The emergence and development of modern sport
in Latin America: the North American influence

Department of History. Clemson University

Joseph L. Arbena

     Paper prepared for presentation at the 7th Brazilian Congress of the History of Physical
Education, Sport, Leisure and Dance, Gramado, RS, Brazil, May 29 - June 1, 2000.

http://www.efdeportes.com/ Revista Digital - Buenos Aires - Año 5 - N° 24 - Agosto de 2000

1 / 2

Versión en Español

     That the diffusion of sports has been a feature of the last several centuries seems undeniable. In the post-1492 era of European expansion and colonialism, the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French and others carried various games, sports, and forms of recreation to areas previously untouched by European society. In Latin America, through the eighteenth century, this meant mainly Iberian card games, animal combats, numerous equestrian activities-including bullfighting-and early versions of Basque ball games1.

     Using Allen Guttmann's terminology, these all fit into the pre-modern category. That is, they were more games and diversions than true sports, lacking consistency and structure across time and space2.


     By the mid-1800s, in contrast, the sporting practices entering the Latin American realm, whether from North America or from Europe and the United Kingdom, increasingly displayed characteristics associated with the evolving modern societies from which they came: greater structure and discipline, more standardized rules across larger geographical areas, emerging bureaucratic administration, rationalized training methods and decision making, evaluation based more on skill and performance than race, class, or gender, and signs of massification and commercialization3.

     At least some Latin American thinkers became convinced that imported sports, whatever the source, could serve to teach the behavior necessary to accelerate modernization in their still laggard societies, though they generally much preferred amateur over professional types, and could serve to demonstrate that their countries and select groups within them were achieving new levels of sophistication and status4. Mexican philosopher-politician-educator José Vasconcelos linked play, games, physical education, and sports to the betterment of health and morality and thus to the development of Mexican youth and society, through the discipline of 'team-work' and the rejection of body-destroying sensual habits, such as unhealthy eating, alcoholism, and insufficient physical activity5. Argentine lawyer, politician, and long-time sports administrator, César Viale, likewise argued that the muscular and athletic were the way to improve a nation's health, virility, and power, as did his countryman

     Próspero Alemandri who asserted that the practice of sport would strengthen those virtues that enhance the best in life6. It has likewise been suggested that in Brazil the acceptance of futebol and, even earlier, horse racing and rowing was part of a larger process of conscious importation of foreign customs and habits aimed at imposing social control and the discipline and qualities necessary to function in a hierarchical and eventually industrial society7. But, as Victor Andrade de Melo and Julio Frydenberg suggest, different socioeconomic groups soon learned to inject into their sports different meanings and to find in them the roads to different ends8.

     Of course, the perceived link between sport and wider sociopolitical behavior was not new in the nineteenth century. Recall the Spanish efforts to suppress the Mesoamerican ball games tradition and Puritan struggles to protect the Sabbath from alleged corruption. But these newer campaigns were more comprehensive and constructive, seeking to better attitudes and behavior through the expansion of sport, physical education, and recreation, rather than reduce undesirable actions by controlling or eliminating sports9.


     Surely the North American sport that has had the greatest impact on Latin America over the longest period of time is baseball10. Evolving out of a variety of English stick and ball games, the outline of the modern game was first drawn in New York City in the mid-1840s. Its spread domestically was rapid, tied to the explosion of the US economy, the growth of cities, the rise of a middle class, the introduction of revolutionary technology, faster and more extensive transportation and communication networks, the desire for more recreational and leisure activities, more discretionary time and money, and the construction of a unique national identity11.

     As it evolved with the expanding American population and economy, baseball was carried to Latin America by a collection of US workers-e.g., sailors, engineers, miners, merchants, educators, missionaries-of Latin American students and other travelers, and, in smaller numbers, of US entrepreneurs such as Albert G. Spalding. The first took the game mainly as recreation; the second as recreation but also as a means to spread US values and institutions; the third in hopes of profiting from anticipated new markets among spectators and buyers of equipment, though the motives of each often overlapped12.

