Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 9: Bodies in Sports

For reasons that will become clear, I appreciate the way NBC covers the Olympics: they frequently jump from sport to sport. I imagine this is to keep things moving and to allow the audience to see as many Americans compete as possible. The reason I happen to like this, given my own research interests, is that we get to see the variety of bodies (body types) that participate in sports and, from this, the relationship between body and sport. Moving from the Bobsled (where athletes are built like linebackers) to speed skating (where they look more like power forwards) and then to short track speed skating (where they are far more compact) is an exercise in the varieties of human embodiment.

The common way such variety is interpreted is that certain individuals are "made" or "built" for their sport. That is, sports naturally favor a particular and natural body type. This view, while parsimonious, begs more than a few questions and is predicated upon two tenuous assumptions. First, that sports are not human constructions with built-in preferences and, second, that human embodiment is pre-specified. Countering both these assumptions, we could argue that sports are human designs and human institutions that select and then work upon bodies. That is, the rules and "biases" of sports work to limit participation and participation itself shapes bodies for and within competition. This is an argument I introduced in my Day 1 post.

My favorite example is Usain Bolt. Bolt broke the world record in the 100m dash at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. What is amazing about this feat is that Bolt does not resemble other 100m runners in one crucial dimension: he is much taller. According to many in the sport, he should be too tall to be successful. These individuals make the argument that I outlined above: there is a natural body type that is required for success in the 100m. They are, in part, right. Obviously, if coaches believe one must be a certain height to succeed in an event, it should come as no surprise that we will see only individuals of that height excel at that event. But they succeed not because they are a "natural" fit, but because of the selection bias of the sport itself. Because of this bias, their height serves to gain them access to the training, practice, and competitions through which they then come to excel at that sport. Most runners as tall as Bolt never get a chance to seriously train for the 100m. Any given sport is not naturally obliged to privilege some bodies over others. Sports, in some way, "select" the bodies that will succeed, and this selection occurs through rules and rule changes, levels of access, and the predispositions of coaches, trainers, and managers.

However, it would likewise be a mistake to assume that Bolt was pre-specified to excel in the 100m dash, and that he was simply waiting for a chance to run in it. Access is important not because it alone allows bodies to succeed, but because access is the first step in a series of steps through which bodies are actively shaped (I actually prefer the word "cultivate" but that explanation is for another time) for success. The Bolt who enters into training for the 100m is not the same Bolt who emerges from it. His training included, for instance, working on his stride and gait. There are many such examples how participation in sports reworks bodies in meaningful ways.

This is not say that anyone and everyone can and should compete in any and all sports, or that sports should now consider reworking themselves to include anyone and everyone. It is to suggest, however, that we should not ignore the very important ways that "we" are responsible for the shape of both our bodies and our sports. The Bolt example, particularly when one considers the discourse surrounding sports, productively incorporates discussions race in the cultivation on bodies. Likewise, perceptions of gender are at work here is well (many feminist scholars have productively engaged biology in precisely the directions I outline here). Neither sports nor bodies are static objects; they are dynamic cultural and biological processes that have important physical and ethical manifestations: "who gets to do what?", which is also to ask, "Who gets to be what?"

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