Saturday, 14 December 2013

The picture...

It was hard this summer not to have seen the furore surrounding Diana Nyad's 5th and final attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida - a venture that concluded with her walking triumphantly up the beach in Florida 50+ hours after jumping into the beautiful blue Cuban waters. A festival of interviews and publicity followed, and shortly on its tail, increasingly insistent questioning from the marathon swimming community, led by members of the Marathon Swimmers Forum. Several of these members went on to pose those questions in the international media and in an oddly-staged online 'meeting' in an effort to compel Nyad and her team to address a series of doubts - most specifically those relating to the rules under which the swim was conducted, an apparent claim to a 7 hour nighttime stretch without feeding, an unusually swift pace for several hours mid-swim and the absence of the kinds of systematic documentation that are conventionally seen as legitimising marathon swims. Others, and particularly MSF founders Evan Morrison and Donal Buckley  have written very eloquently, including from the media frontline, about these campaigns and counter-campaigns and at some personal cost in terms of exposure to venomous and anonymous online hate mail. Nyad is something of a lightning rod for both sides of the aisle, and the public discussion of these things can provoke weirdness in ways that are, in themselves, quite intriguing for a sociologist like myself in this polarised world of heroes and villains.

I generally stayed out of the debates at the time, although I also stored the accumulating posts up as data for a book chapter on narratives of 'purity' within the sport - whatever else I feel about the issue, I can't possibly pass up a thread of over 800 posts on the topic as a source to help me understand the boundary work around marathon swimming. This hopefully will enable me to build on earlier attempts to write on this topic, both here on the blog and as part of the research. But at the same time, as many within the community already know or suspect from previous posts, while I personally choose to swim only to 'Channel rules', I don't necessarily agree with the elevation of those rules as the gold standard against which all swimming is measured and I am uncomfortable with narratives of purity and the exclusions that they produce.

But I don't want to get in to the whole did she / didn't she Nyad debate - I don't think it can go anywhere helpful at this stage (although I think that it was useful to ask those questions at the time). Instead, I want to talk about this intriguing photo that popped up last week, taken from Nyad's Facebook pages (which I don't have direct access to so never saw in situ) but which was posted on the MSF and Twitter:

The photo is fascinating, firstly because it clearly shows practices during Nyad's swim that are not only in contravention of 'Channel rules' swimming (which we already knew very clearly were not being followed) but are also at odds with Nyad's own post-swim statements about not being held or supported by others during the swim (which was also already known from other photos issued during the swim, but still, this is a corking example... *see post-script below for revised view of this). But what I find particularly intriguing about this picture is that she (or her media team?) chose to use it as one of many photos from the swim this summer that form part of a campaign to win votes for the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year competition, for which she has been shortlisted. Indeed, like many of the photos currently recirculating, the image has been stamped with Nyad's new "Vote Diana Nyad" logo - the latest in a series of enthusiastically promoted self-branding strategies:

So after all the fuss and palaver about the legitimacy of her swim, my question was: why would she choose an image so blatantly displaying 'assistance' to support her campaign? 

I've been thinking about this a lot and have come up with a couple of possible explanations. Firstly, I suspect that there is an element of sticking two fingers up at those who challenged the legitimacy of the swim - a battle that I think she won in terms of public opinion, or at least in that she walked away with her reputation and associated financial interests intact. But I don't think that's really what the picture is for. Instead, I think that, as with all of her previous media campaigns, it shows an impressively strategic understanding of popular perceptions of marathon swimming / ultra endurance sport - one which she mobilises perfectly. The problem with still images of marathon swimming is that a shot of someone swimming in the first 30 mins of a swim, still fresh and strong, looks pretty much the same as still shots of someone 30 hours into a swim. So the photographer's task is to provide signifiers of suffering via the surrounding context. In this case, the two other people in the frame provide this context; through their acts of physically supporting Nyad both from the water and the boat, the collected trio connote her suffering, exhaustion and endurance to the very limits of capacity. Her apparent helplessness in the picture, prone and sipping water, infant-like, unable to even support her own body, invokes the extremity of the venture. It is melodramatic; on first glance, it is unclear whether she is receiving sustenance or medical treatment, adding to the sense of precariousness of her condition and the limits to which she has pushed herself. This is the message that matters in terms of the public perception of what she achieved (overcoming adversity), not which particular rules she followed. And she knows this well. 

