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ASU event considers sport as a cultural force

Panelists discuss the influence of sports on the Cold War


People seated at a table for a panel discussion.

From left: Panelists Victoria Jackson, Amira Rose Davis and Damion Thomas discuss the influence of sports on the Cold War. Photo by Hager Sharp

June 03, 2024

With the Summer Olympics set to begin next month, the subject of a recent event at the ASU Barrett and O’Connor Washington Center in our nation's capital was decidedly well-timed.

“I think we underestimate the significance of sport as a cultural force at our own peril,” said Andrés Martinez, professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, at the May 20 event hosted by ASU’s Endless Games and Learning Lab, also known as The Endless Lab, and New America’s Future Security program.

Martinez’s remarks were followed by a prerecorded conversation between Victoria Jackson, co-director of The Endless Lab, and Wyomia Tyus, a gold medalist in the 100m dash at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, which explored how the U.S. connects with the international community through sports, and the geopolitical effects of athletics and sporting events.

In the conversation, Tyus recounted her experiences as a track and field sprinter for Team USA in the Olympics. When asked how Black women were treated during the games in the 1960s, Tyus noted that she and the other women were not treated that differently. In fact, they were mostly an afterthought for Team USA.

“Men were their first priority, I would say. But we never looked at it that way,” Tyus said. “(Our coach) prepared us long, long before (the Games) in the fact that he always said, ‘No matter what you do, you may not get the recognition you deserve.’”

After the prerecorded portion, the event opened up to a panel discussion between Jackson; Damion Thomas, the museum curator of sports at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union began to use the United States’ oppression of African Americans as propaganda, explained Jackson. The U.S. decided to use the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo as an opportunity to combat the propaganda.

“I think sports became important in the Cold War context because sports were one of the first areas to integrate in the United States,” Thomas said. “It is still to this day hard to overemphasize how significant the integration of Major League Baseball was.”

The Olympic Games, while traditionally apolitical, had increasingly become a way for governments to promote their own agendas. Davis cited the 1948 Olympics, just after World War II, as one of the first instances of this, during which the U.S. sent a team of photographers and videographers to capture the diversity of Team USA and find a way to capitalize on the international visibility of the Olympics.

This continued until the Cold War, which Davis described as a hugely important time in American history.

“It’s really an era of domestic upheaval, socially as well,” Davis said. “So you can see how all that’s colliding to create a moment where sports becomes something of huge symbolic importance, whether it’s formalized State Department structure, informal attempts to argue for civil rights, domestically and globally, or just ways to punch at your competing emerging world powers.”

Davis described the Olympics as a key way for new and emerging nation-states to build their influence and gain international recognition. As new governments gained power, the U.S. and Soviet Union saw an opportunity to bolster support for each of their causes during the Cold War by sending athletes to and setting up sporting events in these nations.

Davis referenced Rose Robinson, an African American high jumper and anti-war activist from Chicago, as an example of an American athlete who refused to be sent on a State Department trip to promote the U.S.

“(Robinson) is super vocal about not wanting to be the face of the empire, not wanting to be used as a pawn to further wars on what she terms 'Black and brown' populations,” Davis said. “So she makes the stance and then, just coincidentally, six months later, she’s arrested for tax evasion, over $386. She’s thrown in jail.”

Black female athletes who agreed to attend these State Department trips, such as Wilma Rudolph, returned with new knowledge of Black liberatory politics and helped lead the Civil Rights Movement, unfortunately with little recognition.

“The USA calculation that ‘who’s going to listen to Black women when they’re speaking anyways?’ was really apt, and they were very useful symbols in their bodies, when they’re performing their athletics,” Davis said. “But we lose their voices when they start speaking up about what they’re seeing and what they believe.”

The panelists emphasized that the influence of athletes and sporting events on politics and international relations continues to be underestimated and advised that academics and politicians pay greater attention to these events.

“With social media and other avenues to speak outside of official kind of letterhead dispatches, we’re going to see new playbooks being written about sports diplomacy across the world,” Davis said. “I think that that is giving us a new kind of opportunity to see what happens when we actually think about sports coming together in solidarity and not necessarily in politicking.”

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