ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Sport, science and society: anthropological perspectives

Contact Convenor: Noel Dyck

Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University

Tel: 604 291 3146

Co-Convenor: Gary Armstrong

Panel abstract

Sciences and technologies of the body, the person and the social increasingly inform contemporary sport practices.  In this panel anthropologists and sport scientists will interrogate the divers ways in which sports of different kinds are being redesigned to modify and extend "normal" understandings and expectations of athletes' bodies in pursuit of competitive advantage and performative excellence.  Papers in this panel will report ethnographic work conducted in a range of settings and explore a set of interconnected themes and questions.  How are new technologies of body and mind being envisioned and pursued through sport science, sport psychology and other forms of disciplinary practice?  What impact do such undertakings to redefine and reconstitute sport practices have upon existing "indigenous" knowledges and experiences of sport?  How do athletes, sport officials and organizations address the complex technological, social and moral questions raised by the proliferation of performance enhancing substances and practices?  What can the problems and processes encountered in reckoning the "legitimacy" and "illegitimacy" of such measures tell us about the status and significance of sport within society?  What are the implications of sport being dealt with primarily in physiological, psychological and mechanical terms rather than as a mode of social, cultural and political performance?  Why and how are scientific  and technological developments engineered within elite amateur and professional sport being transposed beyond the fields of play and applied within other spheres of social life?  What contributions can anthropological analyses of sport, science and society make both within and beyond the discipline? 

Sport, science and child rearing in Canada

Noel Dyck, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Scientific subfields and technologies of body, mind and the management of them have begun to thrive within the environs of contemporary sport.  Physiological, psychological and organizational regimens pitched for incorporation into the training of high performance athletes are vigorously promoted as means for achieving excellence.  Whatever their efficacy in enhancing athletic performance, these putatively “scientific” forms of knowledge and practice have contributed to a nascent reformulation of underlying cultural understandings about the nature and significance of sport.   As objects of escalating “scientific” attention and endeavour, sport activities are implicitly granted a degree of “rationality”, “seriousness” and “importance” that may sometimes reach above and beyond the ludic and pleasurable qualities traditionally associated with them.

This paper will consider some of the ways in which these developments have contributed to adult-organized sport activities becoming an increasingly popular technology for child rearing within certain sectors of Canadian society.   The proposition that “building better athletes” might be synonymous with “raising successful children” or “raising children successfully” is examined within the context of organized community sport programs for children and youth in urban communities in Canada.

Made to which measure? Nineteenth century science and sporting bodies

Peter G. Mewett, Deakin University, Australia

The modification of bodies to enhance performance for competitive sporting purposes originated in the mid eighteenth century. Since then, ‘science’ has informed the discourses of sports training practices, but its influence has changed significantly, now being directive rather than merely being addressed in the ethos of training. Today, sports training practices often are associated with scientific research focussed on understanding the biological processes underpinning physical achievements. However, in the first two centuries of modern sport, science, rather than directing practice, was used as a legitimating, justifying discourse that served to empower training practices.

This paper, an exercise in historical anthropology, replaces conventional ethnographic data with the texts of sports training manuals, sports periodicals and medical journals to examine how these discourses represented the influence of science on the preparation of the body for competition. The focus on the nineteenth century is instructive because, first, physiological models at the century’s start were influenced by Galenic theory, but were underpinned by modern empirical science at its end. Second, from the 1860s, amateurism inspired a major rethinking of training; the ensuing contrast with the preparation of professional athletes illustrates how science was deployed in the making of nineteenth century sporting bodies.

