On the changing concepts of medicine, sport and the body

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Susanna Hedenborg
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Neil Carter Medicine, Sport and the Body: A Historical Perspective 290 sidor, inb. London: Bloomsbury 2012 ISBN 978-1-84966-067-9

Neil Carter
Medicine, Sport and the Body: A Historical Perspective
290 pages, hc.
London: Bloomsbury 2012
ISBN 978-1-84966-067-9

In his book Medicine, Sport and the Body, Neil Carter successfully demonstrates that the use of a historical perspective is essential for our understanding of the complex interrelationships between medicine, sport and the body. The history of medicine and the history of sport are elegantly combined and Carter uses both sources and previous research to point to interesting paradoxes and complicities in the history of the body. The time period covered is mid 19th century up until today. Changing perceptions of the body, not least in relation to the idea about health being connected to a body maintaining its equilibrium as believed in Galenic medicine, giving way to another idea – that of the body as a machine – is an interesting development during the period. How this changing perception has altered ideas in relation to the sporting and exercising body is presented and discussed.

In what way a body is allowed to do sport or exercise is determined by the perceptions of the body as well as constructions of gender, nationality and social class. The social construction of masculinity, including the adoption of pain and injury as central values in sport, is discussed, as well as socially constructed requirements of the female body. Carter provides a special chapter on medicine, sport and the female body instead of using a gender perspective throughout the book. In this chapter, Carter, like others before him, points to how the female body has been interpreted in very different ways from the male body. This is important, but could have been integrated in the other chapters, making it more plausible that the various themes analyzed there include both the male and female body, both the male and female perspective.

Another important issue covered in the book is the close relationship between the development of sport medicine (its institutionalization and professionalization) and the commercialization of sport. The entanglement of these two processes provides interesting and paradoxical activities in which medicine is, simultaneously, supposed to heal injured bodies, improve results for a specific team or a specific athlete, and provide health to the athletes or the population at large. That sport and health are not necessarily linked is discussed and the connection between competitiveness, masculinity, commercialization, injuries and elite sport is exemplified and problematized. The complex history is also presented in the relations between coaches, working in practice, and sport medicine, focusing on science. In addition, medicine and the contradictive needs and targets of recreational sport and elite sport are analyzed.

The importance of medicine in regulating body politics is analyzed both in relation to national public policy and to sport medicine. The significance of a healthy population has long been central to policies in many countries. Discourses regarding militarism, hygiene and welfare are all centered on the body. Male bodies had to be prepared for war using exercise and sport in the 19th century, whereas women’s bodies had to be protected and their energy directed to childbearing rather than exercise and sporting activities during that time. In the 20th century, Carter sees another part of body politics influencing the relationship between medicine, sport and the body – the welfare societies’ responsibility for public health, and for the elite athlete. During this century, insurance systems were developed in order to help and support athletes. In contemporary discourses on medicine, sport and the body, health issues like child obesity as well as sedentary behaviors of the population are included.

Carter’s book covers many different issues – possibly too many. What is gained in including many different examples from different periods and countries is sometimes lost in focus. Even so, the book is suitable, and highly recommended, as teaching material for students – it is well written and it will certainly increase the awareness of our changing concepts of medicine, sport and the body, which is important. It is far too easy to assume that what science points to as truths about medicine, sport and the body today, may not be the truths of tomorrow!

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg 2014

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