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  • Aren’t Athletes Cyborgs?: Technology, Bodies, and Sporting Competitions
  • Rayvon Fouché (bio)

In a special edition about the idea and the proliferation of the term “viral,” it is more than appropriate to consider the work of Donna Haraway. I, and I assume many others, first met Donna Haraway in class. For me it was as a graduate student in science and technology studies that I first encountered “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The conceptualization of cyborgs as a strange melding of human organic/biological material with any of a multitude of technoscientific artifacts was a new and refreshing intellectual taste that was familiar, but distinctly different from my everyday diet of social constructionist meditations on technological and scientific practice. Haraway’s cyborg theorization has spread like a virus (minus the sickness-inducing pathogens) through academic and nonacademic communities. It is viral in that it has relatively silently and efficiently spread across multiple disciplinary domains. It is also viral because it has been reproduced and replicated so often that its origin has been obfuscated. Thus, in the context of virality of Haraway’s cyborg, is there a place to say anything new? Doubtful. But there may still exist small windows to contemplate splicing cyborg ideas into new places and spaces. This essay will move in this more fruitful direction. That is, how can the concept of “cyborg” be used to intervene and reconceptualize commonly understood notions of gender, bodies, identity, and community? Of course, taken as a whole this is a monumental task. I will take a small slice of the pie and center my discussion on the world of sport and think about the ways the “cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as on part of needed political work” (Haraway 1991, 154). [End Page 281]

My point of entry may seem a strange departure point, but sport is one locale where cyborg bodies have been not only accepted but also embraced. The rhetoric about freakish bodies producing unnatural performances has been a familiar refrain within commentaries about sport. Yet the popular mythology about sport is that competitions should be fair and in this fairness the best man, woman, or body should win (Magdalinski 2009). But even as the most casual grade school playground kickball participant knows, the world of sport is far from fair and equal. Sport is about creating, exploiting, and maintaining inequalities, or what is more commonly known as competitive advantages. Competitive advantages can be acquired in many ways, but the history of sport in the twentieth century has been about gaining a competitive edge through the use of technoscientific artifacts attached to the body or integrated into the body or a change in body mechanics. In the early 1960s, Dick Fosbury changed the body mechanics of high-jumping by developing a new body technique demanding that a competitor reorient his or her body to the bar. If one views the body as a machine, this new technique can be seen as a technological innovation (van Hilvoorde, Vos, and de Wert 2007). Initially there was concern that Fosbury’s new method of high-jumping undermined the integrity of the event. But the fact that this technique was in theory learnable by all and did not alter or add anything appreciable to the body quelled objections to the “Fosbury Flop.” However, discussions, debates, and legal battles about which artifactual technologies can and should be attached to or used by a body and those technologies that influence the internal dynamics of a body drive much of the popular discourse about technology and sport. The dominant internal technologies fall under the broad category of “doping” (Møller 2010). The sheer invisibility of these technologies is part of what makes them so effective for competitors and troubling for fans and sport governing bodies. External technologies like overly hydrodynamic swimming suits and seemingly erratic balls seen in the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Cup, respectively, received many complaints from fans and competitors alike. In general the same concern is raised about external and internal technologies. They are both perceived as unleveling the playing field by sublimating the natural human body to technology. By...