Reflecting on the burn

Standard

Running: “from trouble”, “to assist”, “in fear”, “for fun”, “in a crowd”, “alone”, “to win”, “for the hell of it!”. Running is a time-honoured, universal activity. In the global marketplace, running is also a valuable commodity. The large number of “running activities” or “uses” of running have provided the incentive for companies to create a growing industry of apparel: shoes, tracksuits, sweatbands, pedometers. A burgeoning advertising industry has helped generate and extend the exchange values of such products. Usain Bolt runs fast, wears Puma shoes and requires massive appearance fees to showcase his speed and footwear. Bolt is a fast-moving human commodity.

Lives; Running offers an insider’s view of the multi-layered world of running. This compact 124-page compilation is clearly designed for an audience located somewhere between the highly formalised and conventionally controlled world of academia and the “pulped up” “just in time” world of infotainment. Lives; Running’s style of writing is pitched to readers looking for thoughtful, well-informed prose about changes in globally extended common culture.

Seventeen short chapters are built on three major themes: a long-term personal narrative about the experiences of running, the role of sport in the patrilineal side of Renton’s family and a mini-case study of the class-based politics of two elite runners from very different backgrounds. These three themes, involving very different forms of description and analysis, are crisscrossed throughout the text, providing multiple angles of scrutiny of running as a socio-cultural practice. While it is not a linear narrative in the conventional sense, the book tracks sequentially across the decades of Renton’s life of running and thus provides a solid position from which to explore the other themes.

Renton declares at the very start of his narrative: “[R]unning was part of my life, I ran whenever I could”. His engagement moves from the private to the social and recreational, to the competitive and combative and finally into the zone of the health-focused and the therapeutic. Looking outwards from this personal sphere, Renton fills his account with stories about his grandfather and father. In the detail of his father’s story is embedded a meta-analysis about the changing role of sport in identity development and the wider world of politics and social change.

Renton’s father was an average runner but quickly discovered he was a talented rower. Rowing was, and remains, an iconic team activity. To be successful, the team must be one in mind and body. During his father’s formative years, Great Britain was being shaped by Keynesian-inspired politics. The cooperative, team-based nature of rowing was in tune with those influences. On the other hand, Lives; Running also offers a parallel and emergent storyline about running as a personal and individualised physical pursuit. This narrative is set in the time of neoliberal transformation.

Renton was born in 1972. That was the year of the Munich Olympic Games, in which the US runner Frank Shorter won the marathon and reputedly sparked a national, then international, running boom. If we take this as fact, it means Renton’s entire life has occurred within the time of the global growth and transformation of running that has occurred in tandem with the rise and rise of neoliberal politics.

It is here that the book offers valuable insights into the fusion of his physical enjoyment of running with the growth in marketing, televising sport and the valorisation of the hyper-individualised pursuit of “winning”. As a seven-year-old, he watched the British athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett competing in the Moscow Olympics. Through the eyes of a child he viewed two epic contests: the final of 800 metres with Ovett first and Coe second, and then the 1500 metres with Coe first and Ovett third. With the mind of a socially critical adult, he analyses the role the media played in affirming dominant class politics, with Coe as a middle class hero and Ovett as an aloof outsider. Looking back on these events, Renton is able to see clearly what he had been seduced to normalise and accept in his youth.

In a highly ambiguous section, Renton recalls an image of Coe crossing the line as the winner of the 1500 metres in a pose akin to a crucifixion: “… his head pulled backwards … face pulled up … mouth widens in a grimace … I saw no pleasure in it then and find none today.” This account is a pivotal part of the text. Here we are offered a probing insight into one of the major contradictions built into sport in neoliberal times. Elite athletes are sometimes pushed and push themselves into the dark zone of extreme pain and deep distress. Many forces combine to produce this outcome, where even a gold medal winner becomes a puppet of extremism, in training, performance, advertising, marketing, sports administration and politics.

After one final probe into the trials and tribulations of both Coe and Ovett, the book switches register. The final chapters attempt to rescue the idea of running as a mysterious, magnetic, physical activity that has the capacity to draw Renton back, as an adult entering middle age, into a life of small-scale competition, training in all types of weather, struggling through the pain of physical discomfort and injury and living in hope that his sons will be runners. Beyond the dramas, traumas and controversies of high level athletics, “running” endures as a stripped down “free” activity.

While Renton’s story begins with the arrival of mass participation following the 1972 Olympics, it is silent about the fact that this early stage of the global running boom was basically about and for males. The growth of female mass participation occurred later. There are obvious landmarks of the entry of women’s events into the Olympic program. The sprints appeared in 1928, but it was not until the ’60s and ’70s that middle distance events began. The first time women ran the marathon at the Olympics was in 1984. However, it was Oprah Winfrey’s completion of the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 that possibly provided the greatest stimulus to far greater participation rates in the type of road running that Renton describes towards the end of the book. His silence about this sudden growth in interest and involvement in running by women, from across the social and cultural spectrum, is a significant oversight.

As a former marathon “addict” myself ,I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose drew me into the seductions, trials, tribulations and triumphs of competition. I feel the book successfully fuses personal biography with longer term, generational change and with the forces of larger politics.

Lindsay Fitzclarence, Socialist Alternative

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s