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Chasing perfection

Chasing Perfection with Michael Johnson unveils the progressive world of sports science technologies and what shapes champions’ progress.

About this co-commission

Chasing Perfection, authored by one of the world’s most successful athletes, Michael Johnson looks at how sports science has changed immeasurably in the last 20 years. The two-part series seeks to explore how that change in sports science has impacted on the world of professional sport, and what role it plays in creating exceptional athletes, does it define the difference between great and world beating athletes and is it the answer to achieving perfection in sport?

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Champions Talk

Delve into the progressive world of sport science and techniques used by 'serial champions' including Michael Johnson, Chris Hoy, AP McCoy and many more.

What makes a champion?

3 mins 7

A number of 'serial winners' including Ronnie O’Sullivan, AP McCoy and Dame Sarah Storey talk about the discipline, temperament and focus it takes to become a champion. 

Chris Hoy’s experiences of using sport psychology

5 mins 49

Chris Hoy discusses his mind-set to Olympic success and how seeking sports psychology can allow athletes to be as prepared as possible when going for gold.

Michael Johnson on early childhood specialisation

4 mins 2

Is it better for children to focus on one sport or a range of sports? Michael Johnson hears experts’ and athletes’ views on childhood specialisation.

The sleep secrets of British Cycling

4 mins 42

Sir Dave Brailsford, who coached GB cycling to 8 Olympic Golds, and Nick Littlehales, sleep coach, talk about the importance of recovery in sleep.

Steve Peters on managing athletes’ emotions

2 mins 52

Steve Peters, sports psychiatrist, talks about his approach when it comes to understanding an elite athlete’s mind and how to get them to function more optimally.

Injury rehab in rugby: keeping it personal with devices and data

4 mins 10

Alex Sanderson, forwards coach, Tom Sherriff, sports scientist and Joe Collins, head of medical, outline the technological resources available to injured players at Saracens RFC.

What sporting future? Risks and rewards

5 mins 26

Michael Johnson hears from sporting professionals on what they think the future of sport is, especially in an age when technology is advancing rapidly. 

Recovery: the next frontier in sporting progress?

6 mins 5

Your ability to train is only as good as your ability to recover from it. Experts in sport science show the recovery strategies, technologies and science used in sports.

What’s Social about Chasing the Perfect Sporting Body?

Is it possible to push your sporting performance to its maximum potential regardless of social inequalities? Kath Woodward discusses...

Two women in a boxing ring. They are both wearing protective gear and are mid-fight.

In the run up to the London Olympics in 2012, in This sporting life: making connections, I argued that sport involves much more than spectacular performance and competition, it is also deeply embedded in social relations. Central to my argument is the claim that sport is not only brilliant entertainment and a set of enjoyable pursuits, but sport also reflects and, most importantly generates social, political, cultural and economic relations. Sport offers opportunities for success and for transcending the limitations of the body. Not all bodies are equal or treated equally in sport which is also about social inequalities and social divisions. It is not always a fair playing field and sport creates as well as reflects social divisions such as those based on gender, ethnicity and where you are in the world.

Sport is a particularly embodied set of activities. Bodies are central to sport through engaging with others in the collective enterprise of teamwork and competition as well as in recognizing the potential of one’s own body and the pleasure and exhilaration of athleticism, even at non-competitive levels, or just for the pleasure of physical activity. Enfleshed selves and the embodied practices of sport combined with personal investment and the passions which sport inspires are what make it so relevant in the social world.

Sport also generates some of the most advanced technological, scientific and psychological interventions in improving performance, albeit mostly targeted at elite athletes, although mobile technologies and smart phones may offer some democratization of training techniques.  Mostly the hi tech training mechanisms, such as those at centres such as Michael Johnson’s in Dallas  focus upon those with resources to finance the training and he potential to become top athletes.

Some bodies matter more than others and the rewards of elite athletes are enormous. Whilst governments claim to invest in the promotion of active citizens through the development of sport in different communities and at grass roots levels, some bodies seem to be more worthwhile as investments than others.

One of the most commonly invoked references at the London Olympics was legacy. The £9.3 billion spent on the games promised wider participation and a fitter population.  The aim was that we would all be inspired by the performance of elite athletes  and we would all want some of the action and as a result achieve a the benefits of collective physical activity. The promise of this aspect of the Olympic legacy has largely been unrealized, however and spending on grass roots participation has been cut and not increased .

There have been shifts in attitudes, such as those arising from the inclusion of women’s boxing as an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012; at last the women’s game was treated seriously  but such incremental changes in the ways in which bodies are understood and represented does not necessarily make for large scale transformations and still less it seems for mass participation in sport.

