An unremarkable but well-crafted story of loss, sport and charity, that pulls at the heartstrings

Aurélien Daudi
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Catherine Palmer
Fitness Philanthropy: Sport, Charity and Everyday Giving
160 pages, hardcover.
Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2020
ISBN 978-1-5275-5542-6

I did not expect to be as affected by Catherine Palmers Fitness Philanthropy: Sport, Charity and Everyday Giving as I occasionally was. Although perhaps not caused by the profundity of its conclusions or the evocative nature of the questions raised, as both of these I found never to really venture beyond the span of “somewhat dull” to “mildly interesting”, it does provide a beautiful account of good people whom tragedy has befallen, who come together to try and help the world, and in so doing, help themselves. It is at times heartwarming, and at times heartbreaking, and at the end one is left with a sense of hope both in kindness, in the human ability to overcome and find meaning in spite of and through the inevitable hardships of life, and also, though perhaps to a lesser extent than the author intended, in the combinatory potential for all of this created in the fusion of healthism, physical activity and charity forming the so called “fitness philanthropy”.

The book consists of two parts, seven chapters in total. Each chapter but the seventh, which contains a short summary and reflection, is a somewhat self-contained study exploring various elements of what together constitute the object of research in the book – fitness philanthropy. It is the name given by the author to “those consumer-oriented philanthropic solutions to health or social problems that draw on physical activity-based events such as fun runs, bike rides, long swims, epic hikes and multisport challenges in which participants seek to raise money for and awareness of health and social causes” (p. ix). Or, in shorter terms, the “broader movement that leverages the synergy between sport and charity” (p. 3). The author is interested in understanding and describing the ways in which the social phenomenon of fitness philanthropy has come about and gained the momentum that it has in recent years, as well as the social and structural factors that have allowed it to do so. Two central questions frame the content of the book:

      1. What can explain the emergence of fitness philanthropy as a social, cultural and economic phenomenon?
      2. How can the research contribute to new understandings as they relate to sport, philanthropy, health and wellness and a civic engagement?

While the second one can perhaps be perceived to be a bit vague, the broadness of the two questions posed matches the structuring of the book and the somewhat distinctive and independent nature of the various chapters.

Palmer argues throughout the book that intertwined with the rise of sports-based charity fundraising, and very much jointly responsible for its popularity, is a shift within society towards what she calls compassionate consumption and active citizenship. Sport and health, and the values that they represent, are combined with a number of other values which, in today’s society, together form a kind of characterization of a “good person”. Fitness philanthropy is thus proposed to represent a conjunction of health and physical fitness with charity, generosity and the act of being a good citizen, wherein a display of the former in some ways equates also to a display of the latter. Though an interposition might be that this seems to relate mostly to those participants of fitness philanthropy events who are themselves not victims of whatever social ill or disease that is being highlighted and for which money is being raised. Because for those who are, in the stories that are told in the book, there seems to be different governing values at the helm. One respondent offers a clue: “You feel like absolute hell through chemo, unattractive, you lose hair. Once I was through that I needed to run again to feel active and alive again” (p. 95). The contrast between the great physical exertion entailed in participating in these “fun runs, bike rides, long swims” etc. and the suffering caused by illnesses such as cancer I found to form an interesting dichotomy. It is in many ways an affirmation of life, of having experienced great suffering and survived, and a proof to oneself that one has, or will be able, to recover. From the deepest valley to the highest mountain – and the marathon will take you there.

Could another family, with a vested interest in something other than running and a physically active lifestyle, achieve the same healing results focusing their attention on and coming together in a pursuit which shared none of the aspects of sport and charity?

For others, participating and contributing to various causes and research funding for diseases, the concept of compassionate consumption seems apt. “Charitable citizenship”, Palmer writes, “– seen in the kindness of compassionate consumption” (p. 140). It is also a notion I would have liked to see the author spend a little more time exploring. It is an interesting proposition which invites the mind to wander. Unfortunately, however, one is mostly left to wander alone. Consumption is often, dare I say always, attached to some sort of extrinsic or intrinsic creation of value. There is added value in consumption beyond what the object of consumption itself provides. At one point leisure is also brought up, and the philanthropic spending of one’s money. Here one cannot help, for example, but be reminded of Thorstein Veblen’s classic notion of conspicuous consumption/leisure, and the additional dimension and complication it provides to what is otherwise a fairly straightforward occurrence. Without this, or the addition of other similarly expounding dimensions or complications, an important aspect of the book’s reasoning remains in my view a little underdeveloped.

The same can be said for another central aspect of the phenomenon of fitness philanthropy. Some of the events which fall under this category, depicted as unique social and sporting phenomena, are positioned, specifically through the intersecting and interweaving of grief, sport or physical activity and fundraising, as possessing a certain capacity to provide relief for those who have suffered the death or serious illness of a loved one. But I find myself wondering what the unique aspects of these fitness philanthropy or fitness events which the author is researching are, that merit such an attribution of the special ability to heal those in grief? There seems to be a case of attributing too specific a causational relationship between these aspects of the events and the healing occurring for those participating than there are legitimate reasons to. Or, at least, too few arguments are provided for why this should be believed to be the case. Is it, for instance, the particulars of training for the Ironman event, as in one of the cases detailed, which specifically permits a certain kind of healing, or is it the act of coming together as a family in times of grief in a common pursuit, focusing one’s attention on one thing (which happens to be within fitness philanthropy because the family was already heavily invested in these or similar activities beforehand) which in fact causes the effects? Could another family, with a vested interest in something other than running and a physically active lifestyle, achieve the same healing results focusing their attention on and coming together in a pursuit which shared none of the aspects of sport and charity? In the cases described in the book, the people involved have all had extensive previous experiences with and years of developing an interest in the specific sport practiced in the event of their choice. It thus seems equally plausible that the responsibility for the experiences reported belong less to the specific interplay of the various themes characteristic of fitness philanthropy and more to aspects which a great number of different activities and pursuit could potentially have in common. I am not arguing either way here, I simply believe that the book remains unnecessarily vague, perhaps a little uncritical, on just a few of the key intricacies of the topics discussed, and sometimes takes too much for granted without fully convincing the reader why they should too.

All in all, and despite a few critical remarks, Fitness Philanthropy: Sport, Charity and Everyday Giving remains a pleasant, at times heartfelt, and well-written book (although a surprising number of errors managed to survive the editorial process – perhaps another turn would have been warranted). It is at its best when it recounts the touching stories of the people who faced adversity and loss, and then found meaning and hope in dealing with it through uniting for a good cause and an active investment in fitness events. Although this does not necessarily break much new ground scientifically, it at least provides some nice food for thought. I can recommend the book to anyone interested in this subject, but I would stop just shy of doing it to someone who is not.

Copyright © Aurélien Daudi 2021

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