Sporting Authenticity

By Moller, Michael | Cultural Studies Review, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Sporting Authenticity


Moller, Michael, Cultural Studies Review


sporting authenticity BARRY SMART The Sport Star. Modern Sport and the Cultural Economy of Sporting Celebrity Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks and London, 2005 ISBN 076194351X RRP US $37.95 (pb)

In 1989 the American communications theorist Sut Jhally published an important article in which he set out some of the challenges cultural studies faces when it seeks to apprehend sport. While noting that much sport today is mediated, Jhally also insists that sport is 'unlike other media messages (eg. the news), [because] sports also involve us in other ways'.1 This something 'other', this additional form of engagement which supplements the consumption of sport as media message, is a central element in Smarts useful study of sporting celebrity.

Smart argues that sporting celebrity is achieved through the careful cultivation of 'authenticity'. Professional, mediated sport is so incredibly popular, Smart suggests, because it is able to convince spectators that what they are watching is a genuine, unscripted display of elite athletes' skill and determination. In its conduct sport offers proof of its own veracity and that of its practitioners. As Smart concludes:

The qualities associated with exceptional sporting performance, notably ability, skill, technique, speed, power, grace, motivation, commitment, courage, co-operation, competitiveness, pleasure, emotion, discipline, determination, fairness and success are witnessed, are displayed live in public, in front of spectators and in a mediated form on television. (195)

The inference here of course being that there's no way to fake it on the field. And there's much to support Smart's hypothesis that the affective pull of sports narratives relies on perceptions of their genuineness: consider how scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs or gambling by participants are routinely identified by sports administrators as threats to the very soul of sport, that is its competitive ethos.

Of course, claims about authenticity have been widely problematised in recent years, not least because the term tends to establish a dichotomy in which the 'authentic' is privileged over the 'inauthentic'. Further, the ground on which this distinction between authentic/inauthentic, real/fake, rests is very slippery indeed. This difficulty is most evident in Smart's opening chapter. He begins by noting that the 'prominence of sporting figures is by no means a recent phenomenon' (1), but insists that there is a fundamental difference between the sporting 'heroes' of previous, less professional, eras, and the 'businesslike' approach to sport of today's sporting celebrities. (5)

At one level it is difficult to argue with Smart's assertion that professionalisation has transformed sport and the meanings we make of it. However, Smart goes further than this, following Boorstin's lead in distinguishing between 'heroes' who are real and morally significant (in the sense that they represent the values or qualities most desired within that culture), and 'celebrities' who are (often) fake and morally vacuous.2 Paralleling Smarts analysis of 'the cultural economy of sporting celebrity', then, is a nostalgic narrative in which we are invited to identify with true heroes. For example, Smart suggests that the proliferation of media 'narratives outlining the acts and achievements' of ordinary athletes makes it difficult to recognise extraordinary sporting talent. 'In consequence the potentially truly exceptional figure is inclined to get lost in a sea of mediocrity, to be obscured from view by the deluge of celebrity images and narratives to which we routinely find ourselves exposed'. (9) Such a prognosis strikes me as quite simply wrong. During the 2006 Australian Tennis Open, for example, Roger Federer was quite rightly seen as the top men's player. Commentators, notably Jim Courier, lauded Federer's game as disciplined, powerful and graceful. However, most also accepted that he had not yet done enough to warrant describing him as among the game's greatest players. …

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