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Imagined Olympians

Body Culture and Colonial Representation in Rwanda

2002
Author:

John Bale

Imagined Olympians

An insightful examination of the ways Westerners interpret and alter non-Western traditions

Observing the Rwandan cultural practice of gusimbuka, widely described as Tutsi high jumping, Europeans discerned a natural ability to jump and predicted that Tutsi would dominate world sports—or so the story goes. And, as John Bale makes clear in this book, it is just that—a story, a Western representation that recast cultural practice as competitive sport and made of the Tutsi high jumper an “imaginary athlete.” Through written accounts and photographs, Bale explores the colonial representation of gusimbuka, revealing the Tutsi sportsman and prospective Olympian as an invention with broad implications for understanding the workings of the Western gaze.

Sport and Culture Series, volume 3

Observing the Rwandan cultural practice of gusimbuka, widely described as Tutsi high jumping, Europeans discerned a natural ability to jump and predicted that Tutsi would dominate world sports—or so the story goes. And, as John Bale makes clear in this book, it is just that—a story, a Western representation that recast cultural practice as competitive sport and made of the Tutsi high jumper an "imaginary athlete." Bale explores the colonial representation of gusimbuka, revealing the Tutsi sportsman and prospective Olympian as an invention with broad implications for understanding the workings of the Western gaze.

In written accounts and photographs, many published here for the first time, Bale uncovers a bewildering variety of images—evidence of the equivocal nature of the Western view of Rwandan body culture. Through a consideration of different, often conflicting rhetorical modes, Bale shows how these images were deployed to increase the cultural and political distance between Tutsi and Hutu, and to bring the Tutsi closer to the European. An intriguing and sobering case study, Imagined Olympians provides valuable insight into how the West both idealizes and vilifies the non-Western body.

Imagined Olympians

John Bale is visiting professor of sports studies at Aarhus University, Denmark, and professor of sports geography at Keele University, U.K.

Imagined Olympians

There is nothing quite like this book out there. It looks at the Rwandan cultural practice commonly called Tutsi high jumping and the importance of sport in colonial endeavors from a sophisticated postcolonial perspective, drawing on allied developments in feminism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, and cultural studies.

Susan Brownell, author of Training the Body for China

This is an excellent study, characterized by sensitive and thoughtful consideration of how the imaginations of visitors to Rwanda reacted to and represented a visually stunning indigenous cultural practice. . . . A fascinating exploration.

The International Journal of the History of Sport

I have been waiting a long time for a book like this. . . . Bale makes a huge contribution to the craft of sport history. . . . Intuitive, passionate and critically informed.

Journal of Sport History