In the debates that followed Nyad's 2013 swim, it looked at first glance like a dispute about what counts as 'assistance', especially for a swim that may not be possible without some forms of technology - a stinger suit, for example. This led to the predictable and frustratingly circular debates about acceptable and unacceptable technologies in an attempt on both sides to solidify the boundaries of (un) assisted swimming. But my view is that the debates were never about whether particular technologies fall within accepted rules, but rather, whether such rules have any value in the first place. Those labelled within those debates as taking a 'purist' position lobbied for the importance of agreed rules as a means of protecting the sport from the encroaching threat of those trying to make swims easier; this argument was made primarily via nostalgic appeals (however arbitrarily adapted for contemporary times) to the conditions of Webb's Channel swim and the importance of the 'level playing field' in the keeping of records. But for most non-swimmers, no amount of technological assistance would render a marathon swim possible or even imaginable, in much that same way that no amount of bolts and ropes would enable me to climb a cliff face. From this outsider perspective, debates around what counts as 'assistance' are something of a moot point, appearing arcane and carping to an audience that is impressed by the arduousness of a long swim (or cliff climb), irrespective of the conditions under which it is performed. This was never a dispute about what forms of assistance matter, but rather, about whether that question matters at all. 

This, I think, explains Nyad's use of this extraordinary photo: it is a perfectly calculated appeal to her core constituency of supporters (and voters) for whom the 'rules' are less significant that an act of endurance / overcoming. 

I'm not really sure what all of this means. I have no idea (and can't really bring myself to care) what Diana Nyad did or didn't do in order to walk up the beach in Florida, although I suspect that it was something fairly impressive and certainly beyond my capacities, regardless of the specifics. But I'm still no fan. I find her relentless self-promotion tedious and rather absurd; I like a good long swim as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, it's only swimming, no matter how far it is. I find her ungenerous to other swimmers, hopelessly solipsistic and I greatly dislike the "anything is possible / never give up" message that she propagates, since it denies the palpably obvious truth that anything is not possible and that to say so shifts the blame for failure onto individual lack of will to the exclusion of other social / economic / physical constraints. 

But all this aside, I do think that her use of this photo says something quite interesting about the way that marathon swimming is publicly perceived and which aspects of it are valued within / outside of the specific social world of 'Channel rules' marathon swimming. And I think that her use of it is both audacious and perceptive in ways that are likely to be highly effective in terms of winning support for her campaign. It is an incredible image, replete with conflicting interpretations and skilfully mobilised; I can't help but feel a grudging respect. But I still won't be voting for her. 

Post-script (15/12/13)
Oh, how tricky images can be. So in an interesting twist, I realise now that I have both misread the image and jumped to conclusions (as have many others in relation to this picture). In the image, Nyad is not sipping water, but is actually taking in oxygen (I think) through some kind of medical mask; the image is the 'crisis' medical picture I had originally read it as before settling on the interpretation that she was feeding. This in turn suggests that the image is not in fact from the 2013 swim, but instead, is likely from the 2011 attempt when reactions to jellyfish stings caused breathing problems. It seems that the campaign for the award is looking to the wider context of her attempts to complete the swim, rather than just the 2013 swim. I think I was wrong to assume that this showed a particularly egregious case of receiving physical support in ways that contradicted her 2013 post-swim statements, for which I apologise, although it is important to note that receiving this level of in-water support in itself was not deemed grounds to pull the swim as it would be under Channel rules. Interestingly, then, I think that my overall analysis still holds true, in that that image highlights the limits to which she pushed herself and draws attention to her overcoming and endurance as the defining feature of her swims, rather than any questions about the rules governing the swims. I also think that the act of campaigning so publicly using these images and logo still can be seen as a gesture of defiance to detractors. 

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about your thoughtful post quite a lot, Karen, and it occurs to me, especially in light of your honest post-script that there's a third way of reading the picture, knowing the correct medical interpretation of what we're seeing. Essentially, for outsiders and insiders alike, the image -raises something that I often see in approaches to endurance sports. The main draw of this family of sports, which don't make for a great spectator experience, is not so much the athlete's great form, natural ability, and skill, but rather his/her mental grit and ability to persist and withstand pain and suffering. But this veneration of Spartanism means that people are very quick to disrespect other people's efforts because they didn't suffer *enough*. For example, gritty ocean swimmers dismiss lake swims as "basically pools" because of their often-milder conditions. When people report DNFs because of conditions, they are questioned by skeptical spectators that would expect them to persist ("hey, you call *that* bad conditions? These other people swam under such conditions and prevailed!"). Our fancy EC rules, to which we adhere and which we use to exclude and criticize people like Nyad, are largely a negotiation of Spartanism vs. comfort (i.e, how much suffering does the sport sponsor and glorify beyond putting people in physical peril?) Much of the inside discourse evokes a severe tone of "we're not here to have FUN! We're here to get the job done!", which is very antithetical to my experiences actually DOING the sport (not talking about it). But, ironically, it's precisely this Spartanism and extreme denial of comfort that also make endurance feats astonishing to outsiders. And so, this picture is not just, as Throsby suggests, an exercise in "sticking it" to marathon swimmers, but also an exercise in placating the marathon swimmer community: "here, you want suffering? You think my swim was cushioned? Check out *how much* I suffered."


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