Five Minutes with Stefan Huebner August 08, 2016 14:30

With the Rio Olympic Games underway, we caught up with Stefan Huebner, author of Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913-1974 to discuss who was responsible for spreading Western sports across Asia, how sports came to shape the idea of Asian 'nation-states', and why sporting events continue to be an important (and very costly) tool for nation-branding today.

How did you become interested in the connections between religion, East-West politics and sports?

During my undergraduate studies in history, I was very interested in Japan since it managed to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05. I also wondered why China and other Asian countries became victims of “Western” (and also Japanese) colonialism and imperialism. When we talked about the book, I should say that I was at first not really interested in sports, but when I learned that the Far Eastern Championship Games had been founded by officials of the North American YMCA and supported by the US colonial administration in the Philippines, this really caught my interest. I bet most people think that the International Olympic Committee was mainly responsible for spreading Western sports in Asia and other regions, but that’s not the case. While doing some initial research, I also became very interested in development policy in Asia during decolonisation and the Cold War, which is very important to understand the postwar Asian Games and why they served to communicate the image (actually several different images) of a “rising Asia”.

Medal from the 2nd Far East Championship Games in 1915.
(Image courtesy of Bavarian State Library)


How is sport related to ideas of anti-colonialism or nationalism? Do these ideas expire?

Very often athletes represent nation-states. Events can be (and some are) organised in different ways, but when the North American YMCA founded the Far Eastern Championship Games in 1913, they chose this approach. Watching athletes representing entities such as “China”, “Japan”, or the “Philippines” in the stadium or reading about them in newspapers created feelings of national belonging. Part of this was based on the YMCA’s and the US colonial administration’s experience of pitting town teams in the Philippines against each other. The intention had been that such athletic rivalry would encourage the selection of athletes based on their competence, not on clan and family relations or other factors, to maximise each team’s strength. In the process, people of different social backgrounds or even ethnicities would be integrated into the town’s team. This approach was then repeated on the regional level, meaning that people from different parts of China, Japan and the Philippines were represented in the respective “national” teams. This integrative approach certainly made it easier for spectators to identify with a team. The intention thus was not to encourage aggressive forms of nationalism (though the outcome sometimes was different), but to encourage the emergence of national civil societies. The staging of the games also regularly served to promote a certain image of the host nation—this remains true today and I doubt this will change in the near future.

      Anti-colonialism, both in the form of nationalism and pan-Asianism, was closely linked to all that. Initially, the main organisers of the games were all Americans, who held these positions since there were no Asians who were equally experienced in Western sports. However, when a first generation of Asian physical educators emerged, these often felt patronised and eventually ended this “colonial” relationship between “American experts” and “Asian pupils”. Events on the international level, such as the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, also intensified anti-colonial sentiments—as a newspaper cartoon in my book shows. Seen before the background of this “Asiatisation” process, the games started to communicate the message that Asians now were in charge of a “modernisation process” in fields such as sport, public health and citizenship training that would eventually end the power asymmetry vis-à-vis the “West”.

Asian leaders in the 1910s such as JAAA president Kanō Jigorō criticised American style sports for its characteristics (“inefficient training method for shaping better soldiers and workers”), but did they also consider sports an invasion of “Western” values?

Some indeed did. Especially those Asian leaders who did not appreciate the activities of missionary groups resisted the YMCA’s Christian approach to amateur sports: “muscular Christianity”. However, not all of those Asian leaders rejected Western sports in general, but some of them claimed that they fitted well into Asian cultural backgrounds. There were, for example, Japanese sports leaders who connected Western sports to the Bushidō, the Way of the Warrior. Some of them did this to challenge the influence of North American missionary groups in Asian sports events.

      Others, who were closer to the YMCA, advocated an interpretation of the Bushidō that had quite a “Western-Christian” touch. In this way, local resistance against “muscular Christianity” could be circumvented and “Western” values could still be promoted. Much more can be said about this topic, but I want to conclude with shortly mentioning those Asian leaders who eventually dominated the field: those who referred to the Olympic movement and “Olympism”. Doing this became increasingly popular, since such a secular approach to “Western” sports did not cause much resistance (after all, nobody believes in the old Greek gods anymore).

"Uncle Sam teaching the Asian children sports values"; Philippines Free Press (10 May 1919). (Image courtesy of US Library of Congress)

What was the process of penning Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia 1913–1974 like?  

It is my first book, so I was very enthusiastic when it finally got published. I started working on the topic in autumn 2009 and the book came out this year, which is quite quick, I think.

      During the first years I travelled a lot in Asia, Europe and North America to gather sources in various archives and libraries and to make myself familiar with the history of sports in Asia. Turning all these into a book was a fascinating process, especially when I realised how useful the concept of the “civilising mission” is to analyse the events I covered. Scrutinising the games’ connections to Asian nationalisms, pan-Asian sentiments, religious ideas and Cold War development policy was also very interesting as I noticed the tremendous changes the Games experienced over the course of 60 years. I also enjoyed working with so many images—and when my book manuscript was accepted without any revisions, I was extremely happy! Obviously, some less exciting tasks were inevitable … when things needed to be standardised, the bibliography needed to be compiled, etc.

How do you think sports have evolved in Asia in recent years? Do you think the same tensions remain?

It obviously depends on the type of event we talk about. The 18th Asian Games that are set to take place in Indonesia in 2018 is an interesting case, since the event originally was supposed to have taken place in Vietnam. Financial problems, including the question of what to do with the newly-built venues after the event is over, have been a main reason for Vietnam’s decision not to host the games and remind us of how expensive the hosting of regional sports events has become. In my book, I pointed out that the founders of the Asian Games reflected on this problem early on.

      When we talk about the Olympic Games, it is remarkable that we will have the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in 2018, and in China in 2022. Between the two events, the Summer Olympics will take place in Tokyo in 2020. This is very noteworthy, especially since all three East Asian countries have hosted Olympic events before—strictly speaking they are the only Asian countries which have hosted the Olympic Games so far. This again reminds us of the high costs of hosting such events and throws the spotlight on which countries are trusted by the International Olympic Committee to host the Games. The controversial 2010 Commonwealth Games in India comes to one’s mind as it did not set the precedent of hosting any editions of the Olympic Games.

Chinese female swimmers at the 10th Far Eastern Championship Games in 1934. (Image courtesy of Harvard Yenching Library)

Is your next research project along the tangent of politics, religion and sports?  

My next book project will be on oceanic colonisation projects, such as offshore drilling, mariculture (farming of marine organisms) and floating city extensions. There is a connection to development policy, which is part of the main story in the later chapters of my book. But I will also continue working on the dynamics between politics, religion and sports. For example, I am co-organising a conference here in Singapore at the Asia Research Institute on 25–26 August titled “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Social Gospel in Asia, c. 1890s–1930s” where we will have some presentations on sports and the YMCA.