Who are you calling superhuman?

Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post for the blog, although I’ve been guesting for Sam and Tracy for a while now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be contributing on the last Friday of every month.

(I also write weekly at The Activist Classroom, my own teaching blog. If you are a teacher, if you’re a performer, or if you’re just interested in issues in higher education, please check it out!)

For today’s inaugural post I’ve been inspired by the debate ongoing on the blog this week about disabled and non-disabled experiences in relation to fitness and wellness. Tracy shared some thoughts on this on Tuesday, and invited responses to the question of whether or not this blog, fitness-forward, is inherently biased toward non-disabled bodies. A range of compelling commentary has emerged.

I am a non-disabled amateur athlete (cycling and rowing) and professional theatre scholar at Western University; for me, the overlap between work and sport happens when I think critically and politically about how bodies perform, are received, and are expected to behave in social space. (Sport is, after all, a form of spectacle, a kind of performance!) So when performance work related to sport crosses my desktop or TV screen, I get especially excited, and I want to share my thoughts about it.

This week, serendipitously, exactly such a performance appeared in my Facebook feed: it’s Channel 4’s trailer for Team GB (Great Britain) ahead of the Rio Paralympics, titled “We’re The Superhumans.” Here it is:

 

I was living in London during the 2012 Olympics when the first “Superhumans” campaign emerged; for that year’s Paralympics, the slogan was “Meet the Superhumans”. (Channel 4 was the official broadcaster of the 2012 games and the agency 4creative was the marketing brain behind the campaign.) This earlier campaign was designed to address, head on, the ablest stereotype that disabled bodies are “freaks of nature”; here is a description of the project’s ethic, which comes from a case study of the campaign prepared by the advertising association D&AD (the campaign won an award from D&AD):

In August 2010, two years before London 2012, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called ‘Inside Incredible Athletes’ – its first Paralympic-themed programming. This was supported by a marketing campaigned called ‘Freaks of Nature’ designed to challenge perceptions of disability in sport and encourage viewers to question their own prejudices.

“The intention was to change people’s attitudes and to do that we needed to take them on a journey,” Walker says. “‘Freaks of Nature’ was intended to challenge by turning the meaning of the phrase on its head. The idea was that if great athletes are considered exceptional and different, why not apply the same standard to Paralympians?”

The concept and the attitude it encapsulated provided an important part of the foundation for the campaign that would become ‘Meet the Superhumans.’

I remember feeling incredibly ambivalent about “Meet the Superhumans”, billboards for which were plastered all over London during the summer of 2012. (Although, notably, they didn’t start appearing in full force until the “main” Olympics had closed.) On the one hand: what a great idea, to reclaim the idea of the “freak” and rebrand it with the kinds of superlatives we reserve for only the most powerful among us. On the other: to call someone “superhuman” is necessarily to imply that, on some level, they are not entirely human. It’s a double-edged sword – especially for those who have historically battled the gross prejudice that they are indeed not quite human.

Meet the Superhumans

A still from the original “Meet the Superhumans” campaign, 2012.

Obviously, the first campaign had its heart in the right place, and I salute it for that reason. But I am also glad Channel 4 didn’t stand still when it returned to the “superhuman” handle for 2016, and instead chose to rethink some of the first campaign’s assumptions.

What do I like about the new campaign? A couple of things.

First, I love that it’s jazzy, warm, enormously fun. (Damn, it makes me want to dance!) Singer Tony Dee belts out the Sammy Davis Jr. song “Yes I Can” with tongue in cheek and twinkle in eye as 140 disabled people, athletes and not, pass across the screen, dancing their way through life, sport, art, and more. In case you thought you might want to pity these folks, well, don’t. Don’t gasp in awe, either! They know that’s your impulse, and they have no time for it. They are too busy swinging and grooving – and getting on with doing stuff.

