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Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: Sport and the Making of Modern Canada. By Colin Howell. (University of Toronto Press, 2001, viii + 161p., selected bibliography, index, ISBN 0-8020-8248-3)

  • Michael A. Robidoux

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  • Michael A. Robidoux
    The University of Lethbridge, Alberta

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The temptation in reviewing Blood, Sweat, and Cheers is to assess it for what it is not, that is Bruce Kidd’s The Struggle for Canadian Sport (1996). Kidd’s work is still the defining work on the development and state of sport in Canada, and Blood, Sweat, and Cheers does little to advance any further knowledge in this area of study. With this said, Howell provides an exceptionally well written, concise and well organized account of sport development in Canada which would serve as an excellent introductory text for classes in Canadian sport history.

Howell begins by listing the dominant trends in terms of sport history scholarship which he incorporates at various points in the book to speak to the “contested social meanings and values” (7) of Canadian sport. His intention is not only to discuss the developments of sport in Canada, but emphasize how sport is an important means to understanding Canadian history. His discussion of sport is broad, ranging from animal blood sports to more organized modern sporting pursuits. In each case, sport is presented as a product of, among other things, class, gender, regional, and economic interests.

The work is organized into six categories that are useful in presenting significant historical periods as they relate to sport and also the changes that have resulted in the manner in which Canadians experience sport. The first two chapters — “Blood” and “Respectability” — discuss the ambivalence surrounding sport, situating it as both a potential breeding ground for moral cacophony and a site for the development of proper gentlemanly qualities. Howell successfully traces the development of sport from its preindustrial, unregulated and morally ambiguous roots to becoming organized, structured, bureaucratic activities emblematic of industrialization and urbanization in Canada. Along with these developments emerged a class-consciousness whereby organized sport came to be understood for its training potential, an “enterprise of constructing a ‘respectable’ and manly nation within the British Empire” (49).

The third chapter, “Money”, documents how the infiltration of capitalist economic strategies radically changed the modern sport landscape, undermining the hegemonic ideologies of amateurism. He follows this with what is the most innovative chapter of the book, “Cheers.” Discussing the tremendous market potential of sport is incomplete without considering the mass appeal of sport entertainment. By documenting the historical developments of sport spectators and spectating, Howell establishes even further the intricate relationship between sport development and larger social, political and economic trends. The sport fan developed along with the various manifestations of sport from vernacular pursuits, gentlemanly pastimes, to enormous commercial spectacles. The only consistency in sport-fan development is the intrinsic interest people have had in watching sport in its multiple dramatic representations. It is here that I most appreciate Howell’s argument as he resists overly deterministic theoretical interpretations which position sport fans as either “mindless innocents sucking at the pleasurable teat of commodified leisure, or as nihilistic rowdies spawned and then forsaken by an uncaring capitalist system” (84). Howell states and then illustrates convincingly that these propositions oversimplify “the complex relationship between the sporting audience and the larger social and economic system” (84).

The remaining two chapters discuss sport in relation to the “body” and in relation to “nation”. The former is a well documented discussion of the politics of bodily representation as it relates to class and to gender. The latter presents the manner in which sport became a tool for expressing nationalistic will and political supremacy. The sections that consider Cold War politics and the struggle for sport dominance and Canada’s ambivalence towards funding high performance sport/athletes are especially good.

Blood, Sweat, and Cheers is a historically sound text that is extremely accessible for general readership and for introductory courses in sport and Canadian history. The lack of critical development of certain issues may be disconcerting for certain readers, but they need only be directed to Kidd’s The Struggle for Canadian Sport. In the end Howell achieves what he sets out do, which is create a book that “will encourage people to think of these [sport related] issues, and contribute to the ongoing debate about sport and the making of Canada” (146).

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