Barbara Keys

Oct 16, 2020

The Ideals of Global Sport

From Peace to Human Rights

University of Pennsylvania Press 2019

Today we are joined by Barbara Keys, Professor of US and International History at Durham University, and author and editor of The Ideals of Global Sport: From Peace to Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). In our conversation, we discussed the origins of Olympism’s moral claims, the nexus between sport and human rights, and why it can be hard to understand the human costs of contemporary mega-events.

In The Ideals of Global Sport, Keys joins nine scholars in a critical examination of what she calls the “liturgy” of Olympism: namely that international sports “promote peace;” “teach fair play and mutual understanding;” “combat racial, ethnic gender, religious, and national discrimination;” “fight poverty;” “protect the environment;” and promote human rights.” A series of thematic articles, each chapter touches on one or more of the above themes. The authors come from a wide range of disciplines, including history, political science, and anthropology. Their different theoretical perspectives allow them to raise a host of questions about Olympism’s most grandiose claims.

These scholars do more than simply test the so-called “moral” defenses of sport. They also try to understand why “so many people make (such moral claims) and why so may people believe them…. The claims are important far beyond the question of their veracity: they constitute a system of meaning and a way of imagining the international. As a set of beliefs, the shape behaviour and practice.”

The Ideals of Global Sport is divided into two parts. Part 1 examines the core Olympic ideals of friendship, anti-discrimination, democratization, and peace. Simon Creak, Joon Seok Hong, and Roland Burke find very little evidence for strong links between any of these official Olympic values and instead point to the way that these ideals have been mobilized to serve particular political agendas. Robert Skinner’s chapter on anti-Apartheid sport posits that sport played a role in a much larger anti-discrimination movement.

In a provocative second half, scholars address the intersection between sport and human rights. Jules Boykoff illustrates the human cost of mega-events. Susan Brownell investigates different metrics for understanding the “human rights impact” of sport. In her own chapter, Keys paints a picture of sports and human rights organizations working with and against each other for mutual and opposite goals. Sporting group wanted to reframe human rights away from enumerated ideals and towards more marketable language, but other organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also increasingly interested in partnering with FIFA and the IOC.

Each one of these essays in this volume offers enticing insights into the ways that power and human rights intersect in the sports sphere and scholars interested in those themes are strongly encouraged to read this book.

Keith Rathbone is a lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His manuscript, entitled Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. It will come out with Manchester University Press in 2021. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at

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Keith Rathbone

Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history.

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