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Wholesome Education and Sound Leisure: the YMCA Sports Programme in Colonial Korea

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image of European Journal of East Asian Studies

The history of sport in modern Korea is largely uncharted territory. The few studies that do exist fall under the spell of a nationalist reading of colonial period history. Breaking with that tradition, this article looks at the novelty of sport as a social practice in colonial Korea. Modern sport, as defined by Allen Guttmann, was introduced and propagated by the YMCA even prior to the colonisation of Korea. Sheltered from any overt prosecution by the colonial master, the YMCA could deploy its (sporting) activities during the better part of the colonial period (1910–45), making it an important player in the development of sport in Korea and an important producer of discourses on sport. In that respect, a clear distinction is apparent between the Eliasian 'civilising' aspect stressed by the YMCA foreign sports advisor, Byron Barnhart, and the political reading of sports supported by its Korean leadership. As sport gained in popularity by the 1930s, it was spinning out of the control of this socio-cultural elite and entering the domain of popular culture, where the consumer deployed an agency rarely acknowledged but clearly present. Developing its own dynamics, sport entered the realm of mass culture, where politics no longer reigned supreme, where élite discourses no longer held sway.


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