Genevieve Rail, editor. Sport and Postmodern Times. New York: State University of New York Press, 1998, 399 pp., $U.S. 65.50 cloth, $U.S. 21.95 paper.

These are tumultuous times for sport: the International Olympic Committee has been shaken to its foundations by revelations of vote buying and other scandals; the NBA almost lost its 1998-99 season to a management-labour dispute, and its premier global promotional vehicle, Michael Jordan, has retired (again); former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy went public with his story of sexual abuse by his coach while a junior hockey player; and many owners of North American major-league sports franchises continue to hold a knives to the throats of their host cities, demanding massive public funding for stadium construction and other concessions or else they’ll pack up and leave town.

All of this makes Sport and Postmodern Times a timely and vital collection of critical essays. At its core is an examination of sport and its significance in the construction and diffusion of dominant cultural meanings and values. In these terms, Genevieve Rail meets her stated objective for the book, which is not so much to develop an argument for or against postmodernist thoughtas to provide “a critical space for diverse narratives and as many stories of everyday relations of power, domination, resistance and struggle in sport.”

The narratives represented in the book cover such diverse topics as sports writing, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, representation, and political economy. While I don’t have the space here for a complete review of the book, I do want to draw attention to Parts III and V, which I found to contain some of the most interesting essays in the collection. For example, David Andrews usefully employs the notion of representation in his “excavation of the meaning” of Michael Jordan in our media-saturated Western hyper-promotional cultures. Drawing on literature which shows how Jordan constitutes a powerful commodity-sign, Andrews seeks to “disrupt” the affective euphoria that has dominated the consumption of Jordan’s image by excavating what he sees to be the various meanings and political implications of wanting “to be like Mike.” (This chapter should be read in conjunction with Cheryl Cole and Samantha King’s excellent critique of the documentary “Hoop Dreams” in Part II).

Margaret MacNeill likewise engages the notion of representation in her chapter on the political and cultural economies of celebrity fitness videos. Through the case study method she examines a series of bestselling workout videos by Jane Fonda, Cher, and Cindy Crawford to show how the act of constructing the “fit body” and consuming images of celebrities through home videos has become a locus of social control. She shows how celebrity bodies are culturally produced as historical ideals and how audiences are positioned in relation to them. As MacNeill sees it, being “fit” is an embodied act, a social process, a product for sale, and a set of mediated relationships.

Finally, the collection’s concluding essay examines the consumption of the Olympic logo in “postmodern media culture.” While not an original critique, it is still a very instructive analysis of the political economy of the sign in historical context. VanWynsberghe and Ritchie show how the Olympic rings operate as “an open-ended signifier” enabling their continued symbolic consumption as both “affective cultural icon and linguistic item” whose meaning emerges out of the links between commodities and people’s everyday lives. This approach connects nicely with one of the book’s major themes — the critique of consumer culture and the society of the spectacle.

Despite the highly complex and theoretical nature of many of its essays, Sport and Postmodern Times would make an excellent text for senior undergraduate and graduate courses. It will also appeal to researchers seeking innovative applications of social theory to contemporary problems facing sport and society at the close of the century.

Mark Douglas Lowes
School of Communication,
Simon Fraser University

May 1999
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