It seems that spectatorship of the mega event has not generated the desire to join in as much as might have been expected. This phenomenon demonstrates one of the contradictions in sports policies and the governance of sport; following sport and its elite participants does not necessarily lead to wider engagement and governments which seek to promote the benefits of healthy minds and healthy bodies among the wider population may have to chose between investment in elites and putting its money into grass roots, community participation.

Chasing perfection and at least improving embodied performance is a possibility for  everyone but the odds are still stacked against some bodies and corporeality in sport is always social inflected.

The Rules of the Game

How do governing bodies of sport ensure fair play on and off the pitch? Kath Woodward investigates...

A photograph of Sepp Blatter

Asian FC  under CC-BY-2.0  licence under Creative-Commons  license

At a time when sport, and football in particular, is beset by crises which appear to involve breaking the rules, the need to regulate sport and secure compliance with the standards set by the governance of sport, for example through sporting regulatory bodies, seems ever more important. FIFA is in disarray following the suspension of its president Sepp Blatter and his heir apparent Michel Platini. Blatter is charged with corruption , which represents rule breaking at its most extreme, even suggesting criminality. Rule breaking on this scale and at this level attracts the headlines and critical analyses of investigative journalists like Andrew Jennings and commentators like Sunder Katwala but sport is all about rules and they operate at all levels.

Sport is big business, but because of its associations with play and the passion and personal investment it inspires in fans and participants, it occupies an uneasy relationship with the ethics and regulation of sport.

Rules are central to sport. One of the criteria by which a set of activities is defined a sport is a framework of agreed rules. There are however, different sorts of rules; the formal rules of the governing bodies of sport, such as FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football) and the IOC (International Olympics Committee) both of which have themselves been subject to serious investigations of rule breaking and even corruption) and the informal rules which are embedded in sporting practice on the pitch. Playing by the rules is more complicated. The rules have to be agreed on the pitch or track, in the ring, or in the pool, but not only can the rules be broken, they can be changed and re-interpreted.

As global sport becomes more and more competitive and commercialized, the rewards of success place greater pressure on participants especially at elite levels, who are chasing perfection. Contradictions between discourses of fair play and the promotion of social inclusion and citizenship through sporting participation on the one hand and intense competition and the enormous pressure to succeed, especially at elite levels on the other underpin the blurring of boundaries between keeping to the rules and breaking them. In a climate of ever more scientific and technological advances on sports science, especially in the most affluent countries of the world, it is not always clear when interventions are against the rules. Running sports programmes from Silicon Valley may offer unfair advantages to the most prosperous nations may be unfair in that they are so inequitable.

A photograph of Oscar Pistorius running on a track

Elvar Freyer  under CC-BY  licence under Creative-Commons  license

The advances of technoscience also create new problems. For example, the enhancement of the performance of Paralympians raises questions about where they should be competing, in the Paralympics or in the Olympics, so great is the improvement offered by prosthetic limbs and other technical devices. The rules may have to change. Regulatory bodies have to be attentive to the ways in which sporting bodies are changing in different ways. Whilst sport is presented as leading to healthy bodies as well as healthy minds and demographic trends on the whole suggest good nutrition and playing sport has led to increased height, female gymnasts appear to have got shorter . The more competitive sport becomes, the more ruthless the pursuit of success.

The chasm between the everyday engagement with sport, especially as promoted by governments for the achievement of well being and the health benefits for individuals and elite competition has become more marked.  There is a fine line between the legitimate practices and intensive training, which are part of the everyday lives of elite athletes and pharmaceutical interventions aimed at enhanced performance. The use of drugs has become routine in much top level sport as well as being almost ubiquitous in particular sports like cycling.

Drug taking as a form of rule breaking also highlights the unequal playing field of contemporary competitive global sport. Ideas about democratic wider participation remain a powerful element of the discourse of the governance and rhetoric of sport. Such ideals of fair play and the promotion of social inclusion and cohesion and providing equal opportunities seem incompatible with corruption and rule breaking.

The governing bodies of sport have great responsibilities in endeavouring to ensure justice and fair play on and off the pitch.  Critical analysis and exposes of malpractice and of a range of transgressions have led to these regulatory bodies smartening up their acts, such as the IOC did after the scandal of Salt Lake City. Fair play is possible but the rules and those bodies, which formulate them have to be reactive to changing times and above all to be transparent in their practices and their organisation and to keep asking questions about fair play and what sort of advantages are the winners getting over the losers. Sport is social and political and it is only by recognizing the operation of power that the rules will work.

Meet the experts

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Kath WoodwardDepartment of SociologyVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photo of Professor Kath Woodward
Kath WoodwardDepartment of Sociology

Professor Kath Woodward is part of the Department of Sociology at The Open University

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