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Real Heroes Have Sharp Swords

Rayvon Fouché, Game Changer: the techno-scientific revolution in sports, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2017, pp. 262


A starting claim of Game Changer is that the impact of technology on sport in the last thirty years is on a different scale from anything previously. A great deal of the book covers the familiar issues of doping and the weaknesses of testing procedures, but there are also chapters on hydro-dynamic swimwear in particular and on changing sports technology in general. The careers of three individuals are discussed in detail: they are Lance Armstrong and two South Africans, Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius and the allegedly androgynous runner, Caster Semenya.

Thus the parts and much interesting material. As for the whole, Fouché’s thesis hangs on the assertion that technological change threatens some essential core in the value of sport. This value is defined by the belief that “an athletic body will always be vastly more important than any device in the final outcome of a sporting event” (p. 92). This belief is threatened by drugs. but also by many other forms of technology including metal baseball bats and springy basketball shoes.

Fouché often refers to the ideal of a fair competition between athletic bodies as an “illusion” and a “myth”. But it is also, surely, a straw man and an unattractive one at that. Our house contains dozens of age-group level trophies won in several sports by myself and our three sons. We all developed much earlier than our contemporaries: the distribution of genes is at least as “unfair” as that of technology.

So I am inclined to think that Fouché’s problem is not a coherent one. He says that, “We have invested deeply in the heroic narrative of athletic prowess . . . ” But who are “we”? The first part of the answer is those close to the bio-mchanical sports such as running, swimming and cycling (the author’s own sport), where the body acts as a machine performing a simple task as efficiently as possible; these sports are often obsessed with records, which are merely a curiosity in more complex (and much more popular) sports such as football and cricket, which are not vulnerable to technological change in the same way. It is interesting that Fouché includes Lionel Messi on a list of the “athletically gifted”. No he isn’t: although he famously was given growth hormone to compensate for his tiny stature, he is still not big or strong or fast. He is extremely skilled, which is different.

The other sense of “we” is Americans. John Hoberman portrays American sports culture as “Germanic” in that it sees physical prowess as of value in itself, whereas other cultures, including English, see sport as a test and expression of “character”. A linguistic clue is that Americans often refer to “athletes” where we would say “sportsmen”. Thus we have many football fans who accept the game is 90% about money, F1 fans who accept their sport is 90% about the car and racing fans who know it’s 90% about horse breeding. The room for heroism lies in the 10% space, using the cards you’ve been dealt. But think of the origins of modern sport: the idea of the heroic medieval knight as transmitted to us by Sir Walter Scott, Tom Hughes and Pierre De Coubertin. Winners were always those with the sharpest swords and the most impenetrable armour; heroes were those who commanded the archers whose bows could shoot the furthest. T’was ever thus


Lincoln Allison

(This review was published in Times Higher Education in 2017.)