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Amodern 3: Sport and Visual Culture
October 2014


Jonathan Finn

Much of our knowledge of and experience with sport comes to us in mediated form. Newspapers, television broadcasts, film, sports magazines and other sports-related media present us with an unceasing flow of visual, textual and oral information related to sport. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras and user-driven devices like GPS watches and Go-Pro cameras enable athletes and fans alike to produce, disseminate and analyze their own sports content. The result is a seemingly limitless flow of sport media on everything from Tim-Bits hockey to the FIFA World Cup.

Within the aggregate field of mediated sport, this special issue of Amodern is concerned with the visual, and more specifically with the image. Sports and images intersect in myriad ways: images are used as pedagogical tools in sport as they are produced, circulated and read by coaches, athletes, trainers and sports medicine professionals; they are used as juridical tools that either replace or augment the human eye in sporting events; they serve commercial purposes as in television and print advertising; they are used as entertainment in television, film and on-line; and they form an essential part of visual culture as they are manifest in visual art, pop culture and other forms of visual culture production. Importantly, whether pedagogical, juridical, commercial, aesthetic or otherwise, images of sport are constituent components of culture: they are bound to cultural conceptions of class, race, nation and gender and are enmeshed in the fundamental economic and institutional infrastructures of society.

Despite the centrality and importance of the visual in sport, treatment of the topic has remained relatively sporadic and isolated. The visual in sport has been taken up by scholars in fields ranging from the history, philosophy, and/or sociology of sport, to visual culture studies and communication studies; however, when the visual is addressed, it is often treated in only a nominal sense. To date, the only rigorous, comprehensive account of sport and the visual is Mike Huggins’ and Mike O’Mahony’s 2011 special issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport as well as their subsequent edited book, The Visual in Sport (Routledge 2011). Thus the rationale for this special issue of Amodern is to continue the still nascent investigation of sport and the visual in hopes of contributing to this developing field of inquiry.

This special issue began as panel on Sport and Visual Culture for the 2013 Cultural Studies Association annual conference. Not all of the panelists are represented here and not all of the projects and papers here were part of the panel. The material included here interrogates the visual in sport as it is tied to politics, economics, identity and embodiment and in so doing brings new questions to sport studies, visual culture studies and related fields. The works offer a range of theoretical and methodological perspectives but all problematize the relationship between sport and its images.

The issue opens with a feature interview with the (Art) Historian and Philosopher and Historian of Science, Ludmilla Jordanova. The interview took the form of a conversation based on Jordanova’s most recent book, The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice (Cambridge, 2012). Although the book, and Jordanova’s work more broadly, does not take sport as its subject of study, the author’s emphasis on a careful, rigorous analysis of and engagement with the visual as part of doing research is as relevant to the study of sport as it is to history, which is the primary subject of the book. Jordanova’s insightful, honest and sometimes provocative comments in the interview will prompt readers and researchers to be more cognizant and self-reflexive in their own use of visual material.

Richard Gruneau’s essay follows the interview and offers an historical overview of the ‘politics of representation’ at work in the development of modern sport in England. Borrowing ideas initially outlined by Pierre Bourdieu, Gruneau sets out to explore the processes whereby sport came to be understood as its own autonomous ‘object’ in English culture. Where sport was increasingly found in artistic, literary and philosophical representations during the 16th and 17th centuries, he argues that it wasn’t until the 18th century that sport began to emerge as a central object of both artistic and textual representations. Gruneau ties this emergence to a changing socio-economic context that had distinct political and aesthetic dimensions. In the former, Gruneau situates the visual culture of sport as participating in the then developing tension between the gentry of the English countryside and the more working-class populations of its urban centres. In the latter, the author notes that the visual culture of sport in England was increasingly shaped by a ‘bourgeois will to refinement’ and regulation. In this way, the making of modern sport was harmonized with a broader project of modernity. An important part of this project was the invention of ‘sport’ as a seemingly autonomous and timeless cultural form with its own essential qualities. However, Gruneau notes how the newly imagined conception of sport borrowed strongly from Classical ideals of beauty and symmetry to project the idealized body as one with distinctly athletic features. This necessarily worked in conjunction with both the politics of nineteenth century British capitalism and Empire as well as with a larger Foucauldian project of discipline and regulation. Images of modern sport in England then, didn’t just represent the modernization of the nation and its sport but helped to shape each through powers of visual communication.

Like Gruneau’s, Robin Veder’s essay is concerned with the modernist period; however, Veder’s essay is more specifically focused on turn of the century American avant-garde art. The author opens with the provocative claim that the founding of the American Posture League in 1913 should be seen as of equal importance to the famous Armory Show of the same year. What follows is an examination of the parallels and connections between American Modernist art and the contemporaneous development of physical culture and physical education in the United States. Using the metaphor of the skeleton, Veder argues that both of these fields – art and physical education – were concerned with visualizing form and structure and with cultivating a kinesthetically empathetic response. She notes a growing connection between physical education and the arts and asserts that the era gave rise to “a period eye and a period body.” In doing so Veder makes a compelling case for the bond between art and sport in the development of a modernist aesthetic.

Where the traditional visual arts are the subject of the first two essays, the third, by Russell Field, addresses contemporary Canadian film. Specifically, Field examines two recent Canadian sport films – Score: A Hockey Musical and Breakaway to address the myth of hockey as a signifier of Canadian national identity. Field finds promise in both films to critique or interrogate this myth, particularly its gendered and racialized components. The musical format of Score and the main character’s emphasis on skill over violence offer possible disruptions to the traditional view of the game. And in Breakaway Field notes that the focus on the immigrant experience – in this particular case a Sikh-Canadian hockey team – opens up a potential critique of the racialized nature of ‘Canada’s game.’ However, in both cases Field argues that the films come up short, ultimately preaching assimilation rather than resistance or critique with the result that hockey’s gendered and racialized characteristics remain in tact.

The final two essays of the special issue take up the relationship between sport, images and embodiment. Anu M. Vaittinen’s essay addresses the role of the visual in shaping coaches’ and athletes’ knowledge in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Vaittinen combines participant observation research with interviews in two North East England MMA gyms to address the visual in ‘ways of knowing MMA.’ She examines television, print media and the Internet (including social media) as key sites through which transnational information flows are utilized in building discrete, local knowledges of the sport. The author stresses the need for ethnographic approaches in addressing the visual and sport as a way to move beyond the more typical treatment of images as texts. As she shows, MMA fighters and coaches are not passive consumers of visual content but actively critique, debate, produce and disseminate visual material as they build their own embodied knowledge of the sport.

Like Vaittinen’s, Lianne McTavish’s and Patrick J. Reed’s project employs ethnographic research; however, in this case it is an auto-ethnography of McTavish’s transformation into a figure girl competitor. The piece included here is part of McTavish’s larger project of the Feminist Figure Girl in which she documented and wrote about her experience training to be a figure girl competitor. The photographer, Patrick J. Reed, worked alongside McTavish documenting the often mundane and banal realities of body-building and figure competition from nutrition and training to costume design and the application of spray-tan. The result is a ‘photo-dialogue’ that does more than present a behind-the-scenes view of figure girl competitions; instead, the images and McTavish’s and Reed’s commentary offer up reflections on biopower, aesthetics, feminism, and body politics. As a result the project further underlies the productive potential for creative, ethnographic approaches in addressing sport and the visual.

This special issue has very much been a labour of love and I want to thank Ludmilla, Rick, Robin, Russell, Anu, Lianne, and Patrick for their contributions and conversations. Thanks to Scott Pound and Darren Wershler for their initial support of the project and to Michael Nardone for making it all happen.



“Looking into the Past,” An Interview with Ludmilla Jordanova, by Jonathan Finn

Richard Gruneau, “Aesthetics and the Politics of Representation: The Making of Modern English Sport”

Robin Veder, “Seeing the Skeleton and Feeling the Form”

Russell Field, “Toques and Turbans, Sticks and Show Tunes: Incorporating the ‘Other’ in Canadian Hockey Films”

Anu Vaittinen, “Intersections: Ways of Knowing Mixed Martial Arts and Visual Culture”

Lianne McTavish and Patrick J. Reed, “Feminist Figure Girl: A Photographic Dialogue” 

Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Image: from Animal Locomotion
Eadweard Muybridge