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.

Hybrids, Mutants and Replicants

In The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism, Arthur Kroker remarks:

"If molecular biology can adapt so quickly to the epistemological possibilities of the order of the transgenic, it may be because the spectre of transgenics originates less in the order of science than in culture" (p.30).

And has sport not contributed to this epistemological awakening? As a site of cultural (re)production, is sport not implicated in this normalization of the will to technology?

The hybrid, the mutant, the replicant: transgenic variants all seen in the crucible of the high performance athletic arena or dreamt of in the sportocratic laboratory.

Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion Plate 99, 1887

Ever since Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion photos and the subsequent dawn of biomechanics, the body athletic has been considered a problem in Newtonian physics: forces, levers, torques, velocities and accelerations, each describing a specific movement. As a result, of course, the athlete comes to be viewed as belonging to an Erector Set of body parts, from which ideal collections and assemblages are regularly imagined, particularly in the context of high performance sport. "If only he had an arm to go with those legs." Or, metaphorically: "I wish I could put this guy's heart in that guy's body."

In the absence of such an Erector Set, however, we seek out the mutants. Forget standard endo-, meso- and ectomorphs. Instead, sport offers the hyperexaggeration of bone, fat and muscle: vomiting pygmies bouncing prettily around gymnastics apparatus, or the wraiths of endurance racing, bodily annihilated, trudging inexorably toward the finish line to a drumbeat cadence of footsteps; hypermuscular bodybuilders, football players and wrestlers straining at the skin; and the lipidinal masses that have accelerated to the point of polar inertia,

best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed.

Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka.

It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.

Or by voting in presidential elections.

(Gibson, Idoru)

Replication has also long been manifest in the sportocratic imagination, its genealogical roots reaching back at least to the mechanical reproduction of baseball cards and bubblegum. But these flattened, lifeless representations lack sufficient dynamism for a culture hell-bent on its own immortality, and so we begin to animate the images by repurposing the data stocks and flows generated as a derivative of baseball's industrial production process. At the cusp between biomechanics and the age of simulation, Strat-O-Matic becomes the link in the helical chain connecting Branch Rickey and scientific management in baseball with Billy Beane, the sabermetric revolution and the third wave eugenics of baseball performance.

In that time, a whole industry has emerged around so-called "fantasy sports". But the fantasy these games deliver isn't to be like the pros, as is purported. It is rather a fantasy of cloning, a fantasy of pro athletes, Sea Monkeys and Monopoly recombined into one alluring hybrid, a fantasy of ownership. Play capitalist and own your own sports team, though the vectoralist still retains class power.

The "authentic replica" sports jersey offers another example of the "spectre of transgenics" in a hyperreal sportocratic culture: replication of the star athlete via an equivalence embedded in the code of the extended skin – all in the context of a post-industrial capitalism of signs and symbolic exchanges. In this case, the fantasy is of becoming-clone, the successful and particular cloning of a purebred stock.

Presumably, then, the inauthentic replica of a cheaper jersey carries an equivalence to the bastard laboratory experiments that preceded the birth of Dolly the Sheep?

Finally, we may discuss sports videogames and virtual worlds, which also allow us the potential of becoming-clone. As with fantasy sports, this is once again made possible by repurposing the data stocks and flows generated during games, but the stakes have increased, since no longer do we rely on static photographs but rather advanced body-xeroxing technologies such as motion capture, green screen, and biometric scan.

It seems appropriate, then, to conclude my thoughts with a sample from Baudrillard, who, in his "The Clone or the Degree Xerox of the Species", writes:

Multiplication is positive only in our system of accumulation. In the symbolic order, it is equivalent to subtraction. If five men pull on a rope, the force they exert is added together. By contrast, if an individual dies, his death is a considerable event, whereas if a thousand individuals die, the death of each is a thousand times less important. Each of two twins, because he has a double, is ultimately just half an individual — if you clone him to infinity, his value becomes zero (Screened Out, p.199).

Recycling

A sample from some of my earlier writing on Foucault and sport:

The apparatus of sexuality certainly has a great deal of overlap with that of the sport star system, but of particular note are the competing ideas of feminine beauty and muscularization. Just after a Foucault reading session, I turned on The Simpsons to see an episode in which Marge becomes a bodybuilder. Of course, feminine bodybuilding is not portrayed well at all, with an aggressive, assertive, "unattractive" Marge going on a steroid rage at the end of the show before agreeing to return to her docile self. The point here is that Marge's particular form of productive power (ie. through weightlifting) is superseded by a (gendered) sport star discourse that says a woman may not be overly muscular-athletic and a beautiful star athlete at the same time.

The WWE attempts to merge the two discourses by creating cartoonish, hyper-muscular and hyper-mammarized "pin-up" stars, meant to be simultaneously muscular-athletic and beautiful.

Asymmetry

War has often been used as a metaphor for sport and vice-versa. The comparisons are fair, given that the similarities between the two run deep: a competition between two parties, using strategy, arsenals of weapons, and featuring many small battles within the larger contest. Motivational speeches from brilliant tacticians are invoked to inspire the competitors to victory. Lombardi himself could be the Sun Tzu of our era.

