The cult of high performance sport, maltreatment and human rights

Authors: Kavanagh, E. and Adams, A.

Start date: 7 July 2015

High performance (HP) athletes are commonly thought to exercise consent when participating in those systems designed to ensure each individual maximises his/her sporting utility. This can happen within a system whose practices have the potential to result in the maltreatment or abuse of the individual. We explore maltreatment, willing compliance, authority and consent in high performance environments and interrogate how athletes can experience maltreatment whilst working or training in elite state funded sporting systems. We explore willing compliance through a Foulcauldian lens on power (Ransom, 1997, Danaher et al, 2000), viewing power as a normative and rational response to particular sets of culturally determined circumstances and processes, where individual identities may be rationalised and accepted, in the face of specific norms and values. Linked to consent and domination (Blau, 1964) and coupled to high performance system processes we focus on situations where athletes may willingly comply with the demands and/or conditions placed upon them. Consent is a point of contention. It is transformative in ethical and moral ways and ensures that practices which have the potential for harm to the individual become actions which those individuals in part consent or willingly comply to. It is often these processes that individuals need protecting from.

Data was gathered via a narrative approach centred on understanding experiences of being maltreated. Narrative methods prioritise a specific individual’s experience through eliciting stories of concrete events and happenings that have occurred in their life. Twelve elite athletes, ages 19 to 35 years were interviewed. We conclude through a critical lens that a consideration of consent, compliance and willing compliance can explain why performers maintain involvement in sports even if there is the potential for a physical, psychological and/or emotional cost associated with their participation. This desire for separation of these terms is important if we are to consider how the human rights (HR) of HP athletes may be compromised by the often-unwitting actions of coaches and authority figures.

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