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Making the (sporting) body

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Spyridon Louis, the winner of the marathon in the first modern Olympics was reportedly given a traditional alcohol-fuelled send-off by his fellow villagers and took wine and ate an Easter egg for extra calories during the race itself (Mitchell, 2004). One hundred years later it is unusual to hear of competitive athletes drinking much alcohol even in the periods between events. Not only does this tell us something about the vast changes that have occurred in understandings of sports nutrition and technology, but it says something about the increasing differentiation between competitive sporting bodies and the bodies of laypeople. Spyridon Louis was considered exceptional partly because his lifestyle was not improbably different to the lives of many other Greek people at that time. In the contemporary Western world, the everyday lives of professional athletes arguably bear little resemblance to those of the mass populace. Contemporary professional athletes are considered exceptional (at least in part) because of the exceptional lives that they lead.

Examining the contemporary ideal of the exceptional athletic body can tell us a great deal about social attitudes about the 'kinds' of bodies best suited to particular activities. For example, sociologists of education have written about how school teachers (however inadvertently) reproduce the ethnic stereotype which suggests that black students are 'better suited' to athletics than their non-black peers by encouraging black schoolchildren to partake in this sport (even when the children themselves express no desire to do so). Similarly, disabled students can be implicitly discouraged from expressing an interest in sport or a desire to participate, while female students continue to receive greater encouragement in those activities traditionally assumed to be 'feminine'. Our latest publications page provides an introduction to Professsor Kath Woodward's new book Embodied Sporting Practices (2009) which explores how sporting bodies are made and regulated.

This page is designed as a space in which questions about the social making and representation of athletes' bodies can be raised. Please use this page to engage with others interested in this area and as a means of disseminating your ideas and work.

Tanya Bunsell, a PhD candidate at the University of Kent, has contributed an article which takes a phenomenological approach to understanding the relationship between the athlete, their body and their event. She interviewed the Olympic hopeful Jonathan Silman, and collaborated with the photographer Rebecca Andrews, to develop their phenomenological approach. The article and photographs can be found under 'Research articles' (see right).

Getting started with the British Library's collections

Carrington, Ben. 'Race’, representation and the sporting body.
Occasional Paper Goldsmiths’ College. Centre for Urban and Community Research, 2002
DS shelfmark: m02/42378 DSC

Evans, Mary. & Lee. Ellie. (eds.) Real Bodies
Palgrave, 2003
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2002.a.10925 DS shelfmark: m02/31535

Hargreaves, Jennifer. & Vertinsky, Patricia. (eds.) Physical culture, power and the body
Routledge, 2007
London open access collections shelfmark: SPIS306.483 DS shelfmark: m06/.38668

MacClancy, Jeremy. Sport, identity and ethnicity
Berg, 1996
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2000.a.400 DS shelfmark: 96/20825

Mitchell, Kevin. 'The Olympics is about the bad as much as the good' The Observer, 29 August 2004
Note: The Observer is available through our Newspapers Library from 1791 to date.

Shilling, Chris. (ed.) Embodying sociology: retrospect, progress, and prospects
Blackwell, 2007
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2007.a.5604 DS shelfmark: m07/.21602

Woodward, Kath. Boxing, Masculinity and Identity
Routledge, 2007
London open access collections shelfmark: SPIS306.483 DS shelfmark: m06/.40393

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Research articles

The links below are to Adobe PDF files. Accessibility solutions and free Reader software are available from Adobe.

Running [the 400m] with Jon Silman (PDF 395KB) PDF file

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