Sport, or at least some sports, enjoy extraordinarily privileged status. At the level of elite sport, national pride, vast sums of money, the passionate belonging of team loyalties and the spectacular feats of extraordinary bodies create a privileged domain which can dictate TV schedules, mark holidays and capture national headlines. At the amateur level, sport provides a means of demonstrating bodily discipline through practices normatively coded as healthy and is a source of pleasure to many; the sporting subject is the good citizen par excellence.
But the public endorsement of sport and its subjects is also premised on exclusions that should give us pause for thought. Sport remains determinedly demarcated on gendered lines, with men and women rarely allowed to compete directly with each other. The boundaries between men and women’s sport are closely regulated and policed, with women at risk of exclusion if their hormonal or genetic profiles exceed arbitrarily defined boundaries of acceptable femininity. And even when women can compete, they still experience systematic exclusion and discrimination: women’s sport receives only a tiny fraction of the media coverage that men enjoy, women are frequently limited to fewer and shorter events and they receive lower rewards in prize money and sponsorship. Other exclusions persist alongside the rigorous and hierarchical gendering of sport: sporting participation is constrained for many by lack of access to facilities, prohibitive costs, the absence of childcare or the failure to accommodate the needs of disabled athletes. And for some, participation in sport is simply too shaming a possibility to face; it is hard to be a fat body, for example, in an environment so strongly oriented towards the elimination of fatness, and where access to size-appropriate equipment and clothing may not be available. Race also serves as an axis along which discrimination persists, with ideas of sporting ‘fit’ closing off opportunities and limiting choice. For example, the whiteness of my own sport of swimming remains mired in notions of the incompatibility of blackness and swimming, and in particular, the myth of higher bone density as a precluding factor; it is a prejudice of significant consequence when we realise that young black boys are far more likely to drown than their white peers.
Sport, then, can be understood both as a mirror of the social and a means of its reproduction. Attempts to figure sport as outside of politics (for example, in the Olympic movement, or in recent debates about ‘taking a knee’) obscure its status as an intensely political site, not only in national and international settings, but also at the level of individual bodies as they variously challenge and sustain what counts as the ‘good body’ in contemporary society.