     Cuba, to a degree, illustrates all three. Numerous Americans by the mid-1800s were regularly visiting Cuban ports and plantations where baseball increasingly filled their free time. Simultaneously, large numbers of Cubans went to the USA to study or to escape from the ever more despised Spanish colonial administration. These two experiences after 1850, combined with observations of American development, led the more nationalistic Cubans to embrace baseball as a symbol and expression of their rejection of things Spanish and their admiration for the political, technological, and economic advances of the US. Eventually Americans found in Cuba a deep enough baseball culture to scout talent, take frequent barnstorming tours, establish spring training camps, and accept a Havana club into a high-level minor league13.

     In the end, Cuba itself became the carrier of baseball to foreign lands-various Caribbean islands and such mainland areas as the Mexican Yucatán and the Venezuelan coast-where its association with the dynamic island may have been as important as its American roots. And before 1959 Cuba was the only significant source of Latin players in the major leagues, though along with Cubans a few Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, and Mexicans did play in the minors and the Negro leagues prior to the re-integration of the National Game in the 1940s14.

     There is no denying that the United States, like other sport exporters, has long seen political and nationalistic messages in sporting competitions. Yet, if several expert historians cited above are correct, Cubans needed no model to instruct them that baseball, like all sports, can be used for political objectives. So the inspiration for the Castro regime since 1959 to make sports a symbol of its Revolution came from more than the Americans15.

     Despite baseball's unquestionable importance in Cuba, other sports-boxing, basketball, track and field, volleyball-do attract significant attention16. Such is not the case in the Dominican Republic, "the last place in the free world where baseball is the unchallenged national pastime"17 and since 1959 probably the Latin country that has had the greatest impact on North American major league baseball18. Beyond the Dominican, baseball has gained national prominence in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, and Panama, shares the spotlight with soccer in Mexico and Venezuela, and fills an important niche in Colombia, Costa Rica, and the Dutch Antilles19.

     As a consequence, in 1997, 201 Latinos spent time in the major leagues: 89 Dominicans, 42 Puerto Ricans, 39 Venezuelans, only five Cubans, and a scattering from several other circum-Caribbean countries. The current 2000 season began with Latinos filling over 20 per cent of major league rosters.

     While the success of Latino beisbolistas in North America may expand national pride and even dollar earnings back home, it has also been argued that this uneven relationship-similar to the movement of futbolistas to Europe and of Caribbean cricketeers to Mother England-is nothing more than a modern version of neocolonial extraction of a valuable natural resource. The exporting country is left materially and culturally poorer, as the major share of the profits remain in the hands of the metropolitan owners, spectators, and media giants20. Still, the Cuban case for certain and even the Dominican case to some degree suggest that, despite the appearance of a paradox, surpassing the masters at their own game can allow a people to express their own unique character and define their own national identity21. To an extent, then, adoption and adaptation of baseball in Latin America is more an expression of transcultural fusion than of imposed cultural imperialism22.

     Let's remember that the American boxing establishment has also been accused of exploiting Latin athletic talent, profiting from the riches generated by successful fighters, then dumping them when past their prime23. If boxing originally reached Latin America more directly from Britain and Europe than the United States, selected US boxers such as Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali were admired to the south, and despite those accusations, Latin American fighters such as Julio César Chávez have continued to seek their fortunes in North American rings24.


     Almost as distinctly American as baseball is American football. However, although that sport was being played in neighboring Mexico at least as early as the 1920s and perhaps even before25, the game has touched very few areas south of the Río Grande. It has been played in Panama, especially in the old Canal Zone at high schools attended by youth from the US. But only Mexico sees local men, and recently a few women, play it regularly in schools and clubs26, hosts National Football League pre-season exhibition games, participates in university-level international competitions27, and sends players of notable skill to NFL rosters28. Recent Mexican interest in the NFL Super Bowl surely reflects that century-long connection to the game, though in Mexico as in those countries where American football is rarely performed-I have participated in Super Bowl Monday parties in New Zealand-it may also be to some degree just an excuse to party tied to a colorful global event, much as Anglos in the United States have learned to celebrate the Mexican national holiday, Cinco de Mayo. In fact, a 1995 Super Bowl party in Buenos Aires reportedly inspired some 80 fans to form the Asociación Argentina de Football Americano and a year later to start an eight-team competition of the much less physical 'flag ball' variation of the sport29.

