by Sasha Futran, OLLI member

Martha Saavedra didn’t plan researching or teaching anything in the world of sports. She was working at Saint Mary’s College when a colleague challenged her over lunch to teach a course in the politics of sports as she passionately discussed a civil rights case involving Title IX. She was using the case as part of a public administration class she was teaching at the time.

Not a newcomer to Title IX or sports, her parents organized sports activities and teams in their neighborhood, and she played soccer as a child. In college, Saavedra played in a club rather than a team because that was the lot of women soccer players there. “We couldn’t touch the main soccer field but had to use a field on a sloop with crooked lines,” she recalls. “So some of us organized, used Title IX, and we were able to achieve varsity status.”

Saavedra did go on to create a course and we have the benefit of that now at OLLI and the chance to explore and understand the ways in which sports can be a tool for good and bad as a political and economic force locally, regionally or internationally.

The passion is still there as Marta Saavedra rattles off examples. “Look at what just happened in Egypt when there was a clash where supporters of the revolution confronted the old guard through soccer,” she said, referring to the recent fight that broke out after a soccer match in which many died or were injured as the military police blocked exits. Although the battle started between sports fans, according to the The Nation, the government’s response “acted as a defibrillator, bringing a revolutionary impatience back to life.”

“One can also look at the International Olympics Committee and analyze how they can come in and suspend laws, establish new laws, and manipulate politics,” continues Saavedra, “or at China and Taiwan and how their organizations exert influence and determine who gets the right to represent the country.”

Saavedra is the associate director of the Center for African Studies at UC Berkeley and has gotten involved with helping a Kenyan group called Moving the Goal Posts. It’s an organization for girls and women with the motto: We can do it. In a society where females keep their heads down and don’t make direct eye contact, these girls organize soccer leagues, arrange to use fields, do the accounting and scheduling of practice and games.

“This puts them in a very different role,” says Saavedra who works with the group. “They have to go and talk with tough headmasters and make arrangements. They learn a variety of skills. The accolades really build their self-esteem and they are also seen as more worthwhile.”

Some claim that sports helps developing countries or that it can curb drug use and delinquency, that it is a tool for empowerment, peace and well-being. Others cite rampant commercialism, violence, homophobia, doping and corruption. “The Global Politics of Sports” will explore it all and offers an interesting review and insight into global politics and major political events through the prism of sports.

Martha Saavedra’s areas of research and expertise include agrarian politics, gender, sport and development in Africa and ethnic conflict in Sudan. Along with the Center for African Studies, she is currently also teaching at UC Berkeley’s Journalism school training students for reporting on Africa. She’s the mother of two and coaches her son’s soccer team.

Algerian Independence 50th Anniversary and Soccer

When the Algeria was fighting for independence from France (1954 – 1962) it wasn’t unusual for Algerian soccer players to end up in France playing soccer. They wanted to help their country fight colonial rule, however, and many left France and formed a team. They couldn’t get official matches with any country allied with France, but they played many matches and became a symbol of resistance from 1958 – 1962. This is the Algerian stamp commemorating their role and the 50th anniversary of achieving independence.


Read a newer interview with Martha Saavedra from February 2019 here: