John J. MacAloon, AM’74, PhD’80
John J. MacAloon, AM’74, PhD’80, earned his UChicago degrees in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, then taught in the College and the Social Sciences Division for 48 years. (Photography by Jason Smith)
Light bearer

John J. MacAloon, AM’74, PhD’80, cofounded Olympic studies, revitalized an 80-year-old master’s program, and taught hundreds of students in the Soc Core.

In May John J. MacAloon, AM’74, PhD’80, will receive one of this year’s Norman Maclean Faculty Awards honoring “extraordinary contributions to teaching and student life by emeritus or very senior faculty” (see “UChicago Alumni Awards”). Nominated by his former students, MacAloon is recognized for 48 years of teaching in the Social Sciences College Core and in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), which he directed from 1990 to 2013.

Trained as an anthropologist, MacAloon was a pioneer of the multidisciplinary field of Olympic studies. He has attended 16 Olympic Games, first as an engaged observer and later with access to—and participation in—the behind-the-scenes work of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its local partners in the host cities. His books include This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (University of Chicago Press, 1981) and his edited volume Bearing Light: Flame Relays and the Struggle for the Olympic Movement (Routledge, 2013). This interview has been edited and condensed.

What makes the Olympics so valuable as an object of anthropological analysis?

If you think about it, the Olympic Games are a kind of—not a laboratory, because they’re so huge that you can’t control variables—but a theater of the encounter of cultures on a world scale, and of global forms imposed from without on a succession of host cultures. These are core anthropology issues. As the great anthropologist Ruth Benedict liked to say, our goal is to make the world safer for differences. And it turns out, that’s pretty much Olympic ideology.

What is the distinction between what your field calls the Olympic Movement and the Olympic sports industry?

In the Olympic Movement, sport is only a means to the end of intercultural encounter, mutual education, human rights, and a sense of common humanity. For the Olympic sports industry, at least in the main, that’s reversed. I write a lot about peace and detente and intercultural encounter and human rights. That’s nice window dressing on the brand, as they like to say, for the Olympic sports industry. Sport is the end in itself.

What were the earliest origins of your scholarly interest in this event?

Of course I’ve always been aware of the Olympics, but I was also a track and field athlete in college. In 1968 I joined in a series of civil rights and antiwar protests by athletes. This movement culminated in the famous gestures of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, and in the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

That was central to my experience, but it led to this interesting question. You could have 100,000 people in the streets for an antiwar or a civil rights demonstration, and the system seemed to just shrug. But if a bunch of jocks got politics, all hell broke loose. Of course, we’ve seen this again recently with the take a knee and #MeToo movements in sports. So what is it about American culture, where sports and politics have this very strange relationship with one another—very different from in Europe, for example, which just assumes that athletes are like anybody else and have their political issues and causes? These kinds of questions take you right to the heart of an interesting cultural problem.

When did you start observing the Games firsthand?

In 1976 I did my first extended fieldwork with an entire Olympic Games in Montreal. Being a poor graduate student at that time, with no funding and no credentials, I spent most of my time outside the stadiums in the public plazas. And it was a big aha! moment to see this whole popular festival that US television never covers. You wouldn’t know it exists from watching the Olympics on NBC. It’s there in the plazas, on the subways, and in the bars and restaurants and churches that this intercultural interaction is going on. So I came to ask, what’s the relationship between the games, the rituals, this popular festival, and then the TV spectacle?

Many people, for example, don’t really care about sport but wouldn’t miss the Olympic opening ceremonies for the world. The ritual is central. For an anthropologist of my generation, the fascination is with rituals, and there is no other sporting phenomenon in the world that has developed rituals as important as those of the Olympic Games. Think of the opening ceremonies and the procession of nations. This became the main liturgy of the world system of nation-states. Today there are two requirements to be understood as a nation among nations. One is to be a member of the United Nations. The other is to walk in the Olympic opening ceremony. Governments have no choice, really, but to do what they need to do to have an Olympic delegation.

In Montreal, were you observing, talking to people, taking notes, or recording?

