Sport and identity

A guest writer, Gareth Davies explores how rejecting  fixed ideas about what sport should look like, intertwine with a rejection of other fixed identity norms.


The case of Lauren Jeska threw into sharp relief the conflict between our post-modern understanding of identity and the traditions of organised sport. In case you don’t know, Jeska is a trans woman who stabbed a UK Athletics official after she felt threatened by their insistence on her proving her testosterone levels didn’t give her an unfair advantage in competition against other women. In one of those glorious paradoxes that history throws up, the official she stabbed, Ralph Knibbs, was someone whose own sporting career was blighted by his defence of his identity. As a black man, Knibbs turned down a chance to tour South Africa with the British Lions  in 1984 because of his opposition to apartheid, and was never again selected for England, meaning that one of the best three-quarters I have ever seen went uncapped.

The accepted use of drugs in sport, via therapeutic use exemptions, and the rules about the use of prosthetics amongst paralympians challenge the very idea of sport as being a neutral test of strength and skill in a way that highlights the complexity of Jeska’s situation. There was a time when Oscar Pestorius was only controversial because of the row about whether his prosthetics conferred an unfair advantage on him when running against non-amputees. The contrasts and the differences in how Lauren Jeska was treated point towards a deep set of contradictions at the heart of sport.

Should an athlete be banned because of an advantage that the treatment of their body, their very humanity, confers on them? And if not, how should we categorize them, or define success?

Let’s start with a banal example. I am a chronic asthmatic. I use two medications under a generalized therapeutic use exemption that means I can breathe more effectively than I otherwise would.They undoubtedly confer a performance advantage in cycling – using a peak flowmeter I can measure that advantage. Should I be banned from sport?

Lurking behind that question are a whole series of assumptions and beliefs about why I should be allowed to use drugs to enhance my performance, but other athletes can’t use the same drugs to enhance their performance. The very notion of disease, as a deviation from a norm, which should be corrected, is hugely challenging, but also hugely reinforces the idea that there is a norm.

Should an athlete be banned because of an advantage that the treatment of their body, their very humanity, confers on them? And if not, how should we categorize them, or define success?

That normative process, of saying that there are men and women, bodies that function well, ideals of physical perfection, is at the heart of sport. Indeed it’s arguable that the central role of sport in our society is to reinforce and uphold those normative processes.

At one end of sport is the area of sport science, exemplified by the degree of analysis laid out in this article about the work of one sports scientist. One quote should suffice; “You can only understand normal physiology if you can understand perfect physiology.”

The very notion of disease, as a deviation from a norm, which should be corrected, is hugely challenging, but also hugely reinforces the idea that there is a norm.

Is that where I, as an individual who recognizes the full range of human realities, the intersecting spectra of gender, race,class and the contingencies of life that shape our bodies, want to be?

One of the biggest changes in sport over the last fifty years has been the rise of the paralympics, with their intricate systems of classification that allow athletes with similar types of body or mental abilities to compete against each other. The problem is that rather than rejecting the idea of norms, or perfection, the Paralympics reinforce them by using the traditional ideals as fixed  reference points.

I grew up in a world dominated by social sports, team games where everyone was assigned a role, if they were chosen, and by individual sports, where coming second was to be first loser. Conformity to the ideals that the sports were designed to exalt was a pre-condition of inclusion, and sometimes that meant a silent, sullen acceptance of those ideals, even if they were incongruent with my beliefs.

Ralph Knibbs comes to mind again. One of the pre-conditions of acceptance in the upper echelons of Rugby Union was to be silent about its awful record on the conjoined issues of racism and apartheid. The idea that a player’s attitude or character might drive selection decisions is still current; when he was asked to explain why Mike Brown didn’t make the 2017 Lions squad Warren Gatland said “When we select a squad, it’s not always about the rugby content.”

The ideals of physical perfection that underpin the work of some sports physiologists are just one strand of what explains performance, just as ability as a player is only one measure of what drives selection for a rugby team. On my bookshelf is Bradley Wiggins’ glossy, ghost written account of breaking the world hour record for cycling. In amongst the beautiful images it cites factors contributing to performance that include atmospheric pressure, temperature, and the effect of the crowd on the oxygen content of the air within the velodrome. That’s as well as Wiggo’s physical attributes, and, unmeasurable and ill-defined, his colossal will to win.

All the results, the records and the achievements are proxy measures for the idea of the ideal, an idea that is utterly intangible, but which somehow reflects how we, as a society,  feel at any given time.  If the ideal is a cultural construct, then the rounded politically aware humanity of Ralph Knibbs can be  a greater achievement than the dozens of caps gathered by some of his peers if we want it to be, if we can change our culture to prize more than just performance on the pitch.

In some ways this has drifted a long way from sport, and from the way in which queerness and gender variety challenges ideas of identity in sport, but it’s a journey worth making. The reality, that sporting performance is not a fixed reference point, but an arbitrary selection of one or more of the points where a multiplicity of factors intersect is a hugely useful metaphor for our personal identities.

I should declare an interest here; I am a competitive cyclist, possibly the worst competitive cyclist in the north east of England, by some distance. By my standards however, I am the best cyclist I can be, and, bearing in mind all that I am, and all I have been, I’m happy that I am as good as I can get to be. That is the goal I set myself, because it was the only goal I could achieve. What happens to all the athletes who set out to be the best in the world, and fail? Their fall back, the reserve position,is ’I did my best.’ Since I cannot control who is better than me, starting from that position makes the most sense to me.

The reality, that sporting performance is not a fixed reference point, but an arbitrary selection of one or more of the points where a multiplicity of factors intersect is a hugely useful metaphor for our personal identities.

Do we need to dethrone ideals, in pursuit of the personal? This week Nike threw a huge amount of resources, technology and money at the pursuit of a ‘barrier’ – the two hour record for the marathon. In the process they used aids and arrangements that were outside the boundaries and rules of organized athletics, so that even if Eliud Kipchoge had achieved Nike’s goal, it would not have been an official world record.

Doubtless the arrangement was financially beneficial for Kipchoge, but is this kind of sport, the distance running equivalent of parachuting from outer space to earth in order to sell more cans of Red Bull, a model of sporting participation that fits in a non binary, multi faceted world?

Follow Gareth on Medium (@garethdavies)

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