Introduction
Volume 6.2
CONTENTS
REVIEWS
Contributors
INTRODUCTION
Barton
Butler
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
Davis
Dretske
Egginton
Guttmann
Menocal
Most
Noll
click here for the main site portal

The Athlete's Body, Lost and Found

 This volume began with a modest bodily commitment: a spring 1994 lunch meeting held at the behest of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Jeffrey T. Schnapp, with Ted Leland and Rick Schavone as guests of honor, to discuss a possible collaborative venture between Stanford's Department of Comparative Literature and Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation.

The initial impulse came from the literary/academic side of the divide. But a synergy was so quick to develop that, before the main course arrived, guests and hosts were on a common wavelength. Indeed, in a series of subsequent meetings, the roles would often be reversed as conversations gave way to brainstorming sessions and brainstorming sessions, in turn, to planning sessions. An international conference on the topic of The Athlete's Body and the present volume were the fruits of these joint efforts.

As envisaged by its organizers, The Athlete's Body aimed to provide an interdisciplinary forum for discussion of the place of sports in modern society. Rather than addressing its topic in a global fashion, it sought to focus on the athlete who stands at the center of the complex web of psychological, social, cultural, economic, and historical forces that together make up modern athletics. The web in question is a tangled one, in large part because of the remarkable importance that sports participation and spectatorship have assumed in contemporary life. The conference's aim was not so much to unravel this web, as to provide an opportunity for sustained reflection upon its structure and development. To this end, the conference approached the topic of the athlete from two distinct perspectives. The first was broadly concerned with the mind/body relation as it pertains to athletic performance, experience, and psychology. It promoted analysis of such matters as the cognitive processes involved in individual and group athletic training; the role played by imagination and memory in sports; the psycho-physiology of athletic pain and pleasure; and the psychology of spectator "identification." The second perspective was instead concerned with the history and sociology of sport. It looked into such questions as: how did contemporary athletic competition assume its current shape? How has the role played by spectators evolved since antiquity? How have new technologies and media reshaped specific sports? How has the rise of mass athletics transformed other domains of "performance"—for instance, those of theater and dance? Specialized research has long been underway in many of these domains. But rarely if ever do specialists in these areas have occasion to meet and to share their work not only with athlete-practitioners and coaches, but also with scientists, social scientists, and humanists. The Athlete's Body sought to create precisely such a forum.

Like all such enterprises, this one was not free from initial anxieties and hesitations. On the Comparative Literature side, there were colleagues who rightly noted that this was but the individual initiative of two colleagues. And, given the lack of sympathy among many faculty for the role and scale assumed by athletics programs in American universities, they wondered if there might not be risks to the department's public image. On the Athletics Department side, the doubts were of another sort. The undertaking would, of course, emphasize the department's links to its academic counterparts, which seemed a plus. But some wondered how and whether coaches and athletes would be able to share the podium with scholars, scientists, and historians. Given the divergent frameworks within which each side approached the topic of the athlete's body, did there really exist any sort of common language or common ground? Surely one could not ask athletes and coaches to present conventional academic conference papers. But if athletes and coaches spoke on the basis of what they knew best—namely, their first-hand experience as practicing sportsmen and sportswomen—would scholars, scientists, and historians find points of intersection with their own intellectual and historical concerns? The conference plan was staked out on the presupposition that both questions deserved affirmative answers. Bringing together the usually separate worlds of sports practice and sports scholarship, we thought, would yield results far more stimulating and provocative than might otherwise be the case.

So the organizers hoped and so it was. The colloquium took place on May 12-13, 1995, at Stanford's Arrillaga Family Sports Center and wove together academic presentations with responses by athletes and coaches. Thanks to this format and to several round tables mixing coaches, scholars, and athletes, the hoped-for collision of worlds occurred (and to great effect). In their replies, the athletes grappled with the facts, theses, and theorizations presented by the lecturers from the standpoint of their first-person experiences; and their reflections, prompted by the scholars' third-person views, proved extremely suggestive, containing, in a couple of cases, intuitions regarding the mind-body relationship that seemed to reenergize philosophical debates that have remained stuck for a long time. It goes without saying that the conference's aim was neither to privilege first-hand experience with respect to third-hand observation nor the inverse. Rather, it set out to animate the one with the other.

