Last post I talked about the marathon boom, and how it’s being driven by women Not coincidentally, I think, within the marathon community there has been a controversy about the boom, and whether or not the “slow” runners (those who take anywhere from four to seven hours to finish the race, thus running from a 10-minute to a sixteen-minute mile pace) really count as serious runners (a sixteen-minute pace is, after all, as slow as or slower than walking). See the New York Times article about the controversy: Faster runners believe that running a marathon entails running a marathon–running the entire length at a fast pace, racing rather than merely participating.  Those in the slower group argue that participation is the point, and that speed is beside the point.  They run just to finish, and to have a good time.  As marathon numbers have swelled, primarily driven by the slower runners, the more competitive runners feel like their efforts are demeaned by those who participate but, for instance, stop to have lunch along the route, and that the marathon has become a social event rather than an athletic competition.  From the competitor’s perspective, the idea that “anyone can run a marathon” detracts from their distinctiveness as serious athletes.

An historical perspective that the debate has not incorporated suggests that these two conflicting attitudes, the competitive and the participatory, have a long cultural history that earlier split along gendered lines due to the gender role expectations of the early twentieth century.  According to historian Susan K. Cahn, in the U.S. in the 1920’s, women physical educators advocated an inclusive, participatory model of sport where the object was not to win, but enjoy oneself and better one’s health through participation.  This was a deliberate counter to the competitive sport model practiced by male athletic leaders, for whom winning was the bottom line  Of course there were women who were very competitive, and men who just wanted to participate, but the dominant attitude was that competition was for “real” athletes, while those who participated were wanna-be athletes at best.  This historical perspective raises interesting questions today:  what counts as athleticism?  Is participation enough?  Is sport a democratic, inclusive institution, or one based on the principles of competition, which necessarily involves exclusion?  Both?

I would argue that there is a third alternative we might consider as well.  While the competitive model of sport involves an internal focus while training, concentration on one’s breathing, pace, heart rate, etc., based around improving one’s performance, and the participatory model tends to involve an external focus, concentration on one’s surroundings or companions and enjoying the activity, there is an approach to sport than incorporates both of these ideas and that has links to the idea of sport as a form of spiritual practice.  I’ll call this the immersive model of sport–one in which sport is approached as a vehicle through which, as Professor Shirl James Hoffman puts it in the foreword to Sport and Spirituality, we “shape our spirits and create alternative realities and states of consciousness” (xi).  Sport experienced as an immersive practice can involve competition–training hard to perform your best–but it can also involve the joy of sheer participation, an appreciation of the body in movement, a way to step out of the ordinary frenzy of our daily lives filled with the barrage of things to get done and instead experience pure absorption into the activity itself, and a suspension of all other distractions.  Known as a “flow” state, this mode of sports participation can incorporate the best of both the competitive and participatory models, and avoid some of their pitfalls.  I’ll elaborate on this model of sport participation in my next post.