Friday, February 12, 2010

Day 1: Olympic Rhetorics

The Olympics start tonight. Well, they have already begun, in a sense, with the tragic death of an athlete during a practice session. The Olympics are always ambiguously positioned in terms of their relationship to politics: that is, the Olympics are seen as apolitical in as much as they are attempts at international politics. It’s the oldest political tactic in the book: claim your politics are not political. Hence the ridiculousness of this argument about the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing:

Bush himself and other senior U.S. officials have said on several occasions that the president will attend the Beijing Olympics and believed the Olympics is not a political event but a chance for athletes to compete at the top of their class. ("Bush to attend," emphasis added)
Of particular interest to me, however, is the politics of sports (read “rhetoric of sports”). That is, not only do the Olympics as an international event enact a politics, sport is itself shot through with politics (with choices, with policies, with values, with power). And by the “rhetoric of sports” I do not just mean “talk about sports.” Rhetoric is certainly discursive, but rhetorical action operates across bodies and environments as well. For instance, I have an entire dissertation chapter devoted to the cultivation of Usain Bolt. I argued there that Bolt’s physical excellence is not innate or inborn but is an emergent phenomenon cultivated rhetorically across attitudes, commitments, techniques, the preferences of coaches (if a coach thinks you are too tall to the run 100m he or she won't let you train for it) as well as cultural and racial assumptions. The bodies of athletes are themselves political, as the example of Bolt works to illustrate. Athletes emerge from within a complex matrix of bodies, cultures, technologies and environments. What sports are available, what bodies are preferred, and how bodies are shaped by participation in sports are a just a few of ways rhetoric is embodied and enworlded and how bodies are cultivated rhetorically. This is why I really like the above logo for this year's games. The figure in the logo is constituted by the various human habitats represented by the colors of the Olympic rings: bodies are independent from neither politics nor environment.

Finally, excellence in sports (who is good and why) is likewise difficult to finally determine. There is no one reason why someone wins the gold medal and others do not. However, as we start the Winter Olympics we should be on the look out for narratives that attempt just that: hard work and talent are particular favorites, but neither packs much explanatory punch. From the dissertation:

Daniel F. Chambliss, a sociologists specializing in sports, argues that athletic excellence, and, by extrapolation, all excellence, is not “a product of socially deviant personalities,” it does “not result from quantitative changes in behavior,” and it “does not result from special inner quality of the athlete” (72, emphasis in original). Based on his longitudinal study of Olympic swimmers, Chambliss concludes that “athletic excellence is widely attainable, if usually unsought” (78). Rather than assuming, as most do, that Olympic champions simply work harder or that they have innate talent and gifts, Chambliss argues that they simply and mundanely “do things differently” ("The Mundanity of Excellence" 73). “Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their group of friends are different; their parents treat the sport differently, the swimmers prepare differently for their races, and they enter different kinds of meets and events” (73). This qualitative distinction is manifested across three dimensions: technique, discipline, and attitude. A case could be made that Chambliss is essentially suggesting that the rhetoric of Olympic athletes is different. In persuasively arguing that individuals are not born champions, Chambliss posits that an Olympic swimmer is persuaded into becoming.
Chambliss argues that we use "talent" to objectify what is actually a complex series of behaviors and attitudes. Athletic excellence is something somebody does rather than something somebody has.

This is, in other words, why and how I watch the Olympics. To return to the start of this year's games, which began with the tragic death of an athlete enacting excellence, it is important to remember what is at stake in the politics of sports: bodies, their cultivation, and, at times, their destruction.

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