyed watching the sports of each country and the culture of those sports. You see, Sports has a culture just like anything else, and it should be considered in world building. People have a natural instinct to play sports and compete. Even if your characters are not interested in sports, and even if your society does not have an official league, there is sports somewhere. Is there a city league, semi-informal that competes with the other areas of the town? Remember that baseball competition in the US was developing for years before the National League was established. And being exceptional is not necessary, everyone wants to play and cheer on the home town team.
So now there is a place for games. Who plays them? Or the fascinating question: which sports are meant for which people? In the book Playing the Enemy about South Africa's triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup (the movie was titled Invictus), the author discusses outsiders on the team. He covers the roles of the black player but also mentions the "Englishman" in the team. You see, in Apartheid South Africa rugby was an Afrikaaner sport, cricket an "English" sport and football (soccer) for Blacks. The place of the black players was revolutionary but the English South Africans were also out of place, in a different way. I recommend the book (I just wish he had explored the game tactics as much as the politics).
Sports also is often the first place for minorities to get wide social recognition. Sports are a meritocracy by virtue of their scoring structure, and when a starting five from Texas Western beats the mighty Kentucky Wildcats to win the college basketball championship, it becomes time to recruit black players to Lexington. I just saw the movie this week with the family on DVD - Glory Road - and recommend it. I have been moved by the stories of Jackie Robinson and other pioneers and that story continues all the world over, from the Ella brothers in Australian rugby to Konishiki and Akebono in Japanese sumo. In your world, how do sports challenge restrictions on social mobility?
Sports does not only challenge on a racial level but also on a class level. In my home town of Melbourne, there are Australian football teams are associated with the upper class: Melbourne, Carlton, the working class: Richmond, Collingwood, and the middle class suburbs: Essendon, Hawthorn. A lot of those distinctions are not relevant to the players in this era of a nationwide draft, but the clubs still promote these identities. What are the class distinctions between teams or between sports in your world? Are there sports that are too uncouth for the upper class, or sports too refined for the workers? Are some games officially banned? Think dogfighting or cockfighting; underground violent sports have always shown the seedier side of society.
I'd also like to look at the fascinating sports-cultural case of Hideo Nomo, who left Japan to play baseball in the U.S. He was one of the best players in Japan, and won the best pitcher award at least once. His team was mediocre and he wanted to win, so he offered to take a lower salary so his team could make a trade to improve their chances. When his management refused to do so, he asked to be traded so he could play for a good team. His team did not want to trade him to a rival, and as he was playing in the less popular league (Pacific League) they did not want to trade one of their few superstars to the Central League. So Nomo was offered a contract allowing him to leave Japan, but giving up his rights so he could never play in Japan again. The Japanese press pilloried him for being a traitor to his team and for shunning the team concept. He took the challenge and played for the LA Dodgers. The very first year, he played in the All Star game, won Rookie of the Year and set a team strikeout record. I watched him a lot that season and thoroughly enjoyed a one-hitter complete game he threw at Candlestick, striking Barry Bonds out 4 times, and getting two hits himself. A huge Japanese crowd turned up and my wife and I were speaking Japanese to our neighbors. Well, after such a successful season he was treated like a hero upon returning home. He broke the ice and now there are Japanese players in all positions, all through Major League Baseball. Nomo had an up-and-down career in the US because he was over-pitched in Japan and never could deliver his best stuff in the US. But there is a special category of pioneer in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I hope it is considered for Hideo Nomo as people look back on his accomplishments.
So what sports are in your world? Who plays them? How are they supported? Let's please not leave J.K. Rowling and Quidditch as the most famous sport in speculative fiction! I love Quidditch, but any sport where Ireland wins a World Cup final is clearly fictional. ;)
Tim Wade is an Australian and American dual citizen, and a huge sports fan as well as an avid reader in all genres - not the least of which are science fiction and fantasy. Tim, thanks for sharing your insights with us!