Sunday, 29 July 2012

Who are you swimming for?

When I was training for my Channel swim, one of the most common questions I was asked (once we'd got all the goose fat questions out of the way) was: "Who are you swimming for?". While I recognise that most people asked out of a generous impulse to contribute to whatever charity I had chosen, what I find intriguing about this is the assumption that I must (should?) be doing it for charity. The idea of swimming / running / cycling / walking for something is so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that it becomes hard for people to imagine not 'swimming for' something; it also becomes difficult, then, to say, as I did, that I was doing it 'for myself', and not for charity, and I often found people actively trying to persuade me to take sponsorship from them, or looking at me rather disappointedly.

One of the roles of sociology is to ask questions about things that seem obvious and straightforward, but which are actually a quite complicated mix, and this is a good example of that. Why is it that charitable fund-raising has become so inextricably linked with endurance sport? How can we understand the moral pressure and expectation to swim for charity? And even more intriguing, perhaps: why should other people's charitable giving be dependent on me doing something as random as swimming the Channel? Why does charitable giving have to be earned through forms of suffering, rather than just given? Of course, many people do give routinely to charities; others donate as much to support a friend doing a challenge as to support a particular charity; for some, the endurance sport is a useful prod to prompt the act of giving. But the tying together of endurance sport and fund-raising in the social imagination is so strong that it raises questions nevertheless.

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, but have been very wary of doing so...not least because any kind of critical engagement with the concept of 'swimming for' something can easily look like I'm doubting the positive motives of those doing so. So, to be clear, that's not what I'm saying - I think that there is a lot of heartfelt, generous, altruistic work being done in this regard. However, the pressure to 'swim for' still troubles me, and the fact that it is tricky to say that you are not 'swimming for' something tells us that there is more going on here than just a free choice of whether or not to swim for charity.

There was some discussion of this on the marathon swimmers' forum last May, covering fund-raising in general, but predominantly whether it is acceptable to fund-raise to cover the costs of swims themselves. The general view on this latter question was that transparency was the key. But I want to return to what I see as the bigger question of the relationship between charitable fund-raising and marathon swimming. By way of contribution to the debate, and as part of the research project, I gave a paper at the Third International Conference on Sport and Society  at Cambridge University on 23-25 July, 2012. My paper was (rather wordily) called: "Who are you swimming for?: English Channel swimming, charitable fund-raising and the construction of alliances of suffering", and this is my first attempt at writing on this topic. This is part of a more extensive writing plan for an academic journal article, but the conference gave me a chance to test out a few ideas. I wasn't entirely happy with the result - too many loose ends, mostly as a result of the 15 minute time limit for the presentation, but also because I'm still a bit tangled up about what the data says and what I want to say about the data. The time limit, for example, meant that I didn't really get chance to talk about the many different kinds of charitable fund-raising that go on under the umbrella of 'swimming for', and hopefully the article will enable me to explore this in more detail. So instead, I focused on the idea that charitable swimming can act as a sort of counter-balance to the very self-directed (self-absorbed) nature of Channel swimming. I also start to develop a concept of 'alliances of suffering' that I think will help to show how the different actors in charitable projects become connected. If you'd like to read the written text of the talk, you can download it by clicking on the paper's title on this page of my research website. It's a work in progress, so all comments welcome.

As for me, I chose not to swim for a charity. Just as there are multiple, simultaneous reasons for swimming for charity, there are several reasons for choosing not to: I didn't want the extra stress and pressure; I didn't feel like I could spare the time on top of the training; I was always planning to do more swims in subsequent years, so it felt like doing the Channel swim for charity was setting an unsustainable precedent; I was frankly uncomfortable with the idea that people's charitable giving would be dependent on such a random activity as me swimming; I felt that there was some tension around fund-raising through the swimming whilst also conducting research on that process (and receiving public money to do so); and finally, and perhaps with my research hat on, I wanted to see what kind of responses I had to not swimming for charity when there was such a strong expectation that I would from others.

What do other people think on this subject? What were your experiences of 'swimming for'? Feel free to e-mail me, or leave comments below.

And in the mean time, happy swimming, whoever you're swimming for.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Pet peeve of the day...

I try to keep this blog relatively light and keep the grumpiness to a minimum, but every so often, I feel like it's reasonable to give vent to the occasional grump. You don't get to be in your mid-40's without accumulating a good raft of pet peeves, and mine include, for example: people who talk in the Quiet Carriage on trains; wet tea bags (weird, creepy texture); the monarchy; describing women as 'girls'. Given the upcoming Olympics, I think we can expect another very grumpy blog on this latter peeve at some point in the next few weeks, given the habitual use of 'girls' to describe women in sports commentary.

