This is an excerpt from Sociology of Sport and Social Theory by Earl Smith.
August 16, 1954, is an important date in the history of modern sport. On that date, the first issue of Sports Illustrated was published. The magazine would become the most recognized, widely read sports periodical in the English language, and it would have a dramatic influence on public perceptions of what was important in the world of high-performance professional and amateur sport in the latter half of the 20th century-and now into the early part of the 21st. Two articles stand out in that first issue.
In the magazine’s first full-length feature article, Paul O’Neil described the recently run "Mile of the Century" race at the British Empire & Commonwealth Games between England’s Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy as "the most widely heralded and universally contemplated match foot-race of all time" (1954, 21). His description was likely not an exaggeration. The race’s status was so high in part because Bannister had been the first to break the 4-minute-mile barrier at Oxford’s Iffley Road Track in May of that year, only to have Landy break the record in a race in Finland in June. In addition, the world of sport in the 1950s was fixated on who would be the first man to break the 4-minute barrier (Bascomb 2004). The fascination with high-performance running, world records, and pushing the limits of human endurance was so great that Sports Illustrated made the Bannister-Landy confrontation the topic of its first ever full-length feature article.
A second article in the publication’s first issue, this one authored by Gerald Holland and including information compiled by the magazine’s editors, provides another revealing glimpse into the world of sport in the early 1950s. Titled "The Golden Age is Now" (1954, 46-52, 83-86, 91-94), this piece touts the 1950s as the second golden age of sport, following in the footsteps of an initial golden age in the 1920s. The article cites fan interest, media attention, financial payoffs, world-record-breaking performances, participation rates, and general popular fascination (and, no doubt, the magazine’s self-validation was pertinent as well) as justification for its claim that the world was entering the next golden age. However, despite the article’s generally positive tone, Holland does not let concerns regarding the extreme nature of Cold War competition-especially in the Olympic Games-escape readers’ attention: "The Iron Curtain itself was forced to collaborate in a dramatic demonstration of what the human spirit could do," Holland ominously warns, then continues:
Russia and her satellites had sent a new breed of athlete out into the free world. He was a superbly trained, coldly efficient, intensely suspicious fellow. He worked full time at sports, although he competed as an amateur, and he swiftly built up a legend of invincibility (48).
Although Holland’s description of the Russian überathlete resorts to hyperbole, he was prescient in his warning of the coming tensions of "Cold War sport," in which nations would compete for political supremacy and push the human body to increasingly rarified heights of strength and endurance. Thus Sports Illustrated was reiterating George Orwell’s 1945 warning that sport had become "war minus the shooting" (Orwell 2003, 198), wherein athletes acted as the central combatants in the emerging conflict.
These two articles in the first edition of Sports Illustrated highlight three points. First, sport in the 1950s was in a dramatic state of transition, one reflected particularly in Holland’s comments. However, no one could fully anticipate the full extent of the changes that would occur in the ensuing Cold War years, when human performance would be pushed beyond anything imaginable in those early days. Second, the manner in which athletes trained their bodies to perform was also changing dramatically-not only in terms of hours spent, training intensity, usage of scientific discoveries and technological advances to perform, and the like, but also in terms of a new, emerging approach to how the human body functioned under training and performance stress. In short, a new ontology of performance was emerging (Beamish and Ritchie 2005). Contrary to Holland’s suggestion, however, this new ontology was not limited to the "coldly efficient" Russian athletes. Ironically, as we will see later in this chapter, none other than Roger Bannister, who considered himself one of the last few bastions of pure amateurism and who lamented creeping professionalism in sport, represented the coldly efficient new form of athlete who, as readily as any Russian athlete, would use virtually any means possible to break physical barriers (Bascomb, 2004; Beamish and Ritchie 2006, 59-60, 136-37; Bale 2004).
Finally, and most relevant to this chapter and to the topic of using social theory to understand sport, the transitions in performance and training to which the first issue of Sports Illustrated referred remind us that sport, contrary to common perceptions, does not have any single, static, universal "truth." It is a constantly changing social enterprise that is both shaped by and a shaper of the social and cultural world around it. For sociologists, this point is taken for granted, but in popular culture there remains a commonly accepted axiom that sport has essential, universal elements that remain unchanged over time and between cultures. Contrary to this axiom-this myth-sport, and modern sport specifically, as historian Bruce Kidd summarizes, should be "understood best as distinct creations of modernity, fashioned and continually refashioned in the revolutionizing conditions of industrial capitalist societies" (Kidd 1996, 12). One of the central purposes of sociological theories is to denaturalize sport-in other words, to bring to light the fact that in order to truly understand sport we must have an understanding of the social and historical contexts within which sport is practiced (Ritchie 2008).