The contradiction in our sport.

The contradiction in our sport. Freedom or greed? Illustration by Paul Petch.

The contradiction in our sport. Freedom or greed? Illustration by Paul Petch.

When I reflect upon running and its meanings, I invariably struggle to disassociate my thoughts from a critical sociological standpoint, shaped by my day job as a university lecturer.

Few of us would question that running is a mass participatory activity that features heavily in our lives: yet analysis of its social significance and practices are often shunned in favour of romanticised understandings of sport as an inherent and unifying social good. Taking this as a starting point, I began to mull over what could be seen as some of the inherent contradictions within running in order to tentatively present a counterpoint to some of the more idealised representations that are prevalent in the sport.

One of the prominent messages within the burgeoning literature on running are its associations with the notions of freedom, empowerment, and escapism. These are founded on a number of underlying assumptions, which eulogise a pureness and simplicity about running. Moreover, it is commonly believed that few sports are more universal and inclusive than running. To put it crudely, anyone can run, anywhere. You just need some moderate footwear. To what extent however, is this an ill-informed caricature? Is running really synonymous with liberation and freedom? Through assuming a left-leaning, Marxist-tinged perspective my intention is to question some of these suppositions, beginning with the premise that running is an inexpensive pursuit.

Ultimately it’s a question of balance. Commercialisation, it could be argued, has contributed to the growth in recreational running.

A number of authors have lamented the growing commodification of running. Dave Renton succinctly observes ‘even something as simple as running shows every sign of domination by global big business’. Boff Whalley is another critic of what has become a ‘regulated version of running’, dominated by garishly branded and overpriced athletics wear. A principal target is the rise of the city marathon (as a footnote there has been a 13.25% increase in marathon running between 2009 and 2014) which he describes as the ‘Gargantua’ of the athletics’ world, obsessed with size, bloated by sponsorship, and utterly predictable. Richard Askwith’s Running Free adopts a similar tone, charting the rampant commercialisation of what he champions should be one of the most free and liberating of sports. Askwith emphasises how running has become both monetised and sanitised; how we feel compelled to purchase the right kit; how we fork out inflated entry fees to run a route that we could do for nothing whenever we wanted; and how obstacle events (such as Tough Mudder and its ilk) sell us a tame, anaesthetised version of adventure.

Ultimately it’s a question of balance. Commercialisation, it could be argued, has contributed to the growth in recreational running. The flip-side is that we have to be careful not to go too far the other way so that we become disillusioned with what the sport has become and resent it. Reassuringly races still exist that are predominantly outside the control of commercial interests – a civic rather than a business culture dominates their form and organisation. The participation of tens of thousands of runners in Parkrun every weekend offers a substantial chunk of evidence in support of its claims to be an inclusive and relatively inexpensive activity.

Yet running, like any other sport, is socially constructed and therefore its meaning may be challenged from below as well as from above. So whilst it is unquestionable that the multi-national corporations have a vision of running as an activity which requires the mass purchase of expensive running shoes and related equipment, ultimately the reasons why we run are inherently subjective. Here, philosopher Mark Rowlands in his book Running with the Pack contends that running is associated with instrumentalism. In other words, running is intertwined with the health and fitness discourse, that it is about relieving stress and escaping from the humdrum of our daily lives. According to Rowlands however, the true worth of running lies in its ‘intrinsic value’ – that it’s valuable for what it is in itself.

We shall return now to one of the initial assumptions identified earlier, which promotes the belief that running is a universal activity, purportedly offering participants a level playing field. Such a notion provokes us to consider the appropriateness or acceptability of running as an activity. Prior to the jogging boom of the 1960s and 1970s, running certainly wasn’t commonplace. John Bale asserts that young men running in the cities of nineteenth century Europe would frequently be labelled mad. In contrast, The Joggers Manual, a four-page pamphlet published in Oregon in 1963 (described by Alan Latham as ‘a good candidate for marking the birth of jogging as a mainstream mass activity in America’) asserts that jogging can be done anywhere and by anyone, male or female.

It wasn’t until the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games however, that the first women’s marathon was finally introduced.

Whilst women’s running has undoubtedly evolved from its 1970s status when few women went running, and even fewer ran races; paradoxically, running appears to be both a site for the reproduction of traditional femininity and the gender order, and as a tool for liberation and fulfilment. Turning back the clock to the infamous 1967 Boston Marathon and the presence of the first female participant, Kathrine Switzer, encourages us to consider the suitability of running as an activity for women. Significantly there were no rules that the marathon was a male only race, nor was there any gender category on the entry form. Rather it was simply assumed that women physiologically couldn’t complete the marathon distance – a belief that led to Kathrine being harassed by an enraged race official just two miles into the race. It is noteworthy however that she received support from her fellow runners and went on to complete the race. It wasn’t until the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games however, that the first women’s marathon was finally introduced.