Sport, drugs and backflips: the strength athlete’s perspective on drug use

Anthony Blazevich, Brunel University

In 1975 the International Olympic Committee published a list of banned substances in an attempt to prevent the use of performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) in elite sport.  This was to ensure all participants had an equal chance of winning and to protect the health of participants.  While early research suggested that many PED’s had little effect on an athlete’s physical stature or sporting performance (despite their widespread use in medical and veterinary circles), recent research and anecdotal evidence suggests their benefits are significant.  With respect to health, despite much research showing the adverse health effects of PED’s, experimental and anecdotal evidence from groups such as the World Health Organisation suggests that, under certain dosing regimens, many PEDs’s affect health positively.  Such ‘backflips’ in the opinions of researchers on the effects of PED’s has caused a dilemma for those athletes who are faced with the choice of whether or not to use drugs.  With a focus on the use of drugs to enhance strength and power performance, this presentation will put forward a perspective common to many athletes.  Particularly, one solution that was suggested by an elite athlete will be discussed to challenge our current model of controlling PED use.

Sports medicine, risk culture and the body: the case of Valley RFC

P. David Howe, University of Gloucestershire

The body is the one tool with which a sportsperson has to work. Therefore, changes in the way the body is managed are crucial for sportspeople individually but also for the sport itself. By examining sports medicine in the context of Valley Rugby Football Club, the paper illuminates the relationship between 'the body' and a particular sporting culture. Rugby has finally followed other sports and become commercialised, altering the importance of the game in the community, and turning the club from a community co-operative into a potentially lucrative business enterprise. The sport's commercialisation is paralleled by the players' professionalisation, which has meant players having to take a new attitude towards the fitness of their bodies and hence to their training regimes. Such regimes raise the issue of risk, since increased fitness often leads to increased rates of injury. Players and their managers now have to negotiate the costs and benefits of improving physical skills, as well as the cost of high quality medical treatment. In this sporting environment, the regulation of injury and thus the sporting body is just one area where empowerment is a contentious issue.

Quantifying the physical, propertising the biological: the trade value of professional athletes

Margaret Macdonald, University of Oxford

My research considers the player transfer market in Rugby League, in which players are “bought” and “sold” between clubs, by seeking to describe this market, define its activities, and understand the cultural values of the actors within it.  “Actor” is a key word, bringing the concept of personhood into play. Actors in a transfer market are not only buyers, sellers and regulators, but also the goods themselves: the players.  This evokes issues of commodification; what aspects of a player’s person are traded and why? Researching this market means unpacking “indigenous” categories used for assessing physical attributes and translating them into financial terms. The market exists due to competition on the pitch and on the books.  The surrounding discourse is one of power, ownership and competition for resources, both physical and financial.

Fieldwork reveals that the “player-good”, the physical and mental talents of the player, is considered as owned by the club, not by the player. The player-good subsists within the person of the player, yet is separable in exchange terms.  This paper will expand on how these values and customs have come to be, and how they are changing in light of current awareness of property and the person.

Science versus the crazy gang: Egil Olsen and Wimbledon F. C.

Gary Armstrong, Department of Sport Sciences, Brunel University & Hans Hognestad, Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education, Oslo

Protagonists in football seek competitive advantage through socio-cultural and scientific approaches designed to motivate players to perform to the best of their abilities.  What is effective changes rapidly, so the search for successful playing systems never ends.  The appointment of Egil Olsen as coach for the Norwegian national football team in 1990 coincided with the rapid professionalisation of football in Norway.  His success (primarily at youth level football) was largely based on what were perceived to be 'scientific' training methods combined with match analysis he developed with colleagues at the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education.

Although notorious in the eyes of foreign critics for its defensive and 'long-ball' tactics, the success achieved by the national side under Olsen meant that a ‘Norwegian style’ of play was invented.  Olsen’s success did not go unnoticed or unappreciated outside Norway.  In 1999 he was appointed manager of the English Premier League team Wimbledon, a club that had enjoyed a phenomenal rise in status over 20 years, premised largely on its irreverent stance towards pomposity and the prevailing ideas of rationality in the English game.  This paper examines how Olsen’s positivist scientific approach to football clashed with the cultural and mythological preconditions of an English football club.