Sport for all, or not for all, that is the question

Mark Brooke
Centre for English Language Communication
National University of Singapore

Rylee A. Dionigi & Michael Gard (eds.)
Sport and Physical Activity across the Life Span: Critical Perspectives
362 pages, hardcover.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2018
ISBN 978-1-137-48561-8

This book is timely as it presents a topic of enquiry rarely explored: sport for all across the lifespan. In fact, the authors point out that McPherson’s 1986 edited collection Sport and aging: The 1984 Olympic Scientific Congress proceedings was really the last central work dedicated to this field. This book explores sport participation across the lifespan from early childhood to old age. However, it is focused not only on sport and the aging cycle but also on intersectionality and in particular, how organised sport and physical activity promotion for the masses are impacted by a complex interrelationship with other demographic variables such as social circumstances (class, race, gender, sexuality) and circumstances of life (ability and family dynamics). The book critically explores accounts of Sport for All, from recreational to elite and local to international levels, in light of these concepts, and the impact these have at macro and micro levels.

As the editors, Dionigi and Gard, argue, there are myths related to the Sport for All narrative. It is untrue that sport is accessible to all ages, and policies to promote this have proven ineffective. They also argue that the “Sport for All across the lifespan” ideal is used for political purposes. In each chapter, different authors critique the narrative. There are four common overarching arguments presented throughout the book. The first is that “Sport for all ages” is not plausible due to issues of inclusivity. The second is that the narrative “Sport for All ages” is exploited to market to retirees and regulate ‘at-risk’ youth. The third argument is that sport participation tends to occur predominantly amongst the middle-class. Finally, the authors in the book posit that sport as an imperative for all is the hegemonic discourse and that not all groups welcome it. There should not be this form of pressure on these groups. Thus, readers are encouraged to answer the following questions: ‘what kinds of other ideas does “Sport for All” allow us to entertain and think in relation to age groups? What kinds of questionable practices does the presumption of “Sport for All across the lifespan” help to facilitate? What are some unintended and perhaps unforeseen consequences of “Sport for All”?’ (p. 9).

The book comprises 17 chapters from diverse authors belonging to Faculties of Kinesiology and Health, Sport Sociology, Policy and management; Indigenous; and Disability Studies from far afield including America, Australia, Belgium, Canada, and the UK. It is separated into two parts: chapters 2, 3 and 4 set the context for sport participation and policy. After these, the following chapters are divided based on age groups from early childhood; to adolescent; then sport in adulthood; followed by mid-life; and finally, old age.

Part one’s chapters explore how sport participation and policy differ depending on age but also gender, socio-economic status, and location in the current western environment. Gard and Dionigi’s chapter 4 is of particular interest from this section as it contextualises part 2 by examining how in modern history, sport has been portrayed as a panacea for a range of social policy problems. These authors discuss the medicalisation of sport and how it has been, and still is, used to regulate and discipline across the age cycle. They begin this chapter arguing that it would be difficult to imagine that governments would push ‘French cooking, daytime television, chamber music or crossword puzzles’ (p. 68) as much as “Sport for All”. However, as they point out, policy makers and marketers employ athletes ‘as symbols of health, success, desirability and moral worth’ (p. 68). Consequently, any notions of “Sport for All” as a literal claim are not plausible, as these are limited finite resources. They therefore question the promiscuity and endurance of this policy discourse.

For this author, of notable interest in the eond part are chapters 5 and 11.

To conclude, this edited volume comprises some extremely thought-provoking chapters within the field of the “Sport for All” discourse.

In chapter 5, Fraser-Thomas and Safai provide a telling report through their qualitative research findings conducted on pre-schoolers’ sport participation experiences in a Canadian context. They argue that an overly-structured environment reduces enjoyment as there is too much deliberate practice.  They conclude that parents “bought into” (p. 109) the “sport as good” narrative but that life skills were not necessarily transferred. Moreover, continuous and repetitive practice increased the potential for physical injury rather than increased motor skills. They conclude that the “sport for good” narrative ‘provides fertile ground for sport-based businesses to exploit parents and children for financial gain’ (p. 110).

