Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day 5: Olympians and the Rest of Us

Part of my dissertation research examined the success of Usain Bolt in terms of his cultural context. Mainly, that because one can earn a significant reputation as a track star in Jamaica, it makes it more likely that more individuals will embark on such a career and stick with it. This is confirmed by research in the sociology of sport, which shows that one of the defining features of athletic success is an athlete's social network. Christopher L. Stevenson argues that athletes become athletes through "processes of entanglements, commitments, and reputations and identities." Stevenson examines how athletes are recruited into the sports and by whom. He then describes how, through a series of deepening entanglements and commitments, the athlete’s identity becomes bound-up in the sport through these relationships and through the reputation he or she earns.
These webs of relationship entanglements drew the athlete into the sporting activity, and the athlete allowed him/herself to be drawn in because of the value he or she place those relationships.
I argued that Bolt comes from a country whose national attitude means reputation for track athletes. Jamaican journalist Colin Channer offers a distinctly non-biological explanation for the strength of Jamaica’s sprinters. He traces the focus on sprinting to elements of Jamaican culture and history. While he admits that the love for speed “seems at odds with its hard-nose commitment to nonchalance,” “to be Jamaican means to move.” The Jamaican-born Channer argues that the love of sprinting “is rooted in the notion of flight, in the notion of defiance and aspiration expressed in the grammar of the body." The Jamaican track phenomenon is not directly traceable to either its geography or to the “unique biology” of its inhabitants; Jamaicans share both with countries with far less success in sprinting. Channer further argues that “sprinting is the physical argot for the runaway slave. For a slave, escape was act of defiance, a loosely punctuated treatise, with commas and no full stops, on the topic of being free.” Running as an act of defiance reflects the deeply rooted narrative of the maroons, resistance groups constituted by runaway slaves who fought the British from 1655 to 1796. So while Channer argues that Bolt “has been fast ever since we’ve known him,” he is from a place culturally committed to cultivating speed.

What I make of this is that athletic and, thus, Olympic success depends, in part, on a culture that cultivates it. Having access to mountains and snow is certainly important, but there must likewise be a cultural climate that values and rewards it. That is, Olympians need other people interested in their sport to make excelling in that sport rewarding in terms of reputation and identity. They likewise need cultural pressure to do the same (the cultural risks inherent in failure). This becomes important in acknowledging and explaining the absence of success in a sport and how policies around sports matter. This is particularly relevant when sports are discussed in terms of gender and race. Do we as a society make it worthwhile for individuals to choose to compete in certain sports? This connects to my earlier post about the IOC's decision to excise softball. If there is no chance of Olympic gold, what "entanglements, commitments, and reputations and identities" will exist to cultivate athletic excellence?

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