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Transatlantic Perspectives on Sport & Physical Culture in Germany and the USA during the 20th Century

Over the course of the 20th century, sport and physical culture had immense repercussions for German American relations and how German people perceived Americans, and vice versa. In both nations, sport and physical culture hold important significance and status, and for both nations, their social, cultural, and political histories cannot be understood without discussing how sport and physical culture influenced society, how they served as integrating as well as excluding forces.

In this process, meeting American athletes, watching American sports, or being fascinated by new American sport or fitness trends became an influential factor. For a long time and for many German commentators, American sport seemed too different, too strange, too much some sort of a business to be attractive. But as in many other social or cultural fields, ‘Americanization’ was far from being a threat only – while many argued against ‘American modernity,’ as many others were looking to American ideas and trends as inspirations for liberalizing and democratizing sport and society and culture in general. For West Germany, the years after World War II were especially relevant, when members of the U.S. armed forces (and their families) not only lived in German towns but played ‘their’ sports and introduced them to a younger generation of Germans. East Germany saw no such direct influence, but the rise and the successes of the GDR’s sport system nevertheless rested on the idea of constant competition with a West dominated by the ‘Americans.’

The development of sport and physical culture in the United States had been shaped by ‘German’ influences, too. The lasting presence of German Turners in North America is an important example. After World War II, student exchange programs brought many young West Germans into American high schools and colleges, where they learned to play baseball or (American) football, while some of their East German peers took up skateboarding or some other popular ‘American’ trend to test what was tolerable in an authoritarian system.

In the media-shaped world of sport of the 20th century, German and American athletes met at Olympic Games or the ran together in the city marathons of New York or Berlin. Sport officials collaborated in international sport organizations on different levels. Both German and American sporting goods manufacturers considered overseas markets as invaluable targets for their businesses; journalists also travelled between Germany and the U.S., reporting about sport events. The conference and the follow-up anthology seek to bring together original scholarship to elaborate on how sport and physical culture impacted the ways German and American people came into contact with each other, how they perceived each other, how their respective sporting traditions and cultures interacted with each other, and how sport and physical culture changed because of these contacts and encounters.
Contributions can be in English or in German, and the phrase ‘sport and physical culture’ should be conceived to include a broad variety of sport-oriented activities. The historical timeframe is focusing on the 20th century but that periodization comes with relaxed bookends. Both conference and anthology are to be structured not so much chronologically, instead along thematic fields:

Athletes meeting at sport events and championships – this addresses a huge range of options, from Olympic Games to world championships, from international meetings on the highest level to hobby athletes joining more informal competitions
Lasting rivalries, friendships, or co-operations – taking such famous examples as Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, Luz Long and Jesse Owens, Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi as starting points, contributions can deal with how sport shaped relations between Germans and Americans over a longer period of time. Again, this should not just include high-level activities but may also point towards cities, clubs, schools, or other organizations that formed bonds in and through sport
International, transatlantic sport diplomacy, sport organization, and sport economy – this part is supposed to look at how organized sport, politics, and business interests framed the ways that Germans and Americans interacted in the world of sports but also how sport and physical culture struggled to remain somewhat independent from such influences
Fans, media, and the role of sport consumption – contributions could point especially towards how journalists, fans, and other sport observers (such as writers, filmmakers, or artists) perceived similarities and differences, continuities and changes in German American sport relations
Health, fitness, and trend sports – non- or semi-official sport activities come into play, e.g. the exchanges about different gymnastics systems, the shared fascination in varieté-style physical performances, the embrace of health-oriented trends from pilates and yoga to aerobics and boot camp, etc. Against this background, broader notions of cultural influences and inter-cultural negotiations (‘Americanization’ vs ‘tradition’ / American exceptionalism vs multicultural transfer) could easily be discussed
This structure allows for both a wide variety of topics and approaches while still introducing a meaningful analytical framework.

The conference aims primarily to present new studies. Presentations will be a maximum of 20 minutes each, followed by a 10-minute discussion.
Abstracts should be submitted to the Directorate of the Schwabenakademie Irsee at markwart.herzog@schwabenakademie.de by 15 October 2023. Abstracts should contain the following information:
– Working title
– Name of the author
– Institution
– Project outline (maximum 250 words)
The conference program will be compiled from the submissions by the beginning of November 2023. The publication of the conference proceedings is scheduled. Project leaders are Prof. Dr. Olaf Stieglitz, Universität Leipzig, Institut für Amerikanistik, and Dr. Markwart Herzog, Schwabenakademie Irsee.


Schwabenakademie Irsee
Klosterring 4
87660 Irsee