But I digress - back to pet peeve of the day...

I received a tweet from cold water swimmer, Lewis Pugh, who I don't follow on Twitter, but which was re-tweeted by someone who I do. The tweet read: "The only way your body physically can't do it - is when your mind tells it to give up". Now...I've never been a particular fan of Lewis Pugh. Without a doubt, the swimming in cold water thing is pretty impressive, but his style of writing - mostly through short, aphoristic proclamations - and a rather macho intensity aren't really to my taste (although I know a lot of people find his ideas and style helpful in preparing for physical challenges). Lewis Pugh is not the pet peeve of the day and this is not an attempt to attack Pugh himself, but rather I want to take issue with the sentiment that he expressed - that bodies are subject to the mind, and that the body only fails because the mind wasn't up to the job. And I'm focusing on this because within the open water swimming world, you hear this kind of statement quite a lot ("20% physical and 80% mental"; "You can do anything you want to do" etc.), and I've never been comfortable with it.

I've written a bit about this before, but with a more conceptual focus on the relationship between mind and body, but this time, I want to raise this as an ethical problem for the swimming community. Firstly, the statement itself is simply, and self-evidently, not true, and I have several disabled students, for example, for whom this is a quite laughable and offensive premise. It is quite likely true that our bodies are capable of more than we think they are (although not always without cost to longer term health and well-being), and perhaps I am taking the saying too literally, but the undeniable reality is that all bodies have physical limitations that cannot be overcome simply by believing more or trying harder. And, for some people, those physical limitations are much more pronounced than for others. Secondly, then, the idea that physical limitation is the product of a weak mind individualises success and failure without any regard for circumstances or context and the very real barriers that many people face to even function effectively in the world. (But then, I am a sociologist, so I would say this...).

I think that this matters because it confuses the feeling that you can do anything you set your mind to with reality. I think all swimmers (and presumably other athletes) have had those moments of 'flow' where they feel incredibly powerful and capable; and most have experienced moments of achieving a much higher / longer / colder performance than they thought possible, and have gained pleasure from that sense of control from having pushed through something difficult. And sometimes, when you see someone push through something that really seems impossible to endure, it can feel like mind over matter is the only possible explanation. Indeed, I agree that being able to push the body into the background at difficult moments is one aspect of endurance sport. But when the values of the swimming community are articulated  through statements that portray bodily failure as a property of mental weakness, I fear that we end up looking like we are disregarding the realities of other people's lives. There is a long history of this in other aspects of social life - for example, enduring notions that blame cancer on individual personality traits, or which argue that the disease can be 'fought' through positive thinking. (To be clear, I'm not saying that Pugh makes these arguments...just that they follow the same kind of logic and that the concept has a long and problematic history). I worry, then, that as a swimming community, there is a tendency to celebrate endurance, triumph and overcoming, but without proper recognition of the privileges and plain old good fortune that enable us to engage in the sport - being fit and healthy enough to take on a marathon swimming challenge in the first place; having access to sufficient time, money and suitable locations to be able to train and enter swims. This is an ethical question, I think, in terms of how the sport represents itself.

There's been a lot of discussion online recently about what constitutes 'real' marathon swimming, and what distinguishes long distance open water swimmers from others, and I want to engage more with these debates in later blogs. But I do think that it's important to keep in mind that success in a particular activity - such as English Channel swimming - is not simply because the swimmer had a stronger mind than those who were not successful, or who could never even consider taking on such a challenge. As a community, I would like to see us acknowledge collectively and publicly not only the hard work that we put in to swimming and attributes that it demands and fosters etc, but also the good fortune (in health, resources etc) and relative privilege that enables us to engage with the sport in the first place (and prevents some others from doing so).

So there it is - my peeve of the day. And breathe....

(NB - this post was edited after publication to clarify some statements, but without changing the overall message).

Friday, 20 July 2012

The return of the big green jelly baby....

Well, it's all excitement in the Channel, as the miserable weather finally seems to have abated and we have been rewarded with the promise of a few lovely, calm, swimmable days. Good luck to everyone out there, or who's heading out there in the next few day. Enjoy it.

Landlocked in Coventry, I am sending my positive thoughts in the form of the big green jelly baby. I wrote about this before my English Channel swim in 2010, but recently reprised it for a drinks reception talk to a conference delegation of food sociologists at the British Library. I had been asked to talk about food and Channel swimming, so opened my talk with a short performance narrative about the big green jelly baby. I've posted this below. There are plenty of people out there with far more experience and expertise than me who are much better placed to offer advice to those swimming this year. But this is my offering of encouragement to the swimmers heading out this season: never under-estimate the comfort of small things while doing a big thing; and never under-estimate the power of a big, green jelly baby.

"Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe – these rhythmic triplets, the soundtrack of swimming. I had lost track of how many hours I’d been going. I had started at 2 that morning, jumping into the inky-black night-time water, and swimming into a beautiful dawn and through the day; the light was now starting to soften, and I guessed it was about 4pm. France was in sight every time I breathed to the left, and had been for hours, but a stubborn tide was blocking my progress, and a stiff wind was whipping up white-crested waves head on. My day of swimming was broken down in my mind into manageable half hour chunks…the time period between each feed, lowered down to me on a rope by my crew. Three feeds ago, my boat pilot had come out of the cabin to tell me that it was time for some hard effort now to push through the difficult tide. I had picked up my stroke rate in an attempt to muster something approximating a sprint, and my crew had stood on the deck, clapping and cheering me on; at every feed, they told me I looked fantastic, that I was flying – a generous and welcome fiction. Stroke, stroke, breathe; stroke, stroke, breathe. But I was getting tired now, and sore – not injury-sore, but all-over fatigued; every part of me felt nauseated and grey with tiredness. On every 6th stroke, I breathed towards the boat, snatching a visual snapshot of the scene on board and scouring it for clues; in unguarded moments, my crew looked worried. They knew what I didn’t – that the tide was supposed to have turned an hour ago, sweeping me up to the French shore; but it hadn’t (and bizarrely, anomalously, didn’t that day). I could see their huddled conversations with the boat pilot and felt a rising panic that after all these hours, after all of those months of training, perhaps this wasn’t going to be my day after all. Stroke, stroke, breathe; stroke, stroke, breathe – trying to keep up the faster pace. Needing to halt a rising, energy-sapping panic, it was time for my swimming strategy of last resort, saved and rehearsed for just such a moment, to get me through to the next feed…I emptied my head as much as I could, half-closed my eyes, and imagined an enormous, green jelly baby.
I scrutinised it carefully in slow, meticulous detail: little block feet, pudgy knees, rounded pot belly, button-nosed face, a jellied curl of hair on the crown, arms by its sides, round, fingerless hands. I turned it over in my mind to look at the bottom of its feet, then its flat back, its head and rounded shoulders from above. Then I imagined biting into it– just the left foot. I imagined the tooth-marked bright green jelly exposed inside, and the thin line of starchy white crust left behind. I imagined the handful of calories running into my own left foot. Next, the left leg, from ankle to knee; from knee to hip; then the right leg…slowly, incrementally, deliberately, until it was all gone, the cute jelly head forming the final bite. My crew signalled the next feed time by holding up the feeding bottle and rope spool; another half hour done."

You can find the text of the entire talk here (as well as other podcasts and talk transcripts).

Thursday, 12 July 2012

London 2012...

I've got very mixed feelings about the London 2012 Olympics.

In many ways, I find elite sport captivating - I admire absolute commitment in any field, and think that the work that goes into producing an elite sporting body is astonishing. I like watching those bodies in action...much more than I actually like the competition element, to be honest. But I also love a good race from time to time, although I rarely support anyone, and certainly don't feel any particular national or team allegiance; I just like watching the performance and experiencing some of the tension and excitement. The Olympics is, or at least could be, an intense festival of such moments, and when London was first awarded the Olympics in 2005, I remember being concerned about what it would mean for East London (where I was living at the time) but excited about it too.

But now, two weeks away from the start of the Olympics, I feel very different about it all. I am appalled by the raging hypocrisy of selling the Olympics to the UK as a health-promoting event then conceding universal catering rights to two of the most rapacious purveyors of low quality food in the world; the crass commercialisation is nauseating. And then we have the attempts, verging on the lunatic, to eliminate the names of any non-sponsors - for example, the Ricoh stadium in Coventry, is being renamed the "City of Coventry stadium" during the Olympics....including all the road signs!! There's also the superbly ridiculous stories of attempts to stop caterers serving chips to workers on the Olympic site because McDonalds have absolute rights to chips, and the relentless attempts to hunt down small businesses - even those East London businesses supposed to benefit from the Games - to prevent unauthorised uses of "Olympic" and other associated terms.

And then there's the budget. In June of this year, it was proudly announced that the Olympics would be coming in at £476 million under the £9.3 billion budget, but it is hard to think of any other circumstance where making an original bid of £2.4 billion, then later quadrupling it, would ever count as coming in under budget. One of the costs overlooked by the original budget was VAT! Unbelievable. The lack of clear legacy planning for the facilities, post-Olympics, is equally worrying; the recently issued photos of the Beijing facilities, left to rot, should give us pause for thought.

