Since Antiquity, sporting bodies and performances have been assigned an economic value, and sporting events, particularly those with large audiences, have been organized with a view to their capacity to generate wealth and reinforce social hierarchies. At the same time, athletes have long embodied moral and ethical values such as virtue, beauty, purity, and sacrifice. Sport is thus a prime context in which a society negotiates the relationship between the material, in the form of value, and the symbolic or ideational, in the form of values.
Sport and the sporting body can be commodified when they are assigned a value calculated in terms of a standardized currency and traded in a market. However, even in capitalist societies, sport often retains features that are shaped not by the market economy but the gift economy—in which exchange is governed by values such as honor, trust, and prestige. Sport offers a wealth of examples in which value and values come into conflict, exposing the fact that they are not incommensurable, but rather economic value is simply one kind of culturally constructed value among many.
Victors in the ancient Greek Olympic Games received only awards made from plants, including a crown of olive branches, but returned home to be bestowed with material riches. An elite Roman man produced gladiator games as a “gift” to his supporters, but in deciding whether to allow a defeated fighter to live, he had to weigh the cost of losing a gladiator (who was a valuable piece of property) against displeasing his supporters. The association that runs Japanese sumo is not a modern legal corporation; rather, its members are retired wrestlers who have bought the wrestling name of an elder that has been passed along for as long as 250 years—and the name cannot be bought with a bank loan. In the name of amateurism, 19th-century Victorians banned professionals from taking part in Olympic sports amidst the massive commodification of leisure and popular culture that accompanied the rise of the modern industrial economy.
Much of the Cold War was fought using athletes as proxies for the socialist and capitalist economic systems, as socialist nations denounced the exclusive gender and class values of “bourgeois” sports and sought to create an alternative model. After the end of the Cold War, the influx of capital into sports finally led to the death of the amateur ideal, quickly followed by the emergence of the migrant professional athlete. At the start of the 21st century, the massive revenues in college sport challenged the American notion of the unpaid student-athlete, while the global trade in athletes sucked ever greater numbers of athletes from the Global South into the professional sports of the wealthy Western countries as well as, increasingly, East Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Sport is a fascinating realm for examining conflicts between value and values, and how they are shaped by the global economy in the 21st century, taking on new forms that echo the past while moving into uncharted territory.