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Professional athletics seems to have inherent cultural problems that have gone somewhat unnoticed and unchanged for decades. The history of Track and Field is rooted deep in Eurocentric, white, male-dominated beliefs and behaviours, unlike the current demography of sports. Especially since the Americas and African nations (all of which have very diverse populations) dominate Track and Field, these values need to be left behind. The extensive control that World Athletics (the governing body of Track and Field) exercises over their athletes illustrates the concept of Bio-power. The changes to the Diamond League programme are a prime example of a lack of progressiveness in the sport. If World Athletics wishes to successfully evolve past a Usain Bolt-centric marketing strategy, upsetting some of their current, most successful athletes of all time is not the best way to begin the journey.
Track and field, as an event, is rooted deep in the history of organized sport and the modern Olympic Games. The first modern Olympic Games, held in 1896, began the escapade of expanding the sport onto an international platform outside of Europe and the United States. One would have to speculate that the British Commonwealth was a large reason for the current popularity of the sport. Back in 2010, the Diamond League competition circuit was created as a way to give track and field a competitive season rather than the independent meet format it had operated with for so long. The prize money for winning the finals was some of the largest amounts of money a track and field athlete could win, and the money being invested into the organization began to show, as countries like Qatar, Morocco started to host meets. This is becoming a popular trend in athletics where middle eastern countries invest large amounts of money into building state-of-the-art facilitates for track and field events, and in return get to host international meets like the world championships (took place in Doha, Qatar in October 2019) that they would have never been able to or wanted to host before.
The controversy regarding the 2020 Diamond League programme headlined the news recently and caused an up-roar amongst the sport’s community. It was announced that four events (200 m, triple jump, discus throw, and 3000 m steeplechase) would all be completely removed from the Diamond League programme, aside from the odd competition at one or two mid-season meets. There have been many reasons given as to why these events were removed, but the main reason is that they were the least popular in terms of television ratings within the last few years. This newly compacted programme is said to be more television friendly, as World Athletics is attempting to make meets more primetime friendly, hoping it will further pique the interest of the viewers that do not normally watch Track and Field. After Usain Bolt retired, there was a huge hole left in the track and field world as the main event star wasn’t there to carry the popularity. Now, World Athletics is trying to change the building blocks of the sport to make it more appealing. The unfortunate part of this idea is that by eliminating these events, the organization has shut out 20% of the athletes that would be competing next season, as some 200 m runners, and almost all discus throwers, triple jumpers and steeplechase runners do not compete in other events.
The sport of Track and Field, having just lost Usain Bolt and trying to increase its popularity to a level larger than ever before, is facing challenges on how to accomplish this task. The athletes are the unfortunate party being forced to pay the price of a difficult to manage sport, as they lack the representation to have a part in deciding their futures. This paper will look at the various cultures, beliefs and values that are inherent in World Athletics, and propose ideas and potential reasons for the actions the governing bodies of Track and Field.
Most of these recent changes to the sport’s identity have come on the back of Usain Bolt retiring. Usain Bolt was the superstar sprinter in the Track and Field world for the past 10-15 years and made it easy for World Athletics (IAAF at the time) to market the sport. Major championships were programmed around Bolt’s events while he was successful. The same way Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA, Usain Bolt and his Jamaican relay team dominated the Track and Field. No one since Bolt has truly stepped up and taken his place as the sport’s star athlete. There are many Americans who are achieving results close to the level of Bolt, but the fame and notoriety factor was just as important to his success. All-in-all, Bolt’s retirement began the downward spiral of Track and Field’s notoriety in the sports world, and thus World Athletics are now beginning to exercise their power to change the sport as they see fit.
The main course concept that this issue relates to is Bio-power. Bio-power is defined as the way a governing body controls the physical lives and experiences of its members through practice and constraints. Firstly, track and field is already a very constrained sport by nature. The way that throwers are limited to a small 7 or 8-foot circle and relay teams are forced to run and pass the baton within the certain boundaries is very controlling. Track and Field athletes are expected to showcase the purest form of athletic abilities such as strength and speed, but only if they comply with the rules of the sport. I understand that the only way to truly measure success against another person is to place them both under the same conditions, and I’m not saying that doing this is wrong, however, certain rules discriminate against certain athletes and their body’s. The size of the shot put circle forces tall throwers to shorten their step across the circle. As well, the height of hurdles discriminates against shorter athletes who likely would not be as successful due to the physical disadvantage. Both elements of Bio-power (the discourse of the body as a machine and the species body of a population) are called upon in these limitations set on the body.
