Where high brow meets high jump II

January 11, 2002

There can be no doubting the popularity of sports science as a subject to study at undergraduate level in Britain. Many are interested in it because of its multidisciplinary nature. Unfortunately, the persistence of a western dualistic tradition that sees humans as being divisible into two parts - one the body, as something lesser than the other, the mind - has led to anything deemed essentially "physical" or "practical" being seen as questionably academic.

As a result, examining boards have been especially rigorous in their scrutiny of syllabuses and examinations. The consequence is a more constrained subject. Many sports academics are themselves to blame. Eager to win respect and credibility among sceptical colleagues, they have courted ties and relationships with faculties of science or, better still, medicine, to the detriment of a wider holistic approach.

This trend in narrowing the focus of sports science has been reinforced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's policy of placing it in band C unless the high level of "scientific" input qualifies it for band B funding. As a consequence, arts, humanities and some social-science perspectives have been sidelined.

This process originated in the 1970s as courses in sports science - as opposed to BEds in physical education - began to develop. The fact that most of these degree courses emerged out of the old polytechnics, under the scrutiny of the Council for National Academic Awards, led to the gradual elimination of components in comparative cultural studies, the anthropology, history and philosophy of sport.

The recent trend has been for more specialist courses, such as degrees in sports materials, sports engineering and biomechanics. The emphasis on research in the old universities has also had an impact. While drug companies and equipment, food and drink manufacturers were keen to assist athletes using their products to run faster, jump higher and throw further to sell their wares, and governing bodies of sport were keen to know how to identify and nurture talent in young boys and girls, there was no one interested in funding research associated with the efficacy of what was going on in the world of sport.

Issues such as the effects of the intense regimes on children's development, the long-term effects on large numbers of young athletes who drop out to become sports stars only to be labelled as failures, and the historical use of sport as a mechanism of social control have failed to attract adequate research funding because funding bodies have viewed them as peripheral to their core activities. Increasingly, the only opportunity for an undergraduate interested in sport from an arts, humanities or social sciences perspective has been "leisure studies" or leisure management courses.

It is true that most sports science courses include sports psychology, but again the focus is on acquiring and developing skills, focusing on the task at hand, arousing motivation or managing stress and anxiety with a view to optimising performance. The tide will turn, however, at least in a few forward-thinking institutions. The task will be to balance depth and specialised preparation with a broader outlook.

Despite lottery funding for new facilities, generous grants that allow athletes to train full time, the importation of proven foreign coaches (to head all but one Olympic sport in Britain) and other initiatives, there has been a failure to produce the desired international success in sports such as athletics, swimming and football. This all points to a need for academics to examine the cultural background of sport more closely.

A cost-benefit analysis shows that investment in sport is simply not working. Our footballers are among the highest paid in the world, our young stars cosseted with support in every imaginable way, yet, comparatively speaking, the returns are poor.

What then might be usefully embraced within a university degree/research programme? To be well rounded, a sports scientist should not only know how humans move and what will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of that movement, but why they are interested in taking part in sport.

It is odd that someone can have devoted the best part of their lives to perfecting, for example, how to throw an odd-shaped object without any obvious utilitarian purpose, without knowing the origins of how it came to be, what it symbolised in the past and in today's international arena, the expectations and values wrapped up in the perceptions or beliefs of those willing them to win and the economic, political, psychological, social consequences of them winning or losing.

Moral issues have challenged the practice of sport from time immemorial. Socrates, for example, had much to say about athletes' behaviour in ancient Greece. Today, there are significant issues that surround the morality of how children are taught to play games at school, the way some coaches abuse youngsters, physically and/or mentally to achieve their ends.

Who could justify that boxing has been a good thing for Muhammed Ali's long-term health or that it is beneficial to feed tissue paper to young female gymnasts as a way of satisfying their hunger without them putting on weight? Surely these are issues that should be raised as part of any sports professional's training.

Anthropologists have aided our understanding of fandom, violence on the terraces and, on a more fundamental basis, of the symbolic frameworks in which athletic sports can and do occur. The cult of athleticism has never been more widespread than in public schools in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. This ideology served a number of socio-political-economic ends, promulgated and upheld through practices best explained through social anthropology.

Even today's phenomena such as mass participation in aerobics or marathon running cannot be adequately explored or developed without considering the factors contributing towards their origins and popularity. The historical study of sport in Britain is especially important given that it is a critical feature of our cultural heritage and our major cultural export to the rest of the world. Pastimes ranging from horse racing to yachting were invented by the British, and their rules, notions of sporting fairness and other related issues can all be explained through an understanding of British history. Moreover, had sport history been researched more thoroughly, the many myths on which Corinthian traditions of sport have been based, for example, would have been put to rest. Unfortunately, these are so ingrained in our culture that many have become common metaphors. More radically, perhaps we would have invented more new sports and revived some of the more educationally oriented traditional games of the past.

A historical perspective would certainly have helped us to understand the persistence in British society of supporting the underdog. Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards remains one of our most memorable performers in the winter Olympic Games, despite his pathetic achievements compared with the competition. Had more sports students been aware of Plato's or Europhides' criticisms of the excesses of sport - "in their youth they strut about in splendour, the idols of their city, but when old age comes upon them they are cast aside like worn-out cheats" - perhaps they would have focused on more rounded, as opposed to specialist, development. In other words, no informed debate of sport can occur without reference to history.

A final irony is that, while sports departments have dropped the arts and humanities side of sport, departments of anthropology, literature, history and sociology have embraced sport with open arms. They have used it to illustrate and illuminate our understanding of societies past and present and it is a component of popular courses at several universities.

It is time universities started to reflect on the components and balance of their courses in sports science. The winning of nine gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games represented a slight upturn in the nation's sporting fortunes and many felt confident that they had got things right. However, following hard on its heels have been disappointments at the World Athletics Championship and at the cycling championships.

The foundations of England's cricket and football teams remain shaky and Scotland and Wales's recent defeats on home soil by Argentina highlight only too clearly that all is not well. Perhaps England's performance in this year's World Cup or the nation's performance in Athens 2004 will be regarded as the true acid test, after which we will see the reintroduction of a wider sports-science curriculum in higher education.

Richard Cox is director of sport at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, vice-president of the International Society for the History of Sport and co-editor of the recent Encyclopaedia of British Sport .

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