Asymmetrical Relations

Almost exclusively, the modern sport project is founded upon the principle of symmetrical relations between competitors. We can understand this desire for symmetry along many dimensions, all of them instrumental. First, we can understand symmetry in terms of body composition, as in weight class, gender, disability, etc. This usually has to do with the question of produced force: in combat sports we separate by weight class so that the "weaker" opponent does not get hurt, while males and females usually do not play together due to perceived differences in strength. A useful contrast may be made here with the Japanese sport of sumo, in which all weight classes compete against one another in combinations of power and speed that do not privilege one over the other.

In theory, symmetrical relations also means that the same equipment is used by each athlete or team, though in practice this is a highly contentious area of sport. For example, the controversy over asymmetry in the 1988 America's Cup sailing regatta regarding what boats could and could not be used resulted in a New York State Supreme Court challenge. On a less dramatic scale, we might consider the new swimsuits developed by Speedo, which may only be available to certain athletes for the Beijing Olympics this summer, giving them a decided advantage in the pool.

And as the instrumentality of technology physically integrates with that of the body, things become even more problematic. Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee sprinter from South Africa, had to take his case to the world Court of Arbitration for Sport in order to be allowed to compete against able-bodied runners, since the International Olympic Committee had previously ruled that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair biomechanical advantage in terms of energy return per stride. But David Howe of Loughborough University makes the interesting case that Pistorius' eligibility to compete against able-bodied runners in Beijing and beyond is immaterial; the real travesty, rather, is that as a double amputee (and thus possessing a smooth, symmetrical stride) Pistorius has been able to hone his skills in competition against single amputee sprinters (and their awkward asymmetrical gait).

As we further delve into into the question of symmetrical athletic bodies, we find the World Anti-Doping Agency. Any asymmetries arising in athletic competition must be grounded within the unitary athletic body in its genetic predisposition, refined through aptitude and hard work, and expressed through the poiesis of sporting performance. Substances, methods and other enabling technologies are permissible in this ethic of sport so long as they are supplementary to the organic unity of the athletic body and do not penetrate or pollute. And WADA claims the sovereign right to penetrate athletic bodies to make sure that such a symmetry persists.

Finally, we might understand symmetrical relations in terms of the number of athletes competing against one another in team sports. Every modern sport form first codifies in its rules the exact number of athletes that may compete for each team. In ice hockey, rugby league and other sports, one of the gravest threats is to have a player taken off the field and sent to the penalty box (or "sin bin") for their transgressions, forcing a numerical asymmetry. Here, useful contrasts may be drawn with the postmodern form of professional WWE-style wrestling, in which two or three wrestlers will routinely gang up against another. More grounded in modern sporting forms, the Situationist Asger Jorn critiqued this very principle of symmetry and its basis in binary thinking with his three-sided soccer.

In basketball, there is no such thing as a penalty box, though it is not impossible for there to be a numerical discrepancy in players. Once a player earns five fouls (six in the NBA), they are ejected from the game and a different player may substitute in their stead. But if there is no substitute available, either because too many players have fouled out, because of injuries, or because the roster was incomplete in the first place, then the offending team is forced to play at a numerical disadvantage. This happens rarely in major, sanctioned league competition, but occurs quite often in less formal men's and women's recreational leagues since a team might only begin a game with 5 or 6 players.

This is not to suggest that it is necessarily better to be the team with the numerical advantage in such a situation. In fact, quite often it is the opposite since the team with extra players over-passes the ball in order to get a perfect shot, and ends up thinking rather than reacting. I can recall winning a game in men's league with three healthy players and one playing on one leg due to a severe hamstring pull, since the other team couldn't figure out how to take advantage of the situation.

But all of this is all about a particular structural form of competition. In pickup basketball, on the other hand, competition can be equally as valued, yet not as obsessive about symmetrical relations. The pickup game is always already asymmetrical by virtue of those who participate on any given occasion.

6:45 a.m., New City YMCA, Chicago
No one in this gym knows I'm keeping a "diary."
No one knows what I do for a living.
No one knows how old I am. Unless someone checks to see whether I wear a wedding band — and guys don't generally look for that kind of thing — no one knows whether I'm married.
No one knows if I have kids. Or siblings. They don't know if my parents are still alive.
What kind of car do I drive? Or do I walk to the gym? Where exactly do I live?
No one has asked. No one cares. We don't talk about it.
And that's just fine.
If we were to talk, I'm sure we would find that some of us have a lot in common — kids, jobs, interests. Some of us might become permanent friends. Happens all the time, on the court and off.
But we don't talk.
We share one interest, intensely, for about one hour, twice a week. We talk about as much as we need to. Some friendly greetings before the game, and then the chatter of the game — "nice pass … check … ball's in … foul! …"
We generally try to learn our teammates' first names before a game starts, but we don't always remember them or use them. "Good finish, Jimmy" is about as personal as it gets. Over the weeks and months, faces and names tend to become more familiar, but that doesn’t mean we’re friends.
Not every pickup game is like this. But this one is. And I like it.

(Royce Webb, SportsJones)

In modern sport, despite the best efforts of authorities, relations can never be fully symmetrical no matter how much they are codified in language. But in the case of pickup basketball, a temporary community in which the only thing in common is that the players have nothing in common, the community is entered into freely as an act of mutual consent (cf. Nancy). As the basketball player has recently come to understand though, the resultant asymmetrical relations aren't too asymmetrical and that he will cherish always.

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2 responses to Asymmetrical Relations

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  1. e says:

    very very nice… i can see how you may be attracted to the unsaids… and that said, don't exactly have the words for proper return, but i suppose the main thing is that those asymmetries have a tendency to become hierarchical in most situations, a quantity over quality sort of thing, and it is when we would be able to enjoy and make productive use of these asymmetrical relations that they can fulfill a much more interesting potential than that which currently dominates…

  2. sportsbabel says:

    When things are coded *that* way, I try not to think of it in terms of making "productive use" of asymmetry as that seems so instrumental for human relations, though I find "interesting potential" itself interesting.