Second, I appreciate that the emphasis in the new trailer is not only on exceptional sports figures, but on humans of all kinds doing ordinary human things, from brushing teeth to flying a plane to bouncing a baby. The affection the camera produces for these quotidian acts isn’t sentimental, either: the pace and the cheek (lots of winking!) of the music balances a certain amount of awe with plenty of “whatever”. (As a non-disabled person, I’m astonished to see a disabled person fly a plane – just because I never have before. Now I know!) In fact, the music yanks us quickly from “awe” to “whatever” and back again deliberately, as it punctuates the shifts with pauses and percussion, drawing attention to them. That call-and-response style has the effect of reminding us to stop being so awed already, and instead to regard all the stuff we see in the trailer as, well… pretty normal for the people on the screen – who are all pretty rocking human, after all.

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Tony Dee grooves it out. Channel 4 spotted him on Youtube!

What doesn’t work so well for me? I would really like to see a couple of vignettes in the trailer that include both disabled and non-disabled bodies working together. The trailer rightly makes disabled bodies its focus, but it doesn’t take the opportunity to show collaboration across bodily difference, which is a shame. (The only non-disabled body in the piece, as far as I can see, is the cranky headmaster who tells the young wheelchair athlete he “can’t” – only to be proven definitively wrong, of course.) If we are to think more globally about access to and opportunities in social space for all human bodies in the future, representing cross-ability collaboration is essential. It gives the firm impression that all human bodies count equally, and helps to demonstrate that equal access doesn’t mean “the same thing for all of us”, but rather “different stuff according to our needs that lets us all do the same things to the best of our abilities”.

There’s a “fait accompli” feel to the trailer that is, of course, part of its jazzy, groovy feel, but that also covers up access issues in troubling ways. It’s reasonable to argue that it’s not Channel 4’s job to show us the complexity of ability politics in a trailer that is designed to get a predominantly non-disabled population to regard bodies with other abilities more positively and fairly; one thing at a time. But it’s also reasonable to argue that it *is* their responsibility not to make disabled lives seem somehow “naturally” easy in a world biased toward non-disabled subjects and their bodily experiences. Because that just ain’t true.

So that’s my verdict on “We’re the Superhumans”: better than last time, inspiring and loads of fun, but not perfect – and more work remains to be done. (Luckily, the 2020 Paralympics are just around the corner!)

I offer this reading in full awareness that, as a non-disabled woman, I’m part of the demographic Channel 4 is targeting and trying to warm-and-fuzzy, and that my embodiment makes my position as a reader partial and imperfect in any case. Which is, of course, why I’d love to hear YOUR take on the trailer, too. Please share in the comments below!

Kim

A morning with Mara Yamauchi – Part One (Guest post)

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I recently attended a Project 500 Networking Day for female sports coaches called: Women in Sport – The next steps.

(Project 500 is an initiative to address the imbalance of female to male coaches in England – you can read more below, or on their website).

A major highlight of the event was the opportunity to hear a presentation by guest speaker Mara Yamauchi.

Just ahead of Mara’s presentation, the day opened with a screening of the new Project 500 More Women Better Coaching promotion. This powerful video was launched on 30 March 2016, and you can watch it here

The message of the video is that many women are using coaching skills anyway (at home and/or at work) – so why not extend that to sports coaching . . . ?

Presentation from Mara Yamauchi

Mara is a retired British long-distance track and road running athlete, and the second fastest British woman over the marathon ever.  She spoke to us about her experiences as a female athlete, and her more recent move into coaching.

Mara’s background

We heard about Mara’s exciting childhood in Kenya and Oxford (where she was always outside and playing sports!) and her entry into serious athletics training once she started university.

After graduating, Mara joined the civil service (working in both the UK and Japan) for ten years, while training in her spare time, whenever she could fit it in. However, since she was a little girl, she’d always really dreamed of competing in the Olympics. Around the age of 30, Mara realised that time was passing her by, and that she had to pursue her dream – or lose it forever. She therefore dropped down to part-time hours in her job – and went for it.

