8 January 2016

Athletes are not Free

The Panopticon: Bentham's beast
The Panopticon was a prison, in which inmates were watched from a central guard tower. The guard in the tower could see each prisoner at any given moment in time, while the prisoners could see the tower but not the guard.

Jeremy Bentham, who first developed the idea, thought that the possibility of being watched would produce compliant and controlled behaviour from the prisoners. Later, since prisoner behaviour is conditioned by the possibility of being watched, it would not be necessary to actually have any guard present, as long as the prisoners retained the sense of being watched. Surveillance produces discipline.

Michel Foucault constructed a theory of post-modern society in which discipline and surveillance were hugely significant conditioning elements of human behaviour and interaction. He borrowed Bentham's Panopticon and extrapolated it as a framework for understanding society more widely. Foucault applied the Panopticon idea beyond prisons to schools, hospitals and other social institutions. But, what about Sport?

Watching Sport

In the world of elite sport discipline over athletes is particularly evident.

Athletes must not consume substances on the WADA banned list: accidental ingestion is no defence and sanctions for those 'caught' can be severe enough to end or substantially damage careers. Athletes' whereabouts are not private. They must be willing to report for a drugs test at the drop of a hat, and if they leave the country on holiday or to train the federation or NGB has to know about it. As an athlete you might not be called in to provide a sample, but you might be. The point is that the possibility of surveillance produces discipline.

The Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (or ADAMS) is a system used in the UK to track athletes' whereabouts as well as their dietary and supplementary intake. ADAMS is always on hand to ensure you don't partake of the forbidden fruit.

The Threat of Force

The efficacy of the Panopticon as a tool for discipline rested on one other factor. We have already seen that the possibility of surveillance produces discipline in the watched, but it can only do this where the watcher carries the threat of force. This factor remains true when we extrapolate again to the wider social world, and the context of sport.

The incessant surveillance which athletes must suffer only produces discipline and compliance if there is a reason to avoid being caught. It should be of no surprise then that recent news has included the declaration by German law makers that athletes testing positive for banned substances could face imprisonment for up to 3 years. Those who supply the drugs could get up to 10 years.  Here then is the threat of force: you might be forced to live in a cell, eat prison food and watch the world go by through iron bars. Germany is not the first nation to pass such laws.

In the modern era, athletes are watched as though they were criminals. Athletes are now to be disciplined as though they were criminals. Athletes are subject to the threat of force as though they were criminals.

Athletes are not free.

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