Engineering the artificially natural: Design for Sport

Karl Palmås
Chalmers University of Technology
Department of Food, Nutrition and Sport Science, University of Gothenburg

Anxo Cereijo Roibás, Emmanuel Stamatakis & Ken Black (red)
Design for Sport
428 sidor, inb., ill.
Farnham, Surrey: Gower 2011 (Design for Social Responibility Series)
ISBN 978-0-566-08859-9

”Sport is designed, and in being designed, is artificial”. Thus begins Malcolm MacLean’s contribution to the volume Design for Sport, edited by Anxo Cereijo Roibás, Emmanuel Stamakis and Ken Black. MacLean’s point – made in reference to ”a brief history of modern sport” – serves as an excellent point of entry to this textbook. Indeed, the thrust of his argument is signposted in the editors’ introductory chapter: While sport presupposes ”naturally occurring, organic, human bodies”, this also draws upon a peculiar type of concealed ”artificiality”. (7) In other words, sports activities take place within certain rules and regulations, which frame such activities. In between the man-made rules and the supposedly natural bodies, one will find a number of designed tools, gadgets, and prostheses. These designs tend to be overshadowed by great individuals, great achievements or the rules of the game – but they are invariably crucial to how the game is played.

Here, it is tempting to venture into the Latourian domains (Latour, 1993; Jonasson, 2012). Is there a tension between officially natural bodies and equally official rules, on the one hand, and the less-talked-about artifice, on the other? Could it be that this very tension secures the efficacy of sports activities? If one accepts these claims, one may write the history – and the present – of sports as an exploration of the steady stream of designs, tools and prostheses deployed within sports activities. One may even suggest that this perspective on sports – charting a dark underworld teeming with increasingly sophisticated designed artifacts – may be somewhat neglected within the more sociological and cultural studies-inspired parts of sport science.

This may however be subject to change. Design for Sport fits well with what appears to be an increased interest in the interrelation between leisure and sport, on the one hand, and design and product development, on the other. For one, it is telling that the largest research project in the history of Swedish sports science, running between 2012 and 2014, goes by the name of ”Event-based Innovation”. Within that project, the onus is on the capacity of sports events to boost the innovative capacities of various stakeholders. Fittingly, Design for Sport also covers the issue of sports events – notably the London Olympics. We will shortly return to this theme.

In many ways, this volume delivers what one could expect from a textbook on sports design. For instance, there are contributions that introduce both quantitative and qualitative methods that can assist designers of sport goods and services. Thus, one chapter deals with biomechanical data capture and analysis, while another provides an exposition of user ethnography, participative observation, and action research. However, the text also endeavours to convey a sense of social responsibility to would-be designers. As stated in the introduction: ”This book shows how social responsible design can contribute to make sport practice widespread in the general population” (4)

Again, MacLean’s discussion on sports as ”artificially natural” serves as a fitting backdrop to the wider arguments in the book. One of the key merits in highlighting the designed nature of sports activities is that it distorts traditional notions of fitness and normality. (If we accept that sports activities are held in place by various prostheses that mediate between natural bodies and social rules, where does that leave our understanding of the world outside of sports activities?) In line with this line of thought, the contributions in the volume invariably turn away from the elite aspects of sports activities. Notably, the chapters in part three of the volume interrogate the relation between design and the accessibility to, and inclusivity of, sports activities.

In line with her argument on the benefits of urban green spaces, she surmises that the ”landscaped park may turn out to be the most widely beneficial legacy of the London Games”.

Design for Sport thus fits neatly within Gower Publishing’s series on ”design for social responsibility”, edited by leading design management scholar Rachel Cooper. The social responsibility angle stretches beyond issues of accessibility and inclusivity, also covering themes such as social cohesion and sustainable urban development. For instance, in chapter four, Katharine A. Martindale surveys sport and the city, not least focussing on the role that informal green spaces play for the development of healthy urban lifestyles. Here she argues against recent trends such as New Urbanism, which have somewhat neglected the role of such spaces, while instead focussing on the densification of the urban fabric. She also investigates how authorities use large-scale sporting facilities and events as tools for urban regeneration. The belief in the efficacy of such programmes, she notes, seems to persist even though ”there have been few discernible benefits to the wider resident community” in cities such as Barcelona or Sydney. (145) In line with her argument on the benefits of urban green spaces, she surmises that the ”landscaped park may turn out to be the most widely beneficial legacy of the London Games”.

The issue of the Olympics re-occurs in chapter nine, in which Gary Armstrong, Emmanuel Stamatakis and Natalie Campbell posit that the promise of large events is that major funds may be diverted from public funds into grassroots sports. At the time that the chapter was written, the authors nevertheless saw signs of the opposite happening: ”To date, tens of millions of pounds have been diverted from grassroots sports budgets to support the cost of the London Olympics. As a consequence, eight English counties and the city of Birmingham are without a single publicly accessible diving board over one metre high. […] In addition, almost a quarter of a million aspiring gymnasts are now on waiting lists because of insufficient training facilities.” (321) All is not lost, however; major sports events may well generate lasting socially progressive outcomes. Such legacies do not emerge as a natural consequence of the hosting of such events, but rather as a result of carefully designed social policies. The legacy of London 2012, the authors conclude, is ultimately determined by whether ”the level of financing and support is sustained after the Games’ closing ceremony”. (332)

Design for Sport thus covers several domains, and does so in a reasonably convincing manner. At times, the content appears to be somewhat haphazardly put together, and perhaps the manuscript could have benefited from another round of proofreading. In conclusion, however, the volume serves as a useful primer on how socially responsible design can be applied when forging new modes of sporting artificiality.


  • Jonasson, K. (2012) ”A philosophy of s(p)orts: A review essay on A Philosophy of Sport by Steven Connor”, Idrottsforum.
  • Latour, B. (1993) We have never been modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatscheaf.

Copyright © Karl Palmås 2012

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