East vs. West: A Study of Orientalist Tropes in Sports Journalism

Student: Ben Blotner
Major: English
Minor: Communication Studies
Advisor: Zoe Gibbons

My Independent Study breaks down various works of sports journalism from the early 20th century onward. I study the political and athletic progress that has been made by the East in each sport, showing how these forms of progress are intertwined. I also look at the extent to which this progress is demonstrated by the writing, placing emphasis on Orientalist attitudes or lack thereof. Using Edward Said’s Orientalism and other sources as my theoretical framework, I study the history of journalism in three different sports: table tennis, cricket, and baseball. The table tennis section primarily features journalism surrounding Chinese table tennis, as I take a close look at the phenomenon of “ping pong diplomacy.” In the cricket chapter, I investigate the sport’s history in India, Pakistan, and the West Indies, looking at pieces of writing that show how different countries have come together in unity. The baseball chapter looks at the history of Asian players and how journalistic attitudes towards them have changed.

Description

In this PowerPoint, I break down my Independent Study into eight slides. The first slide features the title of the project, my name, and clip art of the three sports whose journalism I analyze. I then go into my research question, which states my project’s focus on Orientalist language in sports journalism and the progress that has been made. On this slide, I quote the official definition of Orientalism by Edward Said, the author of the book Orientalism. For my pictures, I include the cover of Said’s book and clip art of sports journalists.

I then move on to my thesis statement, which states that progress has been made towards equality in the world of sports journalism, as Orientalist writing has become relatively rare. The pictures here represent the idea of the East and the West being equal. My next three slides analyze my research on the three sports I studied: table tennis, cricket, and baseball. The table tennis slide outlines the events behind “ping pong diplomacy” between the United States and China. I provide historical context on these events and how China used its table tennis ability for leverage in diplomatic negotiations with the U.S., as well as the respect journalists gained for China. The left picture shows players competing at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships, the competition that led to these events, and the right picture shows President Richard Nixon meeting Chinese leader Mao Zedong as a result of ping pong diplomacy.

My cricket slide expresses the main ideas of my chapter on the sport, including the increase in writers’ respect for countries such as India and Pakistan, which have become world-class in cricket. The pictures portray a ticker tape parade held by Australians to honor cricket players from the West Indies who visited their country, along with controversial umpire Darrell Hair, who has been criticized as biased against Easterners. Next is my baseball slide, in which I highlight the progression of journalistic attitudes towards Asian baseball players, citing specific events that led to relevant journalism. On the left, we can see American star player Hank Aaron and Japanese star Sadaharu Oh posing together at one of the exhibition home run contests they held. On the right is former star pitcher Chan Ho Park, who was a phenomenon as the first Korean player to reach the major leagues.

Finally, in my conclusion slide, I state my findings, including the specific arguments I make about each sport. I end with the statement that sports journalism has seen a decrease over the years in Orientalist ideals.

Ben will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

29 thoughts on “East vs. West: A Study of Orientalist Tropes in Sports Journalism”

  1. What were some of the specific events that led to the change of reporting about Asian baseball players? My sense is that the Aaron-Oh exhibition may have only opened the door to changes that came later.

    1. The Aaron-Oh exhibition certainly was one of the events that helped to spark change. It allowed journalists and the general public to see that a Japanese player could not only compete with an American superstar, but show off extreme home run power, a skill not previously associated with Asian players. Scouts in the mid-20th century often viewed Asian players as small and weak, unable to compete in the major leagues because of their size. With his prodigious home run display, Sadaharu Oh turned this stereotype on its head, and journalists began to change their ways. This helped open the door for Asian players to ultimately reach the majors, and stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Chan Ho Park achieved sustained success in the States, showing the world that Asian players can be some of the best in the world.

  2. Ben, I think this is a really unique basis for a project! Well done and I hope you’re proud of the effort you put in. I’m curious as to why you chose to focus on those three sports. What about them made them most useful for your I.S.?

    1. Thanks Cara, I appreciate it! My topic originated from my Junior IS, in which I had to write about postcolonialism. I had the idea to relate Asian countries’ dominance in table tennis to the colonial power that Western countries held over Eastern ones, and China’s “ping pong diplomacy” ended up being a central focus. I originally planned to write my IS on only table tennis, but my advisor had the idea to expand it and see if similar dynamics existed in other sports. Cricket is a very global sport with a great deal of international history in both the East and the West, so I knew there would be plenty of content to work with there. For my last chapter, I wanted to write about baseball because I have always had a passion for the game, and it is popular on both sides of the world, so it fit the scope of my project perfectly.

  3. Interesting study, Ben. You identify some of the key Orientalist frames of the past, which have fortunately decreased over time, although they certainly are not completely gone. What do you think you might find if, say, you were to look at British coverage of soccer, particularly of non-white players? Thanks for sharing your research, and congratulations.

    1. Thank you! Soccer would be an interesting sport to study if I had more time and space to expand my project. I think I would be most likely to find a pattern similar to those of the other sports, with condescending or racist coverage being prevalent in the early- to mid-20th century before the improvement of Eastern players worked to help spur change. The political advancement of Eastern countries and the changing of general societal attitudes likely would have played a role in the increased acceptance of Eastern players as well. However, I do not know much about the history of soccer, so there may be a different dynamic that I would discover if I looked deeper into the question.

