Racialized Bodies, Athletic Experiences


Mar 8-14, 2024

Organized by

Tracie Canada and Gabriel Torres-Colón


La Arena Muñopedro, Spain


  • Shireen Ahmed Toronto Metropolitan University, Canada
  • Adam Ali Western University, Canada
  • Constancio Arnaldo University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA
  • Donna Auston Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Adia Benton Northwestern University, USA
  • Tracie Canada Duke University, USA
  • Amira Rose Davis University of Texas at Austin, USA
  • Olatz González Abrisketa University of the Basque Country, Spain
  • Omar Agustin Hernandez University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA
  • Sara Kim Hjortborg Macquarie University, Australia
  • Veena Mani Stella Maris College, India
  • Bernardo Rios Skidmore College, USA
  • Danilyn Rutherford Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Alicia Smith-Tran Oberlin College & Conservatory, USA
  • Gabriel Torres Colón Vanderbilt University, USA
  • Lisa Uperesa University of Auckland, New Zealand

ORGANIZER’S STATEMENT: Since the 1970s, anthropologists have struggled to identify how research about athletic experiences can contribute to anthropological theory. This endeavor has today obtained more traction. The various dimensions of play, performance, exercise, and sport have attracted scholars previously interested in other areas of anthropological concern, thereby representing great potential for understanding institutional and relational formations of embodied culture.

Work published about the subject has emphasized the importance of the body, recognizing the performing body’s potential to act as a medium through which local, national, and international political and power dynamics articulate (see, for example, Besnier, Brownell, and Carter 2017; Downey 2005; James 1963; Klein 1993; Mauss 1935). Attention to the moving body as a nexus of anthropological knowledge reveals how social hierarchies and inequalities manifest in embodied practice. Inevitably, gendered, racialized, and classed inequality and difference are at the center of these dynamics. Thus, to position sport at the center of a critical engagement with discipline-wide questions, this forum takes seriously the need to highlight the experiences of those who participate in activities broadly defined as sport and seeks to push theoretical consideration from the dynamics of codified movement practices to the experience of their enactors. This shift in focus from play to players, athletics to athletes, and performance to performers demonstrates that sporting activities depend upon the extraction of labor from performing bodies.

Accordingly, we will bring together anthropologists with a diverse group of scholars to examine how athletes experience, reproduce, and resist cultural processes of embodiment and social inequality. Our interdisciplinary, cross-institutional, and inter-generational collective will holistically consider the lived experiences of structurally marginalized athletes, given their participation in racist, sexist, nationalist, and ableist sporting systems. Specifically, we will address questions such as the following: How are athletes used by (and potentially exploited by) teams, bureaucratic organizations, and nations? How do the tensions between competition and collaboration, inequality and fair play inform their lives and social worlds? How are athletes’ lived experiences constituted, either at play or in the real world? Ultimately, what does research motivated by these questions contribute to the broader theoretical and methodological questions about the body and embodiment, racialized and gendered experiences, well-being and care, and resistance and power?

This multi-day symposium will include paper presentations and focused discussions concerning ongoing happenings in the world of sports. Scholars in this symposium represent an intentionally diverse group of worldwide voices. This diversity of positionality, coupled with our interdisciplinarity, will also be of relevance in our discussion by pointing to the marginalized position we hold in the discipline, which only further highlights the importance of the work we do (Canada 2021). We aim to harness diversity of thought within the discipline to think about diversity itself, as systematically marginalized voices in anthropology and beyond gather to theorize the lived experiences of those we work with, through the underdeveloped anthropological study of sport. It is also important to note that this cohort of scholars has been selected because of their interest in and commitment to public engagement, given the general study of sport and physical culture, in its various iterations, lends itself to multiple publics and audiences that are not solely invested in academic conversations and publications.

One of the drawbacks to past anthropological sports scholarship is how an emphasis on the relationship between sports, colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism has not yielded a sustained effort to examine how subaltern athletes navigate their marginalized social positions. The proposed forum will be innovative in bringing together scholars committed to researching the ethnographic complexity of athletes’ lives as they inhabit sporting spaces while also navigating issues of health, hierarchy, exploitation, violence, racism, sexism, care, family, and performance. Moreover, because of the broad topical and geographic specializations of participants, the meeting would serve as a de facto space for cross-cultural comparison, thus allowing a comparative framework for understanding how sports can serve as a site for reifying marginalized social bodies and/or resisting oppressive social regimes.

Such a comparative framework holds promise to be theoretically rich because athletes make their lives meaningful through strategies involving social processes related to gender, race, ethnicity, and other forms of embodied social difference. Although social scientists have for many years made calls for theoretically and globally informed comparative frameworks for better understanding and operationalizing concepts like race and ethnicity (e.g., Suzuki 2017), anthropology has historically lacked forums for carrying out such intellectual exchanges (Baker 2010). Nevertheless, individual scholars have made exemplary efforts to query concepts beyond a particular fieldsite, recognizing that certain theoretical concepts are not bound by time and space (e.g., Thomas 2021; Allen 2021). This forum would take cues from such efforts and take advantage of how social differences that mark athletes vary significantly. Therefore, the theoretical potential of this forum is to have dual layers of cross-cultural comparison: first, athletes’ lived experiences, and second, the anthropological concepts of social difference employed to understand how athletes are oppressed and resist oppression. The effort to compare and reevaluate the operationalization of anthropological concepts of social difference also holds the potential to push the theoretical parameters of intersectionality studies (Collins 2015), which like race and ethnicity in anthropology, have lacked strong cross-cultural efforts in the social sciences.

As we turn the “spyglass of anthropology,” à la Zora Neale Hurston, towards the study of sport, we envision our forum to make theoretical interventions in broad areas of anthropology, such as the medical anthropology of well-being, the political anthropology of embodiment and nationalism, and the anthropology of race. However, the diverse composition of our cohort would bring our experiences of marginalization within anthropology to the questions of alterity that we study with the athletes we work with. Finally, our forum will produce insights of immediate interest to broad audiences because people worldwide are drawn to sports as part of their popular cultures.


l-r (kneeling) Bernardo Rios, Amira Rose Davis, Alicia Smith-Tran, Shireen Ahmed; (second row) Sara Kim Hjortborg, Donna Auston, Olatz González Abrisketa, Tracie Canada, Kathryn Derfler, Adia Benton; (back row) Omar Agustin Hernandez, Constancio Arnaldo, Adam Ali, Danilyn Rutherford. Lisa Uperesa, Veena Mani, Gabriel Torres-Colón.