If certain philosophical commonplaces concerning the mind-body relationship came under pressure in the course of the athletes' replies, so, in the course of the lectures, did some of modern sports' time-worn truisms. The contributions of several participating historians suggested (to the understandable chagrin of some athletes and coaches), for instance, that the ideal of "a healthy mind in a healthy body" was little more than a case of wishful (and hollow) thinking. Participation in athletic competition, they argued, did not necessarily have a positive impact on athletes' everyday ethics and politics, for its impact may well be neutral or negative.1 The provocation was such as to insure a swift shift in tone from the polite caution of the conference's initial exchanges to freewheeling debates no longer informed by this or that standard apologia for sports' role within the academy or in society. Various possible futures in which sport might be envisaged in other terms were discussed. Though unfamiliar, these future horizons began to appear less menacing by the end of the conference.

So the outcome of the conference give and take was illuminating with regard to the past, present, and future evolution of sport. But, as one always hopes in undertakings of this sort, it also effected an estrangement of the object under scrutiny. The athlete's body, that is, became a source of epistemological unrest. For every new certainty, it also yielded new uncertainties. Fruitful uncertainties concerning the nature of the phenomena that we designate as "sport" and the ever shifting boundary line separating "sport" from "non-sport" within premodern and modern societies; doubts about the link between physical and mental states and their impact upon athletic performance as historically constituted; and questions regarding the degree of convergence between the perspective of contemporary sports spectators and sports performers.

The first of these three lines of inquiry is pursued in the essays contributed by Glenn W. Most, Carlin A. Barton, Robert C. Davis, and Luiz Costa-Lima to the present volume. Each historicizes the concept of sport or a given sport, bringing to the surface discontinuites between the past and present. Once conventionally viewed as if a seamless whole extending from ancient Greek athletics to the modern Olympic movement, the history of Western sport is the result of a complex and often discontinuous historical process. Neither natural nor inevitable, the constellation of practices and institutions today associated with "sport" assumed its contemporary contours only in the early nineteenth century as an autonomous sphere of "leisure" began to emerge in modern industrial societies. Roger Noll's contribution to the conference and volume, though oriented away from history and towards the present, falls into line with the prior analysis, insisting that sports are best viewed within a broad economic framework—a framework that suggests that, despite their seeming prominence in contemporary life, sport's economic impact is minor on the whole. Nothing clearly and definitively distinguishes sports from other sectors of the entertainment industry, Noll argues, not even the enthusiasm and loyalty of fans inasmuch as their behavior is consistent with that of other subgroups of consumers. But does fan fanaticism always correspond to insight into or knowledge of the sport in question? Mike Montgomery, Stanford's nationally celebrated men's basketball coach, noted that it does not. Habitual, even addictive "consumption" of team sports need not imply an understanding of or an appreciation of their intricacies. How then is one to explain the popularity of sport spectatorship? The classicist Marsh McCall suggested that a more or less secret admiration on the part of spectators for the "killer instinct" displayed by all great athletes, may provide the answer. (Though his view was challenged by several athletes, who proved more willing to endorse the familiar thesis that sport's appeal consists in its sex appeal, than to abandon the postulate that there exists an ethical quality inherent to sports.) The Germanist Bernhard Siegert emphasized instead the theological dimensions of the spectator/athlete bond: "As in the ceremony of the consecration and consumption of the Eucharist in the Catholic church, the moment of the sports broadcast marks the consecration and consumption of the athlete's body: a body that, suspended in a state of sharpened perception, is absorbed into the body of the community and thereby provides a necessary glue."

If the majority of views expressed regarding the appeal of sports assumed the form of third-person observations oriented towards history and society at large, such was not the case when it came to analyzing the interplay between mind and body in athletic performance. Here the focus turned towards first-hand experience, with the discussion being led by the athletes themselves. And what emerged, particularly in a number of dialogues with the philosophers and theorists participating in the conference, was a distinctly non-Cartesian epistemology. "Non-Cartesian" because, contrary to Descartes's sharp distinction between res cogitans—the mind as "the thing that thinks"—and res extensa—the body as "that which occupies space"—and in contrast with the various popularizations of this distinction in Western philosophy since the seventeenth century, the athletes' self-descriptions presented mind and body as inseparable poles. While Cynthia Ferrell, a member of the robot-lab at MIT, insisted on the growing importance of physical performance in recent thinking concerned with computer development ("in order to build intelligent machines it is not enough to throw a lot of knowledge into a computer"), for the participating athletes there was little doubt that the mind's function was not reducible to that of an observation and control module with respect to their bodily performance. Some of the athletes went so far as to state that "emptying their mind" from all intentional content (to have recourse to the language of phenomenology), especially from intentional content relating to their physical performance, was the very precondition of success in sport. In the words the gymnast and Olympic medalist Jair Lynch: "If your mind is not free, you will simply make the same mistake over and over. The aim is to free your mind when you finally compete: to delegate all the motions, all the techniques to your body which is now fully programmed." He was echoed by the long-distance runner Sarah Truitt: "In short, I run my best when I am being free from worrying about the mechanics of the running."

