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Health, Sports & Psychology

What’s Social about Chasing the Perfect Sporting Body?

Updated Wednesday, 30th September 2015

Is it possible to push your sporting performance to its maximum potential regardless of social inequalities? Kath Woodward discusses...

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Two women in a boxing match Creative commons image Icon West Point - The U.S. Military Academy under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license In the run up to the London Olympics in 2012, in This sporting life: making connections, I argued that sport involves much more than spectacular performance and competition, it is also deeply embedded in social relations. Central to my argument is the claim that sport is not only brilliant entertainment and a set of enjoyable pursuits, but sport also reflects and, most importantly generates social, political, cultural and economic relations. Sport offers opportunities for success and for transcending the limitations of the body. Not all bodies are equal or treated equally in sport which is also about social inequalities and social divisions. It is not always a fair playing field and sport creates as well as reflects social divisions such as those based on gender, ethnicity and where you are in the world.

Sport is a particularly embodied set of activities. Bodies are central to sport through engaging with others in the collective enterprise of teamwork and competition as well as in recognizing the potential of one’s own body and the pleasure and exhilaration of athleticism, even at non-competitive levels, or just for the pleasure of physical activity. Enfleshed selves and the embodied practices of sport combined with personal investment and the passions which sport inspires are what make it so relevant in the social world.

Sport also generates some of the most advanced technological, scientific and psychological interventions in improving performance, albeit mostly targeted at elite athletes, although mobile technologies and smart phones may offer some democratization of training techniques.  Mostly the hi tech training mechanisms, such as those at centres such as Michael Johnson’s in Dallas focus upon those with resources to finance the training and he potential to become top athletes.

Some bodies matter more than others and the rewards of elite athletes are enormous. Whilst governments claim to invest in the promotion of active citizens through the development of sport in different communities and at grass roots levels, some bodies seem to be more worthwhile as investments than others.

One of the most commonly invoked references at the London Olympics was legacy. The £9.3 billion spent on the games promised wider participation and a fitter population.  The aim was that we would all be inspired by the performance of elite athletes and we would all want some of the action and as a result achieve a the benefits of collective physical activity. The promise of this aspect of the Olympic legacy has largely been unrealized, however and spending on grass roots participation has been cut and not increased.

There have been shifts in attitudes, such as those arising from the inclusion of women’s boxing as an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012; at last the women’s game was treated seriously but such incremental changes in the ways in which bodies are understood and represented does not necessarily make for large scale transformations and still less it seems for mass participation in sport.

It seems that spectatorship of the mega event has not generated the desire to join in as much as might have been expected. This phenomenon demonstrates one of the contradictions in sports policies and the governance of sport; following sport and its elite participants does not necessarily lead to wider engagement and governments which seek to promote the benefits of healthy minds and healthy bodies among the wider population may have to chose between investment in elites and putting its money into grass roots, community participation.

Chasing perfection and at least improving embodied performance is a possibility for  everyone but the odds are still stacked against some bodies and corporeality in sport is always social inflected.

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