Track and Field, being that it is African-dominated in the distance events and American Caribbean-dominated in the sprint events, has some inherent racism engrained in its culture. Track and Field is a very European dominated sport. Between the mostly British commentating team (who are known to say some sexist and racist things), the mostly European governing body, and the consistently high ratings and fan interest lying in Europe, the xenophobic nature of many European countries often find their way into the sport. I am not saying that these are the main reasons behind any actions of World Athletics, as it would be slightly obvious if any discriminatory actions were taking place. However, Triple Jump, 200 metres and steeplechase are all dominated by black athletes due to the countries that tend to be the most successful in those events. Racism or discrimination is most likely not the reason behind the change in Diamond League programme, however, the likelihood of a historically European driven sport having racist tendencies is likely, and other aspects of the sport my be heavily impacted by this fact. Thus, the power athletes possess in their sporting careers is immediately shifted away from them due to these racist tendencies. The stereotypes such as biologic superiority, primitiveness in sport and in black people’s nature, and the fixation that sport can save a North American black person from hardship all take the power away from these athletes and allow for the governing body to reclaim it and abuse it.
Young’s ideas about the animal-sport complex made me think if this complex applies to human athletes. Young says that animals have been apart of sport for most of history and that humans look at them as competitors, but as lesser due to the speciesism of human culture. I feel as though this view applies to all human athletes in general. Professional athletes performing their sport could be viewed as circus animal-like based upon a variety of things. For example, the layout of sports arenas (the stands being higher with the playing surface in the middle), betting on the results of games, and the fact that athletes are controlled by other people in the form of referees and governing bodies of all remove a certain amount of human characteristic from an athlete. And so all sports, and especially track and field, have the tendency to display athletes in an animalistic way. Track and Field athletes display a level of pure athletic ability, such as speed and/or strength is unlike any sport. Horse and dog racing are the best and closest comparisons to track races, thus offering evidence that humans are viewed as animals when competing in a purely athletic skill-based event like running, jumping or throwing.
The repercussions of eliminating certain events from the programme involve the potential lost earning of many athletes. Diamond League events provide consistently highest payouts to successful athletes compared to almost all Track and Field competitions. Athletes are not only disappointed that they won’t be able to compete in this major event, but the most talented athletes now have to forfeit some earnings that they surely would have received. Grossberg (1989) makes the point that power structures social life in all of its forms.
Power, namely the power the governing body possesses, can shape structural inequalities into the limiting or productive image that they desire. The blatant lack of fair treatment across events has been evident since track and field became a mainstream sport. As a thrower, I have experienced the described inequality for many years. Instances such as not having people watch your event and only watch the sprints, being forced to throw outside of the stadium due to the lack of proper infrastructure for field events, or not making national teams because sprinters can compete in multiple events but most javelin throwers cannot do so care some of the ways that throwers are sidelined due to power structures. The same thing occurs in professional athletics as well. Often, field events are not broadcasted on television because there is always a track event that takes viewing priority over a field event. Ideally, these inequities would change, but the design of field events compared to track events is not as exciting or time-efficient to watch, and so the power structure of track and field may remain imbalanced forever.
Most of the ideas in this paper are based upon my personal experiences as a track and field athlete on the varsity team and as a big fan of the professional athletics. Athletes neglect to think about their own involvement in their sport’s culture and the implications of their daily actions as athletes. I find that every team has unique values and morals that are created from a variety of features (like coaching dynamic), and the microcosm of a university team represents the entire organization and sport of with which a team is associated. Even though the connection of the track and field team to the University of Toronto changes the culture and environments of the team, the large scale power structures and design of the sport have the heaviest impact on our experiences. Future research could utilize interviews from employees or former employees that would want to give truthful testimonials regarding the culture of World Athletics and all other Track and Field associations.
The cultural analysis of any professional sport naturally creates ideas that would ideally be applied to the entire sport’s culture. Therefore, any suggestions made are more difficult to accomplish due to the large scale changes that would need to occur. However, the easiest and most effective change that can be made is making an athletes association like all of the major sports leagues already have. Allowing athletes to be represented within their sport’s governing body can create fair power structures for athletes and allow for less control of the sport’s species body to occur.
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