     The failure of American football to gain wide acceptance in Latin America, even where rugby football has found a niche, may derive from such circumstances as climate and cost-the equipment is both hot and expensive-nationalism (it's just TOO American!), and the possibility that it is truly a post-modernist game and thus not suitable to the masses in a region not so far beyond Ford and the industrial age.


     In recent years the one sport that has challenged baseball as the most widely diffused American sport in Latin America is basketball. Invented by James Naismith at Springfield College (Massachusetts) in 1891 to fill the gap between autumn's American football and springtime's baseball, roundball or the cage game, as it may still be known to an older generation, did indeed provide at first a seasonal variation in both urban and rural areas, but eventually it would prove especially appealing all year round in the cities where, in part because of spatial considerations, it displaced baseball as the dominant sport30. The game's spread, in turn, across the hemisphere may be attributed to various factors: the simplicity of the game, the balance between individuality and teamwork, the role of the YMCA and innumerable American educational institutions, international television broadcasting, and the dominance in the recent US game of non-white players with whom many Latin American youth can more easily identify31.

     Not only have Latin American countries developed their own basketball programs at various levels, but players from the south are now playing on North American college and professional teams, not in the same quantities as baseball players but enough to have an impact32. And their success in the land of basketball's birth and still of its greatest talent has generated considerable nationalistic pride back home, as seen in the recent example of Mexican Eduardo Nájera who in the 1999-2000 season helped the University of Oklahoma achieve national ranking and is predicted to go high in the NBA draft33. He thus joins a growing number of emigrants from south of the US border who have achieved star status in their homeland for performing a sport other than soccer, baseball, boxing, or cricket34.


     Two other sports of US origin whose presence in Latin America is quite obvious but whose history has not been seriously pursued are volleyball and professional wrestling (lucha libre). Like basketball, volleyball was invented in Massachusetts in the 1890s by a person with ties to the YMCA, though it did not spread nationally or internationally as rapidly as the former. For many decades it remained mainly a scholastic and recreational game more than sport, though after the mid-twentieth century it gained recognition by both the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Olympic movement. Within Latin America volleyball has proven acceptable as both a masculine and feminine sport and in at least Brazil, Cuba, and Peru has earned their teams international recognition. In the last decade, beach volleyball, a California inspired variation, has generated both a form of professionalism and Olympic status. In the latter, Brazilian men and women have not only led their Latin neighbors, but have often been the equal of their North American competition35.

     Professional wrestling, considered by many more theater than sport though involving a degree of physical training and aptitude, is especially prominent in Mexico, but is found in almost all of Latin America, most notably in urban areas36.

     In general terms, these and other sports and related sporting behavior and values were tied to the erratic spread of US based physical education, a result of Latino students studying in the north or, more significantly in the first half of the twentieth century, of the efforts across the hemisphere of the YMCA. Men such as Federico W. Dickens, a product of Springfield College and called by Enrique Carlos Romero Brest "the founder of Argentine sport," accelerated the diffusion of American sport culture, a diffusion that blended conveniently with the attitudes of Vasconcelos and others cited above37.

     Both on and off the field/court one interesting indicator of the intrusion of all these imported sports into the local culture was seen and heard in the host languages. Over the long term, this process of linguistic adoption, modification, and fusion has taken at least four forms: the direct incorporation of English terms; the Hispanicization (or Brazilianization) or phonetic transcription of English words; the invention of more or less equivalent terms by analytic translation; and, the use of figurative, synthetic, or phonetic translation, sometimes creating false cognates38. This impact on language was most extensive among peoples who embraced soccer, but the influence of baseball in certain areas was noticeable as well39. And other sports, notably golf and boxing, likewise modified vocabularies and linguistic images. In virtually all cases, whatever the sport or its origin, the new force was tied to English. This might be considered enrichment, though in some cases it provoked heated criticism and campaigns to defend more traditional forms of Spanish and Portuguese.

Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes · http://www.efdeportes.com · Año 5 · Nº 24   sigue Ü