The mind that has emptied and emancipated itself here is no metaphysical conceit, despite the metaphysical glimmerings that can sometimes seem to creep into such conversations. It is not synonymous with an absent mind or with a mind that has simply been "switched off" (as some of the athletes described it). Going beyond the functions of body-perception and body-control gives rise to a heightened self-reflexivity, to a heightened concentration of the mind on itself. This seems to be the state that Pablo Morales, the double Olympic gold-medalist in the one-hundred-meter butterfly event, tried to evoke when speaking of "being lost in focused intensity" as he performs. The athlete is "lost" to the degree that he or she has emptied the mind of all those perceptions that establish links to the outside world. Though the body belongs to this outside world, the "loss" in question presupposes the body's presence. Indeed, it presupposes an intensified corporeality inasmuch as a high degree of bodily self-control is the necessary precondition for interrupting the mind's controlling operations. The mind could not become "empty," in other words, were it not for the body taking over some of its key functions. And what is found when the athlete is "lost in focused intensity" is the mind's own emptiness now turned in upon itself: a state of absorption that can be accounted for in quantitative terms—as a given degree of tension, an "intensity"—but not readily in qualitative or content-based terms. Morales left not doubt as to the addictive character of this mental/corporeal state:

    In 1988 I didn't make the Olympic team, even though I was present at the prior and subsequent Olympics. The year was disappointing enough to lead to my retirement. So when I viewed the games on television, I didn't feel any special pull …until a funny thing happened. When coverage began of the one hundred meter butterfly competition, the event that was my specialty and the one I would have had a shot at winning the gold medal, I had to remove myself from the room. I simply couldn't watch the race. My attachment to the event was so complete that viewing it proved impossible. The meaning of this experience became clearer to me when I saw the 400 meter sprint relay for women. I will never forget watching the great sprinter Evelyn Ashford run as, in the anchor leg, she came from behind to win the gold medal for the United States. The race was shown through to its conclusion, after which a replay was run but this time with the camera focused on Ashford's face before, during, and after her sprint. Her eyes first panned the oval, then focused on the baton, then on the curve ahead. Oblivious to the crowd, oblivious even to her competition, I saw her lost in focused intensity. The effect was immediate. I had to remove myself from the room once again. I went into the kitchen and started sobbing, without knowing why. I had not a single emotional outburst since failing to make the Olympic team. But when I thought about my reaction in the ensuing hours, I came to realize what I had lost; that special feeling of getting lost in focused intensity. Four years later I was back at the Olympics.

The philosophical and epistemological significance of these words might seem to point in the direction of Eastern thought, all too readily invoked whenever states of self-awareness are being defined in ways unfamiliar to the West. Better to evoke the phenomenological legacy of Edmund Husserl, a thinker whose struggle to distinguish, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, differing degrees in the "tension of consciousness" (Bewusstseinsspannung) seems to converge with Morales's experience of his own performing body. Better to end with a question concerning ends. In the course of the conference's final round table discussion, Marsh McCall wondered about the moment in which an athlete, despite continuing to participate in competitions (and perhaps even continuing to win), ceases to be an athlete; the moment in which an athlete's body ceases to be the body of an athlete. Could this moment be re-envisaged as that in which the athlete loses his or her capacity to find him- or herself "lost in focused intensity"? An affirmative answer might well imply a revised conception of the coupling between athletic and intellectual performance.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Jeffrey T. Schnapp
Departments of Comparative Literature and French and Italian

Ted Leland and Rick Schavone
Department of Athletics, Physical Education,  and Recreation

 

NOTES

(1) These debates in particular led to a second, smaller colloquium on "Sports and Ethics" in May 1997.

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.