  4. Hey Ben – Great work and thanks for sharing. From the research your read, what were a couple of stories that really stood out to you as being impactful towards your IS completion? Great work!!!

    1. Thank you! One of the most impactful stories was definitely ping pong diplomacy, the story of how China repaired diplomatic relations with the U.S. through table tennis. After the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships, a Chinese player and an American player had a chance encounter that resulted in the American team being invited to visit China. The Chinese players’ dominance in the sport gave them credibility and leverage with the American players, which they used to their advantage. This led to President Richard Nixon making a successful visit to China the following year, and relations were successfully repaired. Another important development was the 1974 home run contest between American baseball star Hank Aaron and Japanese star Sadaharu Oh, both the top power hitters in their respective countries. The exhibition helped build goodwill between the countries, and journalism from the event is interesting to look at, as we see Aaron and Oh portrayed on a fairly equal level by the writers. This was a sign of more progress to come.

  5. Good work here, Ben! I’d be curious to know more about how you categorized various pieces of journalism on the scale of displaying more to less Orientalism over the years. Were you tracking particular tropes or keywords to do this analysis? (You note the use of stereotypes of Asian baseball players as mysterious/exotic, for example.) Congrats!

    1. Thank you! There were some pieces where the overall tone immediately classified it for me as more or less progressive, while others required me to look at them in more detail and see where they fit in on the spectrum. The biggest thing I looked for was condescending language or the use of any stereotypes that Edward Said establishes as Orientalist philosophies. While negative language about Asian athletes was certainly a red flag, I had to be careful not to mistake simple criticism of their athletic ability for Orientalism or a lack of cultural acceptance. Any words that generalized the entire East or an entire country in the East typically fell into the condescending category for me.

  6. Awesome job on this, Ben! It’s definitely interesting to think about how sports, politics, and cultural attitudes can have such profound effects on one another; I wouldn’t have thought that ping pong could influence people in this way! Thanks so much for sharing and best of luck!

  7. Thanks for stretching my “Independent Mind.” This is such a unique topic in a time when East-West relations and rhetoric are so pointed. Congratulations on completing IS. This presentation was terrific.

    1. Thank you, I appreciate it! It was interesting to see how the rhetoric has changed over time.

  8. Congratulations Ben, well done job, amazing I will say🧑🏼‍🎓🎓📚💫✨

  9. Such an interesting project, Ben! The coverage of these sports might look quite different post-pandemic. I imagine your project was essentially done by the time the effects of the pandemic were in place, but have you come across any information related to your project about the current state of international sporting events?

    1. Thank you! It is very different when sports are either not being played or being played with no fans present. Luckily, I finished and turned in my project right before the virus hit. I hadn’t really thought about this question, but the Korean and Taiwanese professional baseball leagues have actually begun playing their seasons during the pandemic, while all major American sports are still being delayed. Both leagues had been playing their games in empty stadiums until recently, when the Taiwanese league began letting fans in under the condition of social distancing. It is interesting to see that these Eastern countries are comfortable enough to open their baseball leagues back up without worrying about stigma or judgment from outsiders, especially when the virus originated in the East. This may not have happened years ago, and it is a sign of the East’s independence and agency to make its own decisions in the sports world.

  10. Great job, Ben! I’ve loved to watch you and your research evolve over the course of the year! Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, it’s been great having you there with me! See, all those long nights were worth it after all.

  11. Great presentation, Ben–congratulations on everything you’ve achieved here! It is really fun to see how your project has evolved since junior year–adding cricket and baseball really shifted the dynamics. Did you come across any stories for the other sports that synthesized your themes and responded to your research questions as clearly as “ping pong diplomacy” did?

    1. Thank you, I appreciate you helping me to get there! Ping pong diplomacy was the most obvious example of a story that embodied all the themes of a chapter, but my cricket chapter contained a very interesting story about the Boston Gymkhana Sports Club, an establishment with many members of both Indian-American and Pakistani-American descent. Despite their original countries being at constant odds with each other, the club has brought the two groups of people together through sport. This has helped them to come together and forget about the political dispute while playing cricket, building real, lasting friendships in the process. One of the biggest themes of my cricket chapter was that the sport has helped Easterners come together in unity, making the East stronger in the process, and that sports journalism has documented this process. The article I used about the club is a perfect example of this journalism.

  12. Maybe on a bit of a tangent – but does the character of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV sort of fall into some of the same frameworks you discussed? The character is portrayed as being very stereotypically Russian and is also very good at boxing, and while it’s a fictional story it sounds a lot like it’s reflective of Cold War era politics – much like Ping Pong diplomacy was reflective of that era’s politics.

    1. I’ve never seen any of the Rocky films (uncultured, I know), but I can definitely see that being a similar dynamic. One question I have is that I don’t know if Russia is one of the top boxing countries or if there is a stereotype about Russians being good at boxing. If this is the case, Ivan definitely fits the framework, especially if there is political motivation behind his interactions.

  13. Congratulations on a job well done, Ben! I wish you all the best for your future.

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