All of the above, and collecting media and visual documents. Later in my career, I was backstage. You write the biography of the founder of the Olympic Movement [This Great Symbol], and suddenly people want you around. And you do some activist service and diplomacy for the central organs, and then you’re further backstage. I was on the executive committee of the commission that tried to put the IOC back together again, after the Salt Lake City bribery scandal. So I knew all the main actors and could observe the work directly. That’s hugely important.

What were some highlights of your backstage experience?

My Korean colleague and I went the entire journey with the Olympic flame through Korea in 1986 for the Asian Games, and then repeated the whole thing in 1988 for the Olympics. Day by day, through every town, every village, many of the hamlets. The entire population of Korea was watching because they were convinced that the world had come to see Korean culture. It was an overwhelming experience. All along the way we had the local cultural experts and were able to document what resources were appropriated to empower local cultural variations, differences, arts and crafts institutions, and, indirectly, political movements. This was Korea undergoing the democratic transformation. The center-periphery relations are really worked out in ritual. Of course, in certain ways, these globalizing forms are suppressing cultural differences, but in other ways, they’re multiplying them. You take the resources that are now coming, and you use them to do what you’ve always done, only more intensively. This is the paradox or dialectic of globalization and culture.

How did you go about getting your hands around this enormous phenomenon?

Well, you’re right. It’s unknowable as an entirety. So the best you can do is model that. I mentioned before my model of a complex performance system, ritual and game and spectacle and festival, and all the other genres that are there. But secondly, you have to create an understanding of it on a mosaic basis. So we move from Games to Games, to see what has altered, and how the local cultural reception and transformation differs from Seoul to Lillehammer to Albertville to Rio, for example. We can set up comparisons. But the main thing is, you can’t do this alone.

So we pioneered team research: multinational teams of scholars, of both the Olympic Games and the international sports system; anthropologists specializing in cultural affairs; and local scholars of local culture, arts, and politics. We collaborate in making sense of it, or at least on a portrait of what this complexity is.

What were the most daunting challenges you faced in helping establish Olympics studies?

I took my PhD in the Committee on Social Thought. No anthropology department was going to take a student who wanted to work on the Olympic Games in those days. Anthropologists went to smaller communities, stayed there 12 to 18 months, and wrote about those cultures. How are you going to be an anthropologist of something so large, that has multiple languages constituting it, that moves around, et cetera? That was the biggest barrier. Today most young anthropologists work on big transcultural projects. So people say, John, you won. Well, yes. But people have to appreciate how long it takes to get backstage.

How does it feel to see the field flourish?

Well, there are now over 50 university-related autonomous centers of Olympic studies. When I started—inconceivable. Both those that are highly critical of the official Olympic organizations, and those that are based in the official Olympic organizations, have a high degree of diversity, stretching across quite a number of disciplines. Again, we’re building mosaics of a giant, complicated phenomenon. The view from Australia, and the view from Senegal, and the view from Beijing are going to be always different and interesting to compare, so all of that is very positive.

The unhappiness that I feel is that maybe research is getting away from fundamental, big historical and cultural and political questions and becoming, like any maturing research field, far narrower in the questions that are being asked. Secondly, there’s always the danger of being co-opted, now that the Olympic system is a big sports industry with lots of money and new fields—like sport management, sport tourism, sport journalism—that collaborate with commercial organizations. There’s a concern that the critical edge can be lost as the big picture is being lost.

One of the test cases was Beijing in 2022, in which the central authorities decided to publicly ignore the fact that at least an ethnocide, probably a genocide, was going on in the country that was hosting the Olympic Games. But the IOC and other sports authorities said, Well, that’s politics. We don’t get involved in that. Excuse me. Genocide is politics? So we had this horrifying contradiction of having the Games proceed very nicely, thank you, President Xi—and utter silence about the human rights situation in the host country. The organizing committee even threatened athletes that they would be certainly punished if they said anything about Chinese policy. The IOC was silent. This was a shocking contradiction. Does the Olympic Movement even want to be real anymore if, in fact, the Olympic sports industry’s requirement of Games at any cost is going to dominate?

Do you think those in power felt the contradiction?

