Cultural Ambassadorship: The Pan-American Games, 1929–79

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM
Carnegie Room West (Sheraton New York)
Brenda J. Elsey, Hofstra University
This paper traces the early history of the Pan-American Games, which directors tried to launch in 1929 in a wave of enthusiasm for "American" exchange during Europe's inter-war period.  Over twenty years elapsed until the Pan-American Sports Organization (PASO) managed to hold its first tournament in Buenos Aires.  The founders' vision of the games as a straightforward diplomatic tool never materialized.   The lack of public support and institutional coherence, in addition to nationalist chauvinism, insured that the games produced as much animosity as goodwill.   Throughout their history, mundane conflicts, punctuated by spectacular performances at the Pan-American games brought government officials, athletes, sports associations, and audiences from across the Americas into public discussions.  Debates ranged from controversies surrounding facilities, environmental suitability, women’s inclusion, and nationalist iconography.  This paper examines the transnational relationships that emerged among PASO members, journalists, and local sports associations.   The Pan-American games succeeded from the perspective of the athletes themselves, particularly women.  Female athletes, though neglected by the International Olympic Committee and the Pan-American Sports Organization, viewed the games as a unique opportunity to travel, face a high level of athletic competition, and enjoy a new cultural experience.   The study of this tournament offers a unique opportunity to understand women’s athletics.  Moreover, an analysis of the games also allows for an examination of the notion of cultural ambassadorship, in other words, how the idea that national tensions could be eased by “getting to know” others on a cultural level shaped civic associations and political practices.
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