This sporting life: making connections

Updated Wednesday, 18th April 2012
Kath Woodward argues that sport is not only about performance, competition, winning and losing; it is also deeply embedded in social relations

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In the run up to the London 2012 Olympics, it is hardly surprising that there has been a proliferation of publications of all kinds - scholarly articles, special editions of journals as well as massive popular and sports media coverage, blogs, tweets and Facebook links all providing information, insights and commentary as well as generating new sorts of knowledge about sport. However, we also need to recognise the wider context, namely that much of this commentary is also about social relations. The Olympics is the greatest show on earth and you can’t ignore it, but sporting mega-events are not only mass entertainment, promotional sites and opportunities for athletes to challenge themselves and to be challenged to achieve their very best. Sport creates impact, not least by producing and reproducing social relations, which provide opportunities for change as well as the perpetuation of some inequalities. Sport doesn't just reflect social, cultural and political relations; it generates them.

The power of sport has long been recognised by governments who seek to promote good citizens through healthy bodies, made so by participating in sport. Team work, learning to win and, more troubling, learning to lose, are useful skills with wide application. Sporting activities often have to negotiate the tension between playing because it is enjoyable and aiming to win. Sport is often defined by its capacities for both inspiring the desire to succeed and to defeat the opposition. Sport has the capacity to be enlisted in this way because sport is enjoyable, but it is much more than fun; it’s serious. Sport is not only public display it is also personal passion which brings together the intensities of the psychic and the social in particular ways, which are also strongly embodied. Enfleshed selves and the bodies that take part are aspects of what makes sport so relevant in contemporary social worlds. 

Sport is all about bodies and it is through engagement with embodied practices that people can work with others as well as recognising the possibilities of their own bodies. Bodies are not, however, separate from the enfleshed selves who make decisions and feel emotions. Sport demonstrates particularly well the interrelationships between mind, body and emotion. Because of the acknowledged centrality of bodies and body practices, sport offers a field in which the properties and capacities of bodies can be developed, both in measuring and challenging individual achievements and in exploring the possibilities of collective action, in how team players work together. Many of the developments in physiotherapy, in pharmaceuticals and in technologies transcend the constraints of physical disabilities and have been generated by sports science that recognises the primacy of bodies and enfleshed selves in sport.

Sport is not only about the enfleshed selves and their body practices on the track and in the field, gym, pool and ring, it is also about the bodies which regulate sport.  Spectators, followers, fans and commentators also have embodied presences in the sporting mix. Other sorts of bodies are also implicated. The regulatory bodies of sport and the bodies involved in its governance and in its promotion, including the media and sponsorship apparatuses, demonstrate how bodies in sport are always social as well as physical and individual. Sport provides a distinctive and powerful mix of personal, social, enfleshed actualities which are not only worthy of serious academic study but which can also deliver productive insights into social relations and social and cultural change as well as helping explain why some things don't change.

Sport combines a mix of personal pleasures and pain, embodied practices, collective commitment and globalised politics and conflicts. It is also a massive industry which generates its own social relations and social divisions as well as providing opportunities to challenge inequalities such as those of class, race, sex gender and disability, even if sport has also been responsible for perpetuating some of these sources of social exclusion. We really do live on Planet Sport.

Kath Woodward is the author of Planet Sport, Sex Power and the Games and Embodied Sporting Practices

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