Monday, 10 February 2014

Suffering for...?

I have just seen this disturbing video footage of UK TV celebrity, Davina McCall being dragged out of Windermere in a state of hypothermic, incapacitated exhaustion, unable to support her own weight or communicate:

This swim is part of a charity challenge by the annual fundraising megalith, Sports Relief, which each year selects a celebrity to perform an extreme endurance challenge. This year, McCall is doing a manufactured triathlon-style endurance challenge that involves travelling from Edinburgh to London primarily by bicycle, but stopping off to swim a width of Windermere, and ending with a full marathon into central London. There have been repeated references over the last couple of days to the harmful effects on McCall of the cold while cycling from Edinburgh, but the surprise seems a little disingenuous for a mid-February event in Scotland - not otherwise known for its mild and balmy winter conditions. But what really shocked me was the applause and cheering as McCall was dragged out of the water, as if this were anything other than a dangerous and shameful piece of pointless spectacle.

As a swimmer, obviously, the lack of preparation for the swim and the casual assumption that surviving cold water is simply a question of thinking positively and toