Where high brow meets high jump I

January 11, 2002

Science has entered the realm of motion - scholarly analyses of the forces, angles and vectors of what many of us came to appreciate as "natural" playground moves are rife throughout British universities. As are cultural, historical, philosophical and psychological examinations of sport, fitness and exercise. The disciplines incorporating the broader term sport science - biomechanics, exercise physiology, sport psychology, sport sociology - are thriving in the UK. They have more funding, more students, more journals, more everything than ever before.

Across Britain in the early 1980s there were fewer than ten qualifications in the sport sciences. Today there are close to 100, looking at everything from the biological, behavioural and social determinants of elite sport performance to moral issues such as homophobia, racism and drug use.

In the West, physical education was the first name for the academic study of movement. Physical education programmes, however, tended to be practically based. To gain acceptance as an academic subject, physical education had to demonstrate how its knowledge base derived from established scientific disciplines such as biology, physics and psychology. This led to a shift from studying movement as an experience to approaching sport and movement intellectually. Some believe this marginalisation of the body has led to a deeper separation between the mind and the body.

Most body-mind theorists assign the origin of the concept to the ancient Greeks, particularly Plato. This dualism with the mind controlling the body has had a strong impact on the nature of movement research as the science disciplines attempt to give the body equal status to the mind by operationally defining and coding our movement experiences. This can be dangerous. Some argue that scientists tend to examine the body as a purely mechanical, biologically programmed system that can be fully quantified and controlled, ignoring other aspects of the experience of sport and its interpretation.

But sport sciences do allow the translation of ephemeral action into a readable form - the cardiac output of an Olympic rower, the anxiety levels of golfers - so making it more easily understandable. However, the process is a selective one, governed by powerful stakeholders within and outside the academy who decide what knowledge is important.

"Social analyses of sport have always been tokenised," claims Jennifer Hargreaves of Brunel University. "This imbalance needs to be redressed because our physicality always involves cultural institutions - school, family, government - and individual sensations - fatigue, pain and pleasure."

There is a need for caution following the boom in sport-science degrees and qualifications. But positive changes are occurring across various communities as a result of these programmes. Adrian Taylor, a sport and exercise psychologist at De Montfort University, for example, has been studying how exercise can lessen the emotional impact of numerous diseases.

Sport-science programmes have also created an opportunity for young people who were otherwise uninterested in traditional subjects to study - and might eventually lead to a sports-related career.

As Hargreaves emphasises: "Sport is too central and vital to so many aspects of society and culture today, including health, politics and national and global economics. As much as any realm of human existence it needs to be continually studied, examined, questioned, analysed and understood."

Jim Denison's book, Moving Writing : Crafting Movement in Sport Research , is due out next year.

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