Some of course are quite torn. But in the end, they feel their duty to the athletes to have an Olympic Games, and they have a climate where the citizens in increasing numbers of cities don’t want the Olympic Games anymore. The choices are narrower and narrower. In the case of Sochi, or in Beijing, they’ve had to deal with authoritarian regimes that are not going to brook public criticism. So while one sympathizes with their position, and empathizes with their concern for the athletes, and wants the Olympic Games to continue—if you believe that the world would be a more dangerous place without them—are we going to continue to violate all of the central principles of the Olympic Movement? That’s the great tension going on at the moment.

Is there a particular event you’re going to pay attention to in Paris this summer?

For me it’s always the rituals. I love sport, but it’s pretty much the same everywhere. The rituals are so interesting for their common protocol, but also because of the ability for local culture and artists to vary it in terms of their own values and conceptions. There is going to be an experiment that I’ll be keen to watch. Instead of the usual procession of the nations into the opening ceremony within the main stadium, the delegations are going to come down the Seine on barges, one after the other for several miles, disembark near the Eiffel Tower, and reassemble for the final aspects of the protocol.

You right away can see, wow, this is spectacle, with all the extra views of Paris and the athletes likely having fun on these barges. You can see the attraction for the designers. But the challenge for ritual is, are you going to turn a procession into a parade of floats? Something that is quasi-sacred with respect to national anthems, national flags, and national symbols, including the athletes themselves? Will that have the same moral and emotional impact, even while it’s going to probably be prettier and more fun? That will be hugely interesting for somebody interested in the relations between festival and ritual.

What was your experience working on Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer games?

When we started, I was the only person in Chicago who knew many IOC members. In the end, this is all about the vote of 110 members of the IOC. The rest is complex and important, but that’s what we were concerned with. Generally everyone agreed we had the best technical bid, and I managed to convince lots of the voters that, from a popular festival standpoint, we would have had an unbelievable Olympic Games. Remember, Chicago is the city of free popular festivals. Yes, Rio has Carnivale, but the rest of the time, public festival scarcely exists in Rio. So I think that would have been really special and am sorry we lost the chance. Why we did lose is that we couldn’t overcome the desire to bring the Olympic Games for the first time to South America. It was too important to too many people.

But in working on the bid, suddenly there were conversations between the North Side and the South Side, between the West Side and downtown, across racial lines in our own neighborhoods—what’s going to go on in Washington Park and on the Midway, and how can the University leverage our new initiatives in the arts for the Olympic Arts Festival? Nearly every organization was part of this discussion. I think this helped propel our university toward new relations with the communities around it. And in the end, Chicago 2016 generated the first signed community benefits agreement—specifying, for example, how much of the Olympic Village would become affordable housing. That was unprecedented. That was amazing. There was strong opposition in town, of course, but a whole lot of communities and organizations joined in cooperation and movement forward together, regardless of whether we won the games or not. Maybe given our civic finances, more perilous than anyone knew at the time, it’s fortunate that that we lost, but I think the bid process itself was good for our city.

Turning to your work in MAPSS, what did you seek to change when you became the director and what did you want to preserve?

The main features have been there since the late 1930s and through the 1940s: It’s interdisciplinary; as a student you’re in the Division of the Social Sciences, not a department; it’s a one-year program; students take regular doctoral courses; it has a core course that all students must take, regardless of their research interests. And you have to produce a faculty-supervised research thesis. All of that has been there from the beginning.

When I came in, Don Levine, AB’50, AM’54, PhD’57, had provided Perspectives, a brilliant core course, by taking a model from the Social Sciences Core in the College but making it appropriate for graduate students by teaching the materials as research perspectives. [Professor emeritus of African history, African studies, and the College] Ralph Austen and I only had to fine-tune as we went along. To me, the most important innovation that we made was assembling a team over the years of brilliant Student Services people and doctoral graduate students who served as our preceptors, the students’ main advisers. I was free to choose preceptors who were people with real teaching vocations and who had interesting lives outside the academy. Therefore we supported all students, regardless of whether they were heading toward doctoral work or into career positions outside the academy.

