Tuesday, October 22, 2013

TTYU Retro: How Sports Impacts the Wider Culture by Tim Wade

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!


  1. Wow. This is a channel of thought I hadn't ever considered (not being a sports nut myself) and it's a level of development that I would not have felt prepared to undertake for quite a while. The part that stands out to me is the seedier side of sports. A friend got me and my wife interested in UFC cage fights a few years ago. I never would have thought one day we'd have our favorite fighters and hate others, but we found ourselves talking about it last night. Now I want my traditional hot wings and a beer.

    There's a wonderful parody article of Freud and Football (sorry I couldn't find a link) that takes a fun look at the "symbolism" in/of sports. Enough people act like football is it's own religion I don't know how that hasn't been ratified yet. I mean, if Jedi can be a real religion nowadays what's to stop people from worshiping the Almighty Cornhuskers?

    That's a really fun thought, especially considering the emphasis people put on it. People only wear certain colors, eat a specific food, get tattoos, decorate their homes, they slather on "war paint", there's totemic animal worship, children are educated at specific schools as it's family tradition, etc. There are rivalries between neighbors, cities, states that are serious enough to result in violent crimes and riots [whether or not your team won doesn't seem to make a difference]. You could write on this for quite a while.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Realmwright! I'm glad it got you thinking. I agree it's full of good ideas.

  3. I wish I had spent more time creating a new sport for my world, but I didn't. My serial story is about a couple planets, 150 years post-colonization, and I decided that basketball made the most sense in space because of its limited space requirements. (Although now that I think about it, tennis might be even better. Or racquetball.) But anyhow: basketball it is!

    Sports can provide a really useful supplement to discussions in your story, because they provide a cultural anchor. Like someone today might say "Remember when the Red Sox won the world series?", in my world they can say something like "Are you talking about the '55 playoffs?"

    There are other ways to do this, too, of course--any cultural phenomenon you can think of, really. And any you can invent!

    Another thing I intend to implement soon is changing technology. Imagine if you wrote a novel that covered four years, say 2005-2009. Well in 2007 the iPhone was released, and by 2009 it was massive cultural phenomenon, changing many phone habits (and GPS accessibility, and so on). There are lots of social cues that one can adapt to their stories, and they all help create a three-dimensional world.

  4. Hi Sam,

    Great comment and good choice. Basketball has undergone an unprecedented increase in popularity internationally since WWII and is well loved in both the US and in the rest of the world.

    So if 150 years have passed, how has the game changed? Is it played by more people? Has it become more of a contact sport, or has it become even quicker? Does it have walls like ice hockey or indoor soccer so players can bounce the ball off a wall? Do they play the same rules on both planets? Change something about the game as rules never stay the same for long.

    Don't forget that old men are always saying how good it was "back in the day". The players these days are not as good, the new rules take away from the game etc. (e.g. the designated hitter, IMO the worst invention in sports in the last 50 years).

    Tim (responding for Juliette)

  5. Sports is not part of my worldview. I have spent my entire life assiduously avoiding almost ANY contact with that kind of behavior - which has now invaded women's lives, too.

    I think it stems from the way I was 1) good at things like throwing a javelin, and 2) severely discouraged from doing so. It felt good - but, after one short try in gym, it disappeared. They wanted me to play team sports - with classmates who had no desire to be on a team with me...

    In any case, I had forgotten that one of the main characters I'm writing should have an interest in something (probably soccer) - or a darned good excuse for not having one.

    Duly noted - I'll have to think about it. He is a guy with a LOT of physical energy to deal with.

    Now that I can't do all those things, I wish I had done more.

    C'est la vie.


    1. I understand, Alicia. I played several sports as a kid, but my own inclination is to move away from team sports into individual ones (in this I include dance and martial arts). Tim inspired me to think about sports in my Varin world, and I found it unexpectedly fruitful. There are also sports that one can pick up later in life (depending on circumstances, of course) such as running or yoga. Good luck finding an outlet for your character's energy, and thanks for your comment!

  6. I wanted to point out that sports is a meritocracy only within the groups who are allowed to participate. For example, blacks were not allowed to play major league baseball in the US until the color barrier was broken in 1946 by Jackie Robinson. Once they were allowed in, they came to dominate the sport in a little over a decade. You allude to some of those racial issues, but a lot more could be said about how divisive these issues can be (and how much potential this brings for story conflict). In fact, non-white soccer players still face much discrimination in Europe.

    1. One could indeed write a whole dissertation on racial issues in sports, or even how socioeconomic status excludes people from certain kinds of sports. Thanks for your comment.