And then there's what I consider to be the really serious stuff - the compulsory purchase of homes and businesses; the repression of free speech and the right to protest; the unwarranted and unacceptable militarisation of East London (missiles on roofs, soldiers on the gates); and the rise of stop and search in Newham (and the associated criminalisation of (some) young people). I would also add to this the raging nationalism and the rhetoric of winning at all costs.

So, I am ambivalent. I know that I will end up watching some of it on TV - the swimming (indoor and out), some of the athletics, the cycling, probably. Those elite sporting bodies in action are always a sight to behold. But I think that the way in which the Olympics have been marketed to, and inflicted upon, the UK is dishonest, and the willingness to erode rights and freedoms, especially of those living in East London, is shameful. It didn't have to be like this, and a more honourable government (both the preceding Labour government, and the current coalition) would not have allowed it to happen in this way.

To the athletes, I wish them every success, and to those who have invested in tickets, or who are volunteering, I hope you have a wonderful few weeks. I know that many people will not agree with my point of view on this, and I perfectly respect that. But for me, however wonderful the sport, it will always leave a nasty taste in my mouth, and I heartily wish that this had been done differently.

Sunday, 8 July 2012


This weekend was the BLDSA 8 mile Torbay swim - my first go at this particular event, but one that I was really looking forward to. That I was underprepared would be an understatement; the end of term marking binge got totally out of hand, and training ended up being set aside more often than it should have been in order to get everything finished on time. Consequently, the 8 miles was going to be a hard swim for me on the best of days, but with luck, a manageable one. However, things didn't quite work out as I had planned, and I notched up my first DNF (Did Not Finish) ever for an event.

The first problem was this:

The weather forecast was miserable (and as it turned out, accurately so), with rain, high winds, falling temperatures and a general absence of anything much like summer. On Friday, the South West received about a month's worth of rain in one day, and on Friday night, as I lay in the campervan trying to get to sleep, all I could here was the sound of rain drumming relentlessly on the roof. On Saturday, I drove down to Meadfoot Beach in Torquay with some trepidation, and when I saw (and heard) the angry water of the bay, I was pretty certain (and a little hopeful) that the event would be cancelled. This was very unadventurous of me, but given that this was my first venture into the sea this year, on top of a very modest amount of training, I really wasn't sure how I'd hold up under those conditions. 

After much discussion, it was eventually decided by the organisers that since people had travelled some distance to swim, and since they'd already had the trophies made with 2012 on them, they would run a 4 mile swim comprised of 8 half-mile laps around buoys in the bay. I have to admit that my heart sank a little, and I wasn't in a great frame of mind when I got in, but even then I wasn't really prepared for what it was like in the water. Looking back through the blog, each year when I've got into the sea for the first time, I've had problems with balance and orientation that seem to diminish as I become more acclimatised to the movement; so this was something of a baptism of fire given that it was my first sea swim since last September, and I simply didn't have the skills, the strength or the sense of balance to cope with such nasty conditions. Struggling to make headway through the waves, I then became seasick. This has never happened to me before IN the sea (rather than on it) - except for Catalina, but that only happened because I was still sick from the boat. It was becoming harder and harder to focus my eyes and keep my balance; my head was spinning and my stomach kept heaving, eyes watering into my goggles. And so, after 4 laps, cold, depleted and miserable, I decided to call it a day. DNF. 

So, what did I learn from the day? 

Firstly, skimping on the training is risky - you train for what goes wrong, not what goes right. If I had been able to train harder, and in different conditions and bodies of water, it would have been easier to adapt and rise to the occasion. 

Secondly, sometimes, it's just not your day, for whatever reason, and it's okay to get out. Nothing bad happens. It's only swimming. 

Thirdly, there are some amazing swimmers out there and it was fantastic to watch everybody completing the swim. Well done to everyone.

Fourthly, the BLDSA is a wonderful organisation. The swim was made possible by an enormous number of volunteers (kayakers, St John's Ambulance, the event organisers) who got cold and wet without complaint. I love the tone of BLDSA events - the safety cover is always excellent, but low key; the prizes are never awarded until everyone has finished (or retired), and while the winners are always celebrated, so are the slower swimmers too. And I love the fact that no-one is snotty or derisive about those who DNF. Their events, whilst incorporating some seriously impressive racing, are ultimately about swimming, not winning, which is just great for the sport. I'm also particularly grateful to the poor kayaker who accompanied me round the course to the soundtrack of me heaving and puking, and to the first aiders who looked after me when I got out. 

And finally, even though the day didn't quite work out as I had planned (both in terms of the weather, and my own rather poor performance), it was actually a fantastic day of hanging out with swimmers, meeting new friends, and finally putting online names to faces. Even bad days can be good days.