You never win a game unless you beat the guy in front of you. The score on the board doesn't mean a thing. That's for the fans. You've got to win the war with the man in front of you. You've got to get your man.

– Vince Lombardi

In fact, the relationship between the two is even closer. For centuries, sport has been used by societies as a means of developing skills or bodies that would be useful in the warfare of the day — think javelin, lacrosse, fencing, kendo, and football, to name but a few.

If the future of warfare is in fact information-oriented (ie. Netwar) or asymmetric in orientation, is sport then obsolete as a model for developing combat-ready soldiers from the citizenry, perhaps to be replaced by computerized training of some sort? Perhaps so. At the very least, it appears that certain forms of modern sport have outlived their usefulness in this regard, and that symmetric forms of team sport may one day be as quaint to future generations as the notion of tug-of-war being an Olympic event seems to us today. Indeed, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), viewed by some as a postmodern form of sporting entertainment, may in fact be more true to the form we should come to expect from our sporting institutions in the future.

With its ambivalence towards the Truth of victory, its disregard for the boundaries of the playing space, its overt hyper-muscularization taunting modern doping policy, and its hyper-mammarization titillating participants and spectators alike, the WWE is true to its label of adding "entertainment" to the sport product. But it is the nature of its asymmetric competition that is of true interest: 2-on-1, 3-on-1, royal rumbles and allies rushing out of the dressing room give wrestling a cachet that modern sports cannot match — and perhaps offer North American society a more appropriate model for a future of asymmetric warfare.

The Multi-City Franchise

We are getting closer to the day when high-speed bandwidth will be an everyday reality for those in industrialized nations. Some wonder what applications can possibly exist to utilize all of that bandwidth. I can suggest that one of them will be establishing independent television channels for professional sports franchises or other organizational entities in sport (ie. PGA Tour). In essence, while each team currently may have a direct media channel to the sports fan via the Internet — that is, a web site — in a competitive landscape of fibre optic bandwidth, that channel will become televisual. This has serious potential implications for professional sport.

One of the most interesting is the possibility of the multi-city franchise. As economic globalization continues and any team can have its own television channel, the spatial boundaries of stadium are fragmented and the audience decentralized. Or, to paraphrase McLuhan, electric media implodes a fragmented audience to the stadium. That stadium does not have to be in one place, however. With the availability of a decentralized media channel, franchises can play games in a variety of markets and build fan bases in each — geography becomes less important.

An example of this principle at work may be found with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE — get the 'F' out of here…!!!). There are myriad reasons why the WWE works on so many fronts, but one of them is due to the multi-city franchise principle. Using the framework developed by Aaker and Joachimsthaler (2000), the WWE consists of various sub-brands under a master brand working synergistically: fans come to see individual wrestlers, such as The Rock, Hulk Hogan, or Chris Jericho, which gives the WWE master brand legitimacy; however, this legitimacy allows the WWE to boast the best stable of wrestlers, which suggests that any new wrestler sub-brands must be worthy of the master brand name. The key for this strategy to work is that there are so many sub-brands available for the WWE to use — none of which are anchored geographically. So at the firm level, the WWE can offer events in big cities and small towns all over North America, developing decentralized audiences for the sub-brands in each market, while imploding the rest of the audience via television to the event in question.

Modern professional team sports struggle to match the branding elegance of the WWE, as the geography inherent in the former adds a layer of complexity to the branding equation: is the value-driving brand the league, the franchise city, the team nickname, or the team's star athlete(s)? I would suggest that as our team sporting cultures become more postmodern, the branding of the franchise city is subordinated to the other three.

The case of the Montreal Expos may prove illuminating. The Expos, which drew just 812,000 fans at home last year and don't have an English-language television contract, will play 22 games of their 2003 schedule in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Associated Press, 2002). I presume that the league will make some sort of effort to have the rest of the Expos' games televised in Puerto Rico, and the "stickiness" of their visits will make for interesting research.

How does the sports fan identify in the situation of the multi-city franchise? Dewq calls it transientity, while I have chosen chameleontology. The general idea, though, is that traditional place-based fan identity is on life support.

References

Aaker, D.A., and Joachimsthaler, E. (2000). Brand leadership: the next level of the brand revolution. Free Press.

Associated Press. (Nov. 20, 2002). MLB - Island fever: Expos playing 22 in Puerto Rico. ESPN.com. Retrieved online: http://espn.go.com/mlb/news/2002/1120/1463782.html.

PoMo Sport = Permeable Membrane

Streakers may be viewed as spectators breaching the sanctity of the playing area created by modern sport.

The WWF, in wrestling outside of the ring, on the steps, in the locker room — indeed, in all of society — may be viewed as participants breaching the playing area created by modern sport.

In postmodern sport, the membrane that creates the necessary critical distance between participant and spectator becomes permeable.