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Why Running Needs Socialism

I’ve gotten pretty serious about running. I’m climbing my way to 60-mile weeks this spring. (Yes, I know #beepboop, I can’t stop.) As I’ve been getting more and more serious, I’ve been immersing myself more in the running world – reading books, listening to podcasts (Running Rogue is my favorite, driven as they are by the commitment to elite principles for the everyday runner; I also enjoy the Clean Sport Collective, and Indiana native Lindsey Hein gives great interviews on I’ll Have Another), buying gear (so many things, but this and this are my fave). As I’ve been getting more and more serious about running, I’ve realized that the language, commitments, and ideology of capitalism extend even to running. I mean of course they do, but it isn’t immediately obvious.

So I’ve been thinking about what it might mean to run like a socialist. What I have concluded is that the capitalist funding structure of running in which athletes seek corporate sponsors to ‘go professional’ does not serve the sport well. As a philosopher I like to look for the root of problems. I think you can see what’s happening in an institution or a community by the problems it faces. One of the perhaps defining problems of running as a sport is doping and the question of which technologies to make athletes faster are fair. These problems, I maintain, can be traced back to the profit motive upon which capitalism rests. I think it is clear that the sport of running, and perhaps sport in general, will struggle to deal with pressures to dope as long as the funding structures for athletes are corporate sponsorships, a structure specific to a capitalist regime. Further, the arguments in the service of anti-doping fall short as long as they appeal to principles that perpetuate the ideologies of capitalism: hard work not resources is the source of success alongside a recourse to the natural.

Me in the basement after a run on the treaadmill

First: Running will only overcome incentives to dope when running is not funded as a capitalist enterprise. Here’s what I mean: athletes dope because they want to win. Athletes are incentivized to win at all costs because their contracts with multinational corporations depend on winning. If everyone had a universal basic income then runners could truly run for the love. Runners do not deserve more or less money than factory workers for what they do. Let them choose to run. Their running can be appreciated and enjoyed without them making lots of money if they win and little money if they do not. If they are no longer driven by profit, then they don’t feel pressure to dope, and companies don’t feel pressures to make shoes that skew the sport so that we no longer know if we are truly comparing apples to apples in looking at records because those companies are no longer driven by the profit motive.

Running on the snowy Monon trail near my house

Shoe technology is pretty clearly changing the sport. What holds the sport back from requiring everyone to have the same basic metrics is the funding structure. The funding structure serves capitalist corporations. They are advertising through the athletes they sponsor. Athletes only get paid by having sponsors. This is a ridiculous funding structure that only capitalism could have produced. Yet, very few people question it. If we eliminated the funding structure for runners that makes them dependent on capitalist corporations and truly made decisions for the good of the sport, we could have equity in the sport without people losing their livelihood. I suggest that we cannot make decisions for the good of the sport if we have to make decisions for the good of capitalist corporations.

Shoe technology and doping are perceived as “unfair advantage,” as the United States Anti-Doping Agency puts it. But if the real goal is to eradicate unfair advantage then some athletes wouldn’t be paid more, have better paid coaches, have better training facilities. It’s hard to accept the “unfair advantage” argument against doping when the sport is structured by everyone seeking capitalist means of unfair advantage. Coaches who dope are perceived to treat athletes as pawns not people. Indeed, that is what capital does with labor, and the athletes become the labor in the service of capital, even if that requires harm to their bodies.

Second: Naturalizing arguments in defense of clean sport rely on ideologies of the natural that ignore the many ways that access to capital give some bodies advantages over others: coaching, gear, free time, starting earlier in one’s life, (see also #1). Those things are important, but they aren’t natural. I would go so far to say that there is no way to have a competition that will measure the natural capacities of athletes. That isn’t just because the natural is evasive as influenced as it has been by coaching and training, but also because what appears as natural, as just the body, is itself affected by environmental factors that lead to various capacities being ‘turned on.’ The arguments against doping suppose that there is a ‘natural’ talent that we want to measure and rank. So whatever we are seeing when we see two people compete, no matter how ‘clean’ they might be, is not natural.

I’ll admit, when I hear someone appeal to what is “natural,” I reach for my fighting words. Generally, such claims are made to justify social hierarchies like roles of women and slaves, as I have argued, so we have to be extra careful about the nostalgic investment in the “natural”. Especially when we think that one person’s natural being can be proven better than another’s.

I get the intuitive sense that some people have given talent that doesn’t seem like they got from training. But if we really meant to just observe that ‘pure nature,’ we wouldn’t train! I don’t think we really mean nature. Or rather, I think we have become accustomed to ignoring how much what appears natural is in fact informed by the world that we think natural is a real thing we can access. Somehow we think we are accessing “nature” when we appeal to hard work as the only viable and worthy road to success in sport. But hard work is what we do with our bodies, and the conditions of that work are not equal. A sense of nature as the unbidden, as what simultaneously emerges, as what should be cultivated could all be productive senses of the natural, but they also invite us to wonder whether what simultaneously emerges is good just because it emerges on its own accord. I myself have argued that the co-existence of human beings aiming to achieve what is good and just is a natural aspect of human beings that should be cultivated, rather than viewing our collective being as only instrumentally in the service of individuals. I think this sense of nature is what people mean when they talk appeal to nature in the course of defending clean sport, but this point too can be dangerous in a capitalist regime that sees the athletic body as the raw nature to be instrumentalized for corporate gain and glory.

My point is, anti-doping initiatives resort to the language of nature to defend their investment in clean sport. But that language is fraught, and the access to nature evasive. A better defense would be a socialist one that sees the drive to dope and to have gear that gives advantage in the profit motive. Eliminate the profit motive and you might have fair competition. The market system is invested in producing inequity and advantage and not ‘being fair.’ The profit motive makes athletes in the service of corporations want to win at any cost. Without the profit motive, athletes could train for the glory of the sport. Socialism is the road to true sport.

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