One can be forgiven for taking for granted the notion of movement as a fundamental human freedom, a precondition to the fulfilment of so many rights. As stipulated in Article 13 of the UN Human Rights Charter: ‘everyone has the right to freedom of movement’. The question that emerges however, is whether everyone has that opportunity? For Olympian, Nader al-Masri, the stark response is negative. The athlete, who heralds from Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip, carried the Palestinian flag at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he competed in the 5,000 metres. He has been prevented from competing in the Palestinian marathon since its inception due to the Israeli government refusing to allow him to travel through Israel to Bethlehem in the West Bank – a decision later reaffirmed by the Israeli Supreme Court.

The issue of freedom of movement has also come under the media glare following news reports that Bujumbura’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza, had decreed restrictions on all collective sports (defined as involving two or more people) which includes jogging. In addition, such activities may only take place within designated areas, namely one of the city’s nine parks or particular football pitches. The catalyst for this imperious edict followed the mass arrests and subsequent sentencing (ranging from five years to life imprisonment) of members of the opposition group, Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD). In Burundi permission must be sought from the authorities to stage a political march or public gathering. According to media reports, police intelligence was received that sporting activities (in this case a group jog) were being used subversively as a front to organise illegal demonstrations. This led to the group encountering riot police and tear gas, leading to seventy party members being detained.

And yet, time and again when I am out pounding the city streets of Nottingham I find a disheartening lack of friendliness amongst the runners that I encounter.

My final illustration of one of the contradictions evident within running refers to something much simpler and less political in nature, but one which I am confident that many of you will be able to relate with: the unwritten rules of running etiquette. Employing broad brush strokes, there is a widespread belief that the running community is just that – a community – defined by its sociability, that we are a welcoming and friendly bunch. And yet, time and again when I am out pounding the city streets of Nottingham I find a disheartening lack of friendliness amongst the runners that I encounter. The overwhelming majority fail to return my greeting, nor acknowledge my presence with a reaffirming nod or polite smile. There is no reciprocal wave or on some occasions, refused to even made eye contact. Instead, the discourteous runner negates to break their determined pace, staring blankly ahead, ignoring my gesture.

My position on this is clear-cut. I am a passionate advocate of the unspoken rule that if you see a fellow runner coming towards you, providing they aren’t an escapee from a detention centre, then you nod a quick hello or signal a half-wave/salute. It’s about promoting a sense of camaraderie, sharing a fleeting moment of humanity. Moreover, it is about fostering a sense of community or companionship between people that have never met, and sharing a little love. I don’t expect someone to be effusive, just a bit of common courtesy.

So there we have it, an alternative perspective on running that you probably weren’t expecting to find nestling amongst dozens of inspirational stories about the power of running, and utilising the sport as a vehicle for positive change.


What do you think?

Is running over commercialised?

Is running a truly free experience or governed by companies?

Do you find running culture friendly and inviting?

Is there equality in running culture?

David Hindley

David Hindley

Dr. David Hindley. Senior Lecturer in Sports Education. School of Science and Technology. Nottingham UK.
David Hindley

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  • Ben Brindley

    To keep my answers short, in many ways people make a profit out of running as a business but this is why I love fell running on the uk small race community based (profits going into community groups and associations).
    Running is what you personally make of it, in my eyes I feel that it’s great way to see the area which you live in and feel a connection with it but the costs involved with posh kit, race medals and more are increasingly getting greater and greater. I won a place doing a OCR race and fo u nd the whole thing rather sanitised and removed from what I feel running should be plus it would be incredibly expensive £75 compared to a local fell race at £5.
    I feel that that running is friendly, inviting and equality can be easily found but being in a group of like minded individuals and this is some of the ethics that are evident in the club I run with and one of the reasons I got involved with setting it up and eventually becoming chair of the club.

  • runningtheline

    Thanks Ben for taking the time to pass on your comments, which tend to chime with my own thoughts. Running of course evokes a multiplicity of meanings, and ultimately these will be subjective and personal to each individual. I too have a preference for small, community-centred events rather the larger, corporatized races where you are seemingly paying larger and larger amounts for the privilege to run with other people as well as an uninspired ‘goody bag’ at the end.
    I am currently undertaking some research on parkrun, where the social and community aspects are writ large, but at the same time for some people their motivations are less about meeting others, and more concerned with competing against themselves. This is one of the strengths of the sport we love in that the reasons why we run are varied, and can be both a social activity, as well as an opportunity to be alone, absorbed in our own surroundings and thoughts.