In chapter 11, Jette begins her chapter entitled “Sport for All, or Fit for Two? Governing the (In)active Pregnancy” with a citation from MS magazine (1978): ‘Who says athletes can’t be pregnant?’ Drawing on a second-wave feminist perspective, she argues that women are constrained by the narrative that their sporting experiences should be ‘fit for two.’ The mother-to-be is expected to act for the unborn child and strive to manage the pregnancy to avoid potential risk. The author goes on to present a Foucauldian analysis of this phenomenon, pointing out how this is a form of biopower to regulate and discipline the population. She states: “The pregnant body is an obvious site for the implementation of tools, techniques, and means intended to produce a healthy social body: by disciplining the individual pregnant body, the health of the (future) population is also regulated” (p.212). Jette provides an historical account of three important events shaping the discourse of the active, pregnant body. These are the ‘rise of medicine and public health at the turn of the twentieth century; the emergence of second-wave feminism and the ensuing debates about active pregnant (sporting) bodies (1960s to early 1990s); and the so-called obesity epidemic (1990s to the present)’ (p. 212). She concludes that these movements have led sport to be viewed as a panacea for pregnant women’s health. However, for a healthy pregnancy, it is clear that several other variables are more important, yet often overlooked in the neo-liberal landscape, such as access to safe housing, adequate nutrition and reliable prenatal care. Part-time and full time work have also been integrated into this fitness discourse to prolong pregnant women’s engagement in the workforce. Jette concludes that governments have long used exercise in pregnancy for its biopolitical function of regulation and calls for changes in this field to give women the right to choose how they manage their pregnancy as well as better infrastructural support, rather than the laissez-faire policy inherent in some neo-liberal societies.

To conclude, this edited volume comprises some extremely thought-provoking chapters within the field of the “Sport for All” discourse. Each one presents an interesting contemporary social phenomenon worthy of discussion. The book seeks to bust the myths perpetuated by the “sport evangelists”[1] by deconstructing them through empirical and historical analyses and presents the tensions within and unintended consequences of such narratives. It also brings to light the structural inequality faced by groups such as the disabled in western, so-called developed, societies. As Peter Donnelly, states in his foreword: “This collection of work should help to drive the debate, and to set a direction for future research, policy and practice” (p. VIII).

Copyright © Mark Brooke 2018

[1] As coined by Richard Giulianotti in his 2004 article “Human rights, globalization and sentimental education: the case of sport”. Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 7 (4), pp. 355-369.


Table of Content

1. Sport for All Ages? Weighing the Evidence
Rylee A. Dionigi and Michael Gard

Part I Setting the Context: Sport Participation and Sport Policy

2. Sport Participation across the Lifespan: Australian Trends and Policy Implications
Rochelle M. Eime and Jack T. Harvey

3. Diversity in Participation Reigns, Policy Challenges Ahead: Sport for All (Ages) from a European Perspective
Jeroen Scheerder, Hanne Vandermeerschen, and Koen

4. From a Lucky Few to the Reluctant Many: Interrogating
the Politics of Sport for All
Michael Gard, Rylee A. Dionigi, and Claudio Dionigi

Part II Early Childhood, Youth and Sport

5. Tykes and ‘Timbits’: A Critical Examination of Organized Sport Programs for Preschoolers
Jessica Fraser-Thomas and Parissa Safai

6. An Uneven Playing Field: Talent Identification Systems and the Perpetuation of Participation Biases in High Performance Sport
Nick Wattie and Joseph Baker

7. Girls’ Presentations of Self in Physical Culture: A Consideration of Why Sport is Not Always the Answer
Eimear Enright

8. ‘At-Risk’ Youth Sport Programmes: Another Way of Regulating Boys?
Rachael Hutchesson, Rylee A. Dionigi, and Kristina Gottschall

9. Sport is Not for All: The Transformative (Im)possibilities
of Sport for Young Disabled People
Hayley Fitzgerald

Part III Sport in Adulthood

10. Adult Sport Participation and Life Transitions: The Significance of Childhood and Inequality
David Haycock and Andy Smith

11. Sport for All, or Fit for Two? Governing the (In)active Pregnancy
Shannon Jette

12. The Role of Sport in the Lives of Mothers of Young Children
Katherine E. Soule

13. The Gay Games, Safe Spaces and the Promotion of Sport for All?
Chelsea Litchfield and Jaquelyn Osborne

Part IV Sport in Mid-life and Old Age

14. Doing ‘More for Adult Sport’: Promotional and Programmatic Efforts to Offset Adults’ Psycho-social Obstacles
Bradley W. Young and Bettina Callary

15. The Mid-life ‘Market’ and the Creation of Sporting Sub-cultures
Rylee A. Dionigi and Chelsea Litchfield

16.  Outdoor Adventurous Sport: For All Ages?
Elizabeth C.J. Pike

17. Sport, Physical Activity, and Aging: Are We on the Right Track?
Kelly Carr, Kristy Smith, Patricia Weir, and Sean Horton

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