A former amateur in the eight hundred and thousand meters, I admire what I have never succeeded in practicing, speed. The adaptation to the brief bursting forth at the sound of the gun haunts me; I never saw anything but the backs of my concurrents, well named for once. By the way, how long does this hundred meters last? Ten seconds, you reply, in the best of cases; thirteen to fourteen otherwise; after that no one keeps track. No, four million years. You jest!
Not in the least. And first, what reason, natural or otherwise, is there for requiring the athletes to place themselves, at the start, crouched, as though on all fours, the back quasi-horizontal, the front limbs propped on the track's surface, one knee on the ground and the other bent in front? Because they launch out better that way, you reply. Assuredly, but look then at the body's semi-bent position in the first moments of the race: we all began this way, of course not the brief Olympic race toward medals of imitation gold, but rather the race clocked by another timepiece, the one whose duration leads us from a quadrumanous position to the upright posture – definitively or temporarily human – that the runners adopt, stopped, on the podium, proud; our ancestors would not have been able to stand there, erect and immobile. We thus stood up extremely slowly and through the same successive profiles that the runners display during that ten second flash of lightning. Film them then and project their images as slowly as possible: stupefaction, pure paleoanthropology unfolds.
Scarcely descended from the trees, our ancestors enjoyed in fact, at the start, a double locomotion, quadrumanous and bipedal: during this interminable interval of doubt, in which the joints of the arm show themselves to be, as with Lucy's remains, for example, as powerful as the floating ones of the knee, did they walk? Nothing could be less certain. Our precursors trundled along instead, rolling like a small boat, exactly the way our athletes rise at the initial sound of the gun, and begin running in a semi-bowed position, one doubly characteristic of our mad sprints and anthropoid apes, still a little crouched, the back and the head stooped forward, not entirely unfolded, the animated movements of the anterior and posterior limbs not yet aligned along the axis of the course. I'm not dreaming: in his thesis, Le Syndrôme de Lucy chez les footballeurs [The Lucy Syndrome in Soccer Players] (Medical thesis, University of Paris-VII, 1992), Dr. Sylvain Dionnet, a specialist in sports medicine, shows that more than half the injured soccer players he examined suffered from muscle strain in the ischiotibial muscles, shortened, precisely, by the body's initial straightening up, therefore not adapted because of this to brief and rapid running. So take off as fast as possible, and you'll necessarily return to the anthropopithecine profile, abandoned little by little, thus to the progressive unbending we admire in the proposed film. Everyone, the winner and losers, arrives upright.From the starting blocks to the podium, by passing through the energetic start, the acceleration, the unfolding and finish line of these hundred meters, our champions of speed spark enthusiasm in us because they make us relive in abridged form the corporal memory, complete and immemorial, of our hominization: millions of years of evolution in a lightning curve of ten seconds. Look at the winner, proud on the podium: the hominin standing upright, like everyone. (Serres, Michel, Variations of the body, p. 93-94).
Isn't Michel Serres witty and adorable when he interprets 100 meter dash as a neat diorama of the evolution of man? So perfect! 'Four million years in 10 seconds' -- how catchy is that? Truly, the most awesome copywriter there is. One is tempted to apply this kind of interpretative schema to other sports. Could the game of football be seen as a staging of how man domesticated animal – the first balls being goat bladders – in concurrence with other tribes?
But, then again, should we really ascribe sport so much possible content? Sport doesn’t represent. 'We could see this as an instant (rather than image) of Reality as such’; biorama, rather than diorama. In this regard, my hypothesis about the general symmetry between sport and science, as pivotal singularities in the (re)production of the modern constitution, is reinforced by Bruno Latour’s claim that just as the sciences “add reality; they do not subtract it” (We have never been Modern, p. 137), sports do.
The very reason why philosophers have argued that sport shouldn’t be considered an art is that it, at least structurally, is devoid of any content. Surely, there are sports in which content is fairly important, as in figure skating, but most sports keep the dream of a universal (mute) language alive – a veritable Babylon of the modernist Settlement. Maybe the gargantuan success of sport depends on this empty form?
In his treatise of parasites, Serres introduces the concept of the blank (domino), which might be instructive here. The blank is a unit within social systems that could imply change, as well as stasis. It is constitutionally indifferent to heterogeneity.
The empty form of the blank is ideal for initiating changes precisely because it could be impregnated with whatever; a hermetic vessel in both the secreting and the mediating sense.
Even though all they are historically, socially, and culturally specific, my argument is that sports, despite their contingencies, are relatively open to fill with new nation- and culture-specific idiosyncrasies. A perhaps weathered, yet vivid, example of this is association football, whose variations of characteristics worldwide are legio.
But is this applicable to other physical cultures outside the world of sports? Even if the physical cultural practice of, say, Tango has been spread worldwide from its cradle in Argentina, and has given rise to certain local varieties, in Finland for instance (and even if a whole theory and ‘politics of touch’ has been sketched out from this particular dance), any given sport is seemingly more neutral than this culturally saturated dance.
Of course, sport isn’t neutral since it promotes a way of organizing collectives that is representative for the modernist settlement: the enlightened west. This has to do with spatial and temporal distribution, and more specifically, I, as do Steven Connor, would like to argue that what is performed in sport are sophisticated ways of investigating, and experimenting with, relations and interactions between human and nonhuman actors. Precisely like science. The difference between sport and science emerges only in the outcomes: whereas science produces nature by claiming that the human actors involved in the experiments don’t affect the outcome, sport endeavors to produce society/humanity/hominity/culture (categories that will need further examinations) while striving to reduce the impact of nonhuman actors in the outcome.
Therefore, Serres rightly ascribes content to a sport, but, to a certain degree, misses the target. While, on a macropolitical level, sport seems to be a ‘blank’ – a fertile soil for cultural difference –, it, on a micropolitical level, promotes the organizational patterns of the moderns.