Mara didn’t make the GB team for the 2004 Athens Olympics, but she kept at it, and in 2008 she came sixth in the Beijing Olympic Marathon. Her dream of being an Olympian had come true!

In 2009, Mara also achieved Runner-up in the London Marathon in 2:23:12. This is still the second fastest marathon time ever by a British woman

Lessons learned

Mara retired from professional running in 2013 and decided to use her talents and experience as a coach. She shared with us what it felt like to go from being an elite athlete, to being quite a “beginner” in the field of coaching, and some of the lessons she has learned along the way.

For example, she’s come to question the popular belief that to be a great coach, you have to have been a great athlete. In fact, Mara explained that in her view, coaching requires a completely different skillset.

As an athlete, your life can be very regimented, and you’re “told what to do” a lot of the time. But Mara has found being a coach completely different. It’s more creative and personal, and takes a lot of “softer” skills such as motivating and engaging people.

Mara has also discovered through coaching, that people’s motivations for doing sport are really diverse – and can be surprising. Often, they are nothing to do with the sport itself, but are more to do with relaxation and escapism from a stressful job, or a demanding family life.

Culture and social support structures are really important. Mara has no doubt that an important factor in her success was because she lived in Japan. Japan has a rich, gender-balanced marathon scene, with up to several thousand athletes training full-time at any given time, as opposed to just a handful in the UK.

This means that runners can access a lot of mutual support, and opportunities to share knowledge on training regimes, diet and so on.

After Mara’s presentation, she led a group discussion on ways to engage more women in sport. Watch out for part two of this post, which outlines the topics we covered . . .

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About Project 500: Project 500 started life in 2013 as an exciting initiative in the South East of England, to help address the imbalance of female to male coaches by recruiting, developing, deploying and retaining 500 female coaches.

Research from sports coach UK shows that just 30% of sports coaches are female and of newly qualified coaches each year, only 17% are women.

The initial two-year pilot was really successful, and recruited and retained over 530 female coaches across a variety of sports.

In celebration of this – and with an eye to the future – Coaching Hampshire and Active Surrey held a women-only networking day on 13 March 2016, which I attended on behalf of my dojo. Mara’s presentation was part of the day’ programme.

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Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at www.budo-inochi.com, or follow her Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/kaimorg

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Image credit: Mara Yamauchi at Mile 24 and a half of the 2009 London Marathon, along Mid Temple right by Temple Place. By Mara_Yamauchi_2.jpg: SNappa2006 derivative work: Omarcheeseboro [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Olympic lifting and sexual innuendo

cleanjerk tshirt I confess that if I want to blog about Olympic lifting, I’m often at a loss for descriptors that don’t make me blush and giggle. I’m in my late forties but really, sometimes I feel fourteen. I’ve posted about “performing the snatch” on Facebook because talking about “my snatch” seems too impossibly open to misinterpretation.

You have to kind of mention the sexual innuendo and then move on. Here’s T-Nation, for example:

What is the “perfect” snatch? Go ahead, pause a moment and think naughty thoughts.

All finished? Good.

Sexual innuendo aside, the “perfect” snatch is the single-arm snatch. The single-arm snatch is quite possibly one of the best and most time-efficient total body exercises around.

Few people talk about it but the names of the Olympic lifts make almost everyone giggle or snicker.

Okay, the O-lifts are weird. They have funny names that immediately bring out the dirty little kid in people. If you have ever seen them performed, they are often accompanied by loud shouts or grunts of effort, and nearly always terminated with a thunderous dropping of the bar onto the platform. The last thing most people want is to share gym space with a bunch of shouting weight droppers. – See more on Stumptuous, Beginner’s Guide to the Olympic Lifts
Olympic lifting is different from powerlifting and both are different again from body building. See Deadlifting, bench, and squat: The powerlifting combo

I do sometimes wonder if the names keep women away from Olympic lifting. My guess is that the names aren’t going change. I’ll just have to grow up, get over it, and move.

