The Creation of Cyborg Athletes

As major professional team sport has become increasingly mediated as part of a multi-channel distribution strategy, the ratio of the sports product mix has changed as well. Whereas uncertainty of outcome was almost exclusively the entire sports product many decades ago, the demands of post-industrial production have shifted the ratio in favour of the production of images and information. Though uncertainty of outcome still retains primacy in the sports product mix (and always will?), images and information have assumed increasing economic value as raw inputs in the fabrication of such upstream media products as: newspaper columns, radio and television broadcasts, highlight videos, Internet web sites, computer videogames, fantasy sports simulations, and a host of other applications.

This wealth of images and information, which is owned by leagues and other sports organizations and licensed to third-party manufacturers, is predicted to appreciate in our new media environment with its lowered technical barriers to entry (Hoskins et al., 1997). In essence, the leagues with the most archived history (in the form of images and information) will have a competitive advantage in the saturated marketplace of professional sport.

A recognition of this fact has increased the relative importance of image/information production for sports leagues and franchises, resulting in progressively more robust secondary media products. For those secondary media products that are interactive and role-playing — namely, sport videogames — this raises the question of how the participant-spectator dialectic has changed. Certainly, post-structuralist theory would suggest that the boundary between the two is permeable, and in effect, the performance distance between the two groups is closing (Hemphill, 1995).

Given the efficacy of the star system as a discourse in creating a consumer desire to be that individual, the robustness or "authenticity" of the simulation is paramount for commercialization. A cycle of dependency is created in which ever-more images and information are required in order to meet the demands of innovation in shorter product development windows. In meeting the demands of this dual production model of images/information and uncertainty, athletes assume a hybrid identity of competing discourses and metamorphose into cyborgs: half information-producing machines, half uncertainty-creating artists.

The notion of the cyborg — a hybrid entity that is part human, part machine — has been explored in art for over 150 years (Grenville, 2002), and has recently begun to creep into the humanities as well (see for example: Haraway, 1991 on feminist cultural discourse; Mirowski, 2002 on economics; or Mann & Niedzviecki, 2002, on wearable computing). Even more recently, the cyborg has been explored in sport: based on Haraway's (1991) landmark manifesto of cyborg identity, Shogan (1999) suggests that recognizing "all athletes are cyborgs produced by technology helps to dismantle the ability-disability binary and makes it possible to recognize other ways in which athletes are hybrids" (p.73). The context of her insight was in undermining the fashions in which sport (re)produces repressive structural ideologies, such as race, gender, or sexual preference. But the cyborg metaphor is even more fundamental than that. Not only are technologies of discipline productive of skilled bodies, but in concert with other biophysical and communications technologies, these skilled bodies are themselves productive of more highly-processed sport products for consumption as well. They are true factories.

As the gaps in sporting performance continue to be filled by the disciplinary technologies of space, time, and modality of movement, a tension arises between certainty and uncertainty in the production and consumption of sport, which is manifest in the cyborgian athlete. This tension calls into question the survival of the aesthetic in sport, as the post-industrial economics of images and information lead to full scale sport simulacra. And given McLuhan's assertion that "games are media of interpersonal communication, [that] have neither existence nor meaning except as extensions of our immediate inner lives" (1964, p.210), it also calls into question a posthuman future.

References:

Grenville, B. (2001). The uncanny: experiments in cyborg culture. Vancouver Art Gallery: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Haraway, D. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge. 149-181.

Hemphill, D. (1995). Revisioning sport spectatorism. Journal of the philosophy of sport, 22, 48-60.

Hoskins, C., McFadyen, S., & Finn, A. (1997). Global television and film: an introduction to the economics of the business. Oxford University Press.

Mann, S. & Niedzviecki, H. (2002). Cyborg: digital destiny and human possibility in the age of the wearable computer. Toronto: Anchor Canada.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York: New American Library.

Mirowski, P. (2002). Machine dreams: economics becomes a cyborg science. Cambridge University Press.

Shogan, D. (1999). The making of high-performance athletes: discipline, diversity, and ethics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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