Sport Image

Looking at European sports from an Eastern European perspective

Anke Hilbrenner / Britta Lenz
Institute for Eastern European History, University of Bonn, Germany / Jerusalem

Until recently the history of sport in Eastern Europe has scarcely crossed the radar of European sports history, and – some outstanding exceptions notwithstanding – is still under-researched. Whilst a common agenda and scholarly language are still lacking, a new network based at the University of Bonn has begun to make good the deficit and is laying the foundations for an appropriate cultural and social history of the topic. Early work has already made clear that this particular history has to be explained beyond the paradigm of nation states: since these only evolved at a very late stage in Eastern Europe, a more regional approach is required to capture the complexity of the area.

We presented three theses, exemplified largely from Poland and East Central Europe, that should be taken into account in any general European sports history which aims to give the eastern part of the continent the weight it deserves.

1. The history of East European sports sheds light on the importance of trans-national spaces and networks as well as European sub-regions. When, from the late nineteenth century onwards, international sports contacts intensified, the first international organizations emerged and the trans-national sports community took shape, there was no independent Poland and the country was excluded from the world of international sport, where national representation formed the basic principle of competition. Except for Habsburg-ruled Galicia, in fact, Polish cultural life – including sports – was suppressed by the authorities and could not develop freely, and it is hardly surprising that it was Galicia, and especially the towns of Cracow and Lodz, that took the lead in the formation of modern sports. Yet Galician sport was strongly influenced by (educational institutions and activists from) Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary: in football, many players and coaches started their careers under Habsburg rule; and personal contacts with Vienna, Prague and Budapest remained intact after 1918 and led to the exchange of managers, players and functionaries as well as international tournaments for teams from across the sub-region. In Warsaw, by contrast, football developed under Russian influence and therefore followed the ‘English model’. Seen this way, sport history thus serves as an instrument to reconstruct personal networks and trans-national communities within the European sub-regions.

2. The diffusion of sport in Eastern Europe contradicts the paradigm of modernization and the notion of East European backwardness. For reasons outlined above, Polish sport did not develop in accordance with modernization and industrialization. It was the rural areas of Galicia, inhabited by very traditional sections of the population such as Ukrainian peasants or Chassidic Jews, rather than the industrial centre Warsaw or the towns of Silesia that formed the cradle of modern Polish sports.

3. Sport history sheds light on phenomena such as multi-ethnicity, migration and integration or disintegration. Again the diversity of Galician sports culture serves as an example for the complexity of European sports history. In interwar Poland, sports clubs existed along and across the lines of every social, cultural, national or ethnic border. There were not only Jewish sports clubs, but Jewish socialist, Zionist bourgeois and Zionist socialist sports clubs. Moreover, Jews also engaged in Polish liberal or Polish socialist sports clubs. If we take the German, Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish populations of interwar Poland into account, it is clear that sports did not form fixed national identities (such as ‘Jewish’, ‘Polish’ or ‘Ukrainian’), but contributed rather to a notion of identity that is very much dependent on the historical situation. This notion of identity serves better than any simple and essentialist concept of ‘national identity’ to explain the diversity of experiences in Eastern Europe.

From an East European angle, a history of modern European sports needs to embrace a perspective from the periphery towards the centre, one that reaches beyond the paradigms of modernization and the nation-state.


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Arts and Humanities Research Council University of Cambridge University of Brighton De Montford University, Leicester