Two other developments were critical. One was in the external world of work. Thanks to our graduates, we were quick to pick up on the fact that the master’s degree was becoming the new career entry-level credential in field after field: public sector, government, private sector, nonprofits. As a consequence, a University of Chicago master’s degree was now a strong investment. Secondly, these fields were increasingly valuing what they call analytic skills and writing skills. That was what we in the academy call research.

On the PhD side, the movement had begun, for ethical reasons given declining job markets, to admit fewer doctoral students and support them better. With a MAPPS degree you have the chance to prove yourself in UChicago doctoral courses, to write an MA thesis, and to clarify your research agenda. So your doctoral applications are going to be more targeted and more convincing, and you’re going to have a greater chance of success. And that’s what happened. We’ve run, through all these years, roughly a 90 percent success rate for anybody who applies for a PhD after MAPSS getting a funded offer. And we now have more than 100 MAPSS students doing their doctoral work in various departments, just at our university, in addition to the hundreds elsewhere.

What did you enjoy most about running MAPSS?

The freedom to build on the basis of things that I stand for—that is to say, teaching that is adapted to the students’ trajectory, history, and goals. It becomes harder to maintain if your program gets bigger and bigger. But the preceptor group model really helped. No matter how big the overall program was, you had an intimate group of 20 people you went through the whole program with who shared your general disciplinary research interests. I loved building the staff and being effective together. And I liked fighting the battles for students to make sure nobody was discriminating against them because they were in the Social Sciences Division, not in any one department. I was independent enough to be able to take on anybody who was going to suggest that master’s students didn’t belong. I liked the fight.

How do you feel about receiving the Norman Maclean Faculty Award from your former students?

It’s such an enormously prestigious award. It’s so meaningful. I once talked about teaching with Norman Maclean, PhD’40, and among my own valued mentors are six other acclaimed winners. So there’s a lineage effect here. I was just thrilled and really, really honored.

Who were your own most influential teachers?

Victor Turner and [William Rainey Harper Professor Emeritus of Anthropology] Ralph Nicholas, PhD’62, were terribly important to me. But my main teachers were the staff of the College Core course known today as Self, Culture, and Society: Year after year, teaching with nearly every major figure in our Social Sciences Division, having them teach me how to teach, as well as teach me social theory. That was the most important experience for me. Those Core staff meetings were an unparalleled venue of mutual education and learning for us.

I’m not a big fan of people standing up and telling you how you should run a classroom. It’s much more powerful when it’s integrated with the actual material. We would debate: Wow, why aren’t my students getting this idea in Marx or Freud? What’s in this Durkheim that they’re grabbing onto? How on earth do we get an understanding of Fanon beyond simple postcolonialism? Which book can we teach to show how productive ethnography remains as a method today? This is what we worked on for an hour and a half every week throughout the year. So that was my real education. Everything I’ve done since then was built on that, including my publications.

You made such an impression on so many alumni that you’re receiving this award, you also ran a degree program—all while attending 16 Olympics and producing field-defining research. How did you balance all of this?

Balance would not be the right word. Just by being a passionate person, I suppose. I’ve always been passionately curious about individual lives, including the lives of my students, maybe especially so because of the responsibilities that come with being a faculty member. I’ve always been fascinated with what social matrices and chance occurrences have led students to be here, in this classroom or in my office hours. In some of my College courses, I’ve required office hours so I can have these conversations. In MAPSS, each instructor, all the preceptors, and all the staff had ready to hand what we called “the bible,” which contained all the information we had about each student in the program. So if you had an appointment with a student, you could refresh your memory. We wanted you to know that we were talking to you, not to a generic student. I know that students grow to appreciate this, if they get that you’re trying to relate to them as more than classroom performers.

But the main point for me was always to help them become more reflective about their lives and trajectories. I wanted them to really come into their own educations, to come to possess what I call an owned intellectual autobiography, not just a transcript. I took these courses, but how did I come to value this idea? What ideas made no sense to me that I rejected? And what does this have to do with where I come from, with who I am, with my educational capital, with my career? That’s education to me.