See Olympic lifting and sexual innuendo, Part 2.

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Sochi: Can We Hate the Laws Yet Love the Games?

Olympic rings against rainbow flag with caption "Sochi 2014."Going into the second week of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the controversy over Russia’s draconian laws against gay “propaganda” has all but faded into the background. Where some were calling for a full-out boycott, others insisted that a boycott would only hurt the athletes.

No boycott, no protests. This article says,

The silence is deafening. On Russia’s anti-gay law, on corruption, and on environmental violations in the run up to the Games, there has not been a single protest.

As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its national associations have made it clear to competitors that they should not use the Games as a place to make “political points”, the Russian authorities have used a combination of carrot and stick to ensure that homegrown critics also stay quiet.

The athletes, having been duly warned, have opted to keep their political views to themselves:

…the focus remains firmly on sport despite an attempt by gay rights groups to sign athletes up to condemn Russia’s law against ‘homosexual propaganda’.The law, much discussed in the runup to the Games, has not been raised even in a roundabout way by athletes. When the openly gay Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst won a medal early on in the Games, she made no protest and even admitted to having a “cuddle” with Vladimir Putin.

The Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, who had previously said she planned to speak out strongly against the law, was decidedly circumspect on Sunday after she finished her event, saying she did not think the Games were the right place to vent her frustration. She said she had received hate mail on Twitter for her opposition to the law but also hinted she might have rethought her stance.

“I’ve had hate tweets. But it’s good getting different sides of the story, and trying to open your eyes a lot more before you say anything,” she said.

Austrian Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, who married her partner Isabel Stolz last year, refused to be drawn on the anti-gay law after she won a silver medal in ski jumping last week.

“I know Russia will go and make the right steps in the future and we should give them time,” she said.

Members of a small but vocal group of environmental protesters, “who for several years have suffered police pressure, threats and home searches as they attempted to bring environmental violations and injustices committed against Sochi residents during the Olympic construction spree to light,” have been under close scrutiny. One of them, Evgeny Vitishko, was jailed for three years last Wednesday.

But we don’t hear about this when we’re watching the Olympics on television. Canada’s coverage is all about the games, the athletes, and little politically neutral snippets about Russian history and culture.

The issue of sport and politics comes up in other ways as well. As I make plans for my summer triathlons, especially the Olympic distance that is my “fittest by fifty” goal, I can’t help but feel a bit hesitant about one of the major series in Ontario–the Milk series. I’m an ethical vegan with all sorts of moral qualms about the dairy industry. So the Milk series just doesn’t sit right with me.

I can’t say it’s an utter deal breaker–if there were no other viable options, I would probably do the Olympic distance in one of the Milk races. But I’ve found an alternative and I’m happy that I did.

How much do we pay attention to who is sponsoring the races we sign up for, or which charities the races are supporting? And yet it does matter. When an event is a success, the sponsors get lots of good press, the charities raise lots of money. And it’s only successful if people show up.

In the case of the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee does its best to remain politically neutral and encourages the athletes to do the same. They’ve explicitly distanced themselves from the Vitishko case, insisting that it has nothing to do with the games.

The group of which Vitishko is a part thinks otherwise:

In an angry response to the IOC, the environmental activists released a statement saying that “everything that has happened … prior and during the Olympic Games has to do with the Olympic Games.”

The statement says the group’s activists have been “harassed, questioned, detained, and spent days in dingy cells” because of the Games, and had their office and property attacked.

I’m not sure I would call for an all out boycott, but I think that the IOC is unrealistic in trying to promote the idea that the Olympics are only about sport. They’re a significant international event that brings world attention and an economic boon to the host country and region.

Not only that, it’s completely inappropriate for the IOC to silence athletes from voicing their political views during the Games.

We may like to think that sport and politics don’t mix. But the reality is that they do. And when they do, athletes, participant nations, host countries, sponsors, and the community of spectators who support these events need to think about what they’re supporting.