My earliest memories of sport (the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, and the 1966 World Cup) are also my earliest memories of television: the Tokyo theme music is running through my head as I write this. I’d guess that the same is true for most of us; sport is inextricably linked to our mediated experience of the world (this might also be the most obvious distinction between ‘sport’ and ‘play’).
I watched a little of last summer’s big sporting events, but spent more of the time watching the media’s coverage of them. I also read Marc Perelman’s coruscating and funny polemic, ‘Barbaric Sport’, which led me to look at what ‘the experts’ were saying about the future of sport. It doesn’t make for comforting reading.
First, Perelman: he argues, among other things, that sport is the modern opium of the masses; that its intimate relationship with the mass media makes it inherently political and corrupt, so that cheating is no longer a deviation from the ideal; that athletes are ‘sick’, in the sense that they are constantly medicated. Perelman assumes that sport is both a central part of martial culture, and the biggest obstacle to play; after a quick glance in the corporate crystal ball, I’m beginning to agree with him, and to think that future sport could easily become a dystopian nightmare.
My foreboding stems partly from our obsession with records; watching people compete is no longer enough for us, apparently – we want to see people go faster and faster, longer and longer. And they are doing precisely that; but the margins are getting smaller and smaller, inevitably. After all, we are human; our physique puts limits on what we can do. A little bit of history will help to illustrate this: as far as modern sport is concerned, the four-minute barrier for the mile was broken in 1953 by Roger Bannister and co; but in actual fact, that barrier was first broken in England in 1780, by a costermonger called James Parrott, who ran a mile down Shoreditch High Street dressed only in hob-nailed boots and a cap.
There’s another peculiar factor that adds to my worry. In recent years, Paralympic sport has (rightly in many respects) begun to receive more and more media attention; it is clearly just as exciting as its able-bodied equivalent, and in some respects more so, since some of the athletes can go as fast or faster. A number of sports experts have suggested that by 2050 or so, there will be no distinction between the two sports cadres, and all will be competing on a level playing field. At first glance, this sounds like a simple declaration of democracy in a heretofore elitist pursuit, but it’s not as simple as that.
The rise of Paralympic sport has been fuelled, at least in part, by the growth in prosthetic technology. There are two ways of looking at this development; either it is simply an evolution of the walking stick, an aid to human endeavour in straitened circumstances, or it is a sinister merging of human and machine, a step towards the cyber-athlete, or the prosthetic person. Or to put it another way, either we are giving a helping hand to make people fully capable, or we are pushing them to be more than human. More than one commentator has raised the possibility of able-bodied athletes deciding to replace fallible human appendages with superior technology; thus we would see the trajectory of sport reversed, able-bodied athletes will join the ranks of the paralympians, rather than vice versa.
It’s not just prosthetics. Advances in the technology of clothing, particularly in respect of nano-technology, have led to sports costumes that tangibly enhance performance. Swimming and cycling have already felt the impact of this development, and there is some confusion about what constitutes ‘fair’ clothing for athletes. Our moral confusion (surely that is what it is) can only get worse as science moves the theoretical and physical goal posts in the near future. Imagine a sports costume that adds speed or lift or impact to the athlete’s armoury, and you can begin to see the problem.
And then there’s the troubled arena of drugs and performance-enhancing supplements and diets. The recent furore over Lance Armstrong is a perfect case in point. No one is disputing that Armstrong worked as hard, and put in as much effort, as the next person; but his use of blood transfusions, and steroids, makes him a cheat, a sporting villain. At least for now; many of the substances that were banned by sports authorities in the past have become legal ingredients over time, and it is conceivable that the measures to which Armstrong resorted will, in time, be considered normal practice.
Drugs, prosthetics, active clothing: this doesn’t sound much like the Olympic ideal, does it? Yet if we continue to demand records, continue to ask our athletes to go faster, further, higher, we will have very little choice in the matter; we are not about to mutate naturally into sporting supermen and women just to satisfy the statistical impulse that infects pretty much all forms of human endeavour, but especially competitive endeavour.
Above all, these ticklish moral developments serve to demonstrate that our sporting aspirations are largely absurd. We currently lionise Usain Bolt as the fastest man on earth, because he has dedicated years of his life to becoming nearly as fast over one hundred metres as the average domestic tabby; there is no empirical evidence that he can run faster than anyone in the past (who knows how fast the original Olympians went?) yet we hold him up (and others like him) as pinnacles of human progress. We accept his word that he is ‘clean’, without being absolutely certain what that might mean, although we all have the sneaking suspicion that in this context, ‘clean’ can be no more than a relative term.
So in 2050, when we are watching Olympians, physically and medically enhanced, costumed in the equivalent of a strap-on motor car, striving against an historically mendacious clock, we might spare a thought for James Parrott, naked and proud, hammering down Shoreditch High Street in hob-nails, and wonder what it is we are looking at.