Extreme Bodies: Sports and Physical Limits

Words by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley

This term we adopted a new approach to ‘bodily boundaries’ by focusing on how and why people throughout history have sought to challenge the physical limits of their bodies through sport.

As our reading group made clear, defining sport is not as easy as it initially seems. The planned tactics, mental stamina and athleticism of a football game combine into an observable whole that we recognise instinctively as ‘sport’.  But must sport always include physical exertion and strength? Is it really more about strategy and technique? Or is it necessarily a combination of both? Where do non-team activities fit into the picture? Bodybuilding is particularly disputable: arguably, it involves tact regarding which exercises to undertake and which foods to eat to fuel muscle growth, but the physical achievement is primarily ascetic rather than athletic. Historian John McClelland sets up a useful dichotomy between ‘play’ and sport: the latter is distinct because it requires discipline and a spirit of competition.[1] But how then might we classify e-sports? This new world of competitive gaming offers huge financial prizes to ‘professional’ players. And there’s a vast market for these games, too, with the Overwatch World Cup in October 2018 attracting 2,000 live audience members and tens of thousands more online.[2] Athleticism, mental and physical effort, playfulness, and tactic, it seems, all have their place in our understanding of sport.  Definitions are culturally and historically relative.

With the history of sport emerging as an exciting new growth area in academia, questions of this kind have begun to receive greater attention. As social scientists have noted, sport sheds crucial light on the values embedded in societies, relating to trust, honesty and integrity, among others. It can act as a microcosm for historical attitudes to class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, since the rules and boundaries played out through sports can often be mapped onto those of society at large. In the early modern period, for example, historian Wolfgang Behringer argues that in a process of ‘sportification’, ball games developed out of military exercise and popular games into competitive sport. Ball games reflected a new ideal of gentlemanly behaviour, in which the commandment and elegance of the body was tantamount.[3] Sport offers further lines of inquiry when considered anthropologically; as conspicuous bodily display (the musculature of body-builders) or ‘time out’ behaviour (the violence-within-limits-feel of a rugby match). In a modern world devoid of many organised ritual practices, moreover, sport is an obvious arena in which public ritual endures. On the outskirts of the boxing ring, amidst the crowd of the football game, sport connects us to a history as long as humankind.


Reinhold Messner at Everest in 1978.

Over the course of the term, we heard from four researchers who are making significant contributions to the interdisciplinary study of sport, and unearthing fascinating historical trends. Firstly, the commercialisation of sport emerged as a key theme in our guest speaker session. In a lively paper entitled ‘A Single Gasping Lung: Everest Without Oxygen’, Professor Peter Hansen of Worcester Polytechnic Institute reflected on the long (and oft-forgotten) history of commercialised mountaineering. A slice of his wider research project, which aims to dismantle a cultural critique of very recent commercialisation on Everest (the charge that everything went wrong when climbers began ascending for sponsorship deals, round about the late twentieth century), Hansen’s paper argued convincingly that money and public acclaim have always been linked to this landscape. Even Reinhold Messner’s ascent in May 1978, accomplished dramatically and demonstrably without oxygen, required publicity and commercial backing from the outset. Messner claimed that mountaineering had descended into a kind of ‘piste alpinism’: he saw the use of oxygen as a form of doping that got in the way of the relationship between man and nature, preventing the true mastery of the former over the latter. Hansen argued that this rhetoric was in fact part of Messner’s own commercial strategy. Everest emerged from Hansen’s talk as a landscape suffused with ethics, past and present.

Dr Samantha-Jayne Oldfield, senior lecturer in Sport History and Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University, touched similarly on the theme of commercialisation in her case study of the development of pedestrianism (competitive race walking) in late-nineteenth-century Manchester. Although the history of athleticism was later re-written by middle-class amateurs, pedestrianism was at this time a popular working-class pastime. Cities and towns like Manchester developed into ‘sporting epicentres’, encouraged by a thriving public house network (the pub was a convenient space in which to forge business relationships) and a new demand for leisure. Again, Oldfield’s paper traced out continuities in sport’s commercialisation. Already in the late nineteenth century money-making extended to sports equipment and clothing; although the detail is often lost in black-and-white photographs, athletes regularly raced in their own colours, encouraging spectators to buy and wave coloured handkerchiefs in support.

Back in our reading group, Fletcher Linder’s auto-ethnography of body building introduced the theme of sport as aesthetic practice.[4] Conor Heffernan, PhD student at University College Dublin, offered historical insights into this theme with his paper entitled ‘Physical Culture and Fin de Siècle Muscle Building in Ireland’. Varied scholarship exists on Eugen Sandow (1867 – 1925), the pioneering German bodybuilder who posited that the ‘Grecian Ideal’ (as embodied in ancient Greek statues) was the aspirational male physique. Yet, as Heffernan noted, place-specific studies of physical culture as an historical social practice are lacking. Heffernan’s talk drew attention to the absence of the body in Irish scholarship on masculinity: he argued that physical culture, a body project performed in the presence of men and consciously oriented towards the male gaze, was a way for men to think through ideas of class and gender identity. In addition to watching Sandow’s ‘muscle display performances’, men would submit photographs of their own built- up bodies to physical culture magazines, seeking the approval of male editors and readers. The discussion reminded the group of a point made persuasively within gender theory: hypermasculinity is often on the borderline of homosociality, which in turn relates to boundaries of sexuality.


‘A New Sandow Pose (VIII)’ from Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture (1902).

Female gender identity is of course also tied to physical appearance, but less has been said about the importance of sport to women throughout history. A turn towards sporting femininities has been evident in recent years, and this sub-field of sport history has begun to flourish. PhD student Lydia Furse, for example, is currently undertaking a PhD project on the social and cultural history of women in Rugby Union from the late nineteenth century to the present.[5] We discussed the need for embodied research into contemporary male and female gym-going practices, particularly from the perspective of homosociality.

Another significant theme to emerge this term was sport’s clear relationship to regional and national identities. Sport has an incredible power to bind together groups of people, and to define the ‘other’. (One member of our group is an avid supporter of the Liverpool football team – despite not coming from Liverpool – and expressed real emotional investment in the highs and lows of the team’s career.) In our student paper session, Lewis Defrates, PhD student in history at Cambridge, presented a thought-provoking paper on the quintessentially- American sport, baseball. In August 1874, the Boston Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Blue Stockings embarked on the first ever American Baseball tour of Britain. They had been told that the north of England would be ripe for conversion to the novel sport, but the British didn’t take to Baseball, declaring it to be a child’s game, similar to rounders. National difference was marked in this encounter by the difference in sporting taste. Simultaneously, Americans were able to use movement through Britain to ‘formulate a sense of national self’, thus justifying an international tour that had proven profitless. The American team returned home to the American flag, an American pie, and a meal of nine courses in symbolism of the nine innings of American baseball.

As a research group focused on the historicised body, we came to the study of sport interested in the willingness of historical actors to stretch the body to its limits. We uncovered a whole host of reasons why people might seek to do this, whether to achieve a desired aesthetic, a sense of physical superiority, or for health reasons. However, it became clear that sport is much more than an individual’s manipulation of the physical; it is also a powerful tool of social cohesion, and it shifts in meaning and purpose across cultures and across time. The physical effect of sport on the body’s appearance, as well as the act of engaging in sport, relates strongly to the projection of identities and values, both of the individual and of groups. Sport relates not only to the athlete but to the audience, who may not physically ‘play’ the sport but are often a vital part of the game.  Underlying this, of course, are histories of exclusion from sports – there was a particular absence of attention given to female involvement in the sporting events discussed in our presentations. As we find so often in our discussions of the body, the history of sport relates to wider mechanisms of agency and power.

Many thanks to all our speakers this term – Conor Heffernan, Lewis Defrates, Dr Samantha-Jayne Oldfield and Professor Peter Hansen – and to those all who attended and contributed to our discussions. With additional thanks to Valerio Zanetti, and Nathaniel Zetter.


Food for thought: 

Behringer, Wolfgang, ‘The Invention of Sports: Early Modern Ball Games’, in Mallinckrodt, Rebecca Von, and Angela Schattner (eds), Physical Exercise in Early Modern Culture: New Perspectives on the History of Sports and Motion (London, 2016), pp. 21- 47.

Fletcher, Linder, “Life as Art, and Seeing the Promise of Big Bodies.” American Ethnologist, 34, (2007), pp. 451–472

Martschukat, Jürgen, “The Necessity for Better Bodies to Perpetuate Our Institutions, Insure a Higher Development of the Individual, and Advance the Conditions of the Race.” Physical Culture and the Formation of the Self in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century USA, Journal of Historical Sociology, 24 (2011), pp. 472-493.

McClelland, John, Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance (London, 2006), esp. cap. 1.

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina, ‘Building a British Superman: Physical Culture in Interwar Britain’, Journal of Contemporary History, 41, (2006), pp. 595 – 610.

[1] John McCelland, Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance (London, 2006), p.16.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/oct/12/playing-on-national-pride-on-the-road-at-the-overwatch-esports-world-cup (Accessed 21 December 2018).

[3] Wolfgang Behringer, ‘The Invention of Sports: Early Modern Ball Games’, Rebecca Von Mallinckrodt, and Angela Schattner (eds.), Physical Exercise in Early Modern Culture: New Perspectives on the History of Sports and Motion (London, 2016), pp. 21 – 47, esp. p. 46.

[4] Fletcher Linder, ‘Life as art, and seeing the promise of big bodies’, American Ethnologist, 34:3 (2007), pp. 451-472.

[5] https://worldrugbymuseum.blog/2017/12/18/women-in-rugby-union-a-story-worth-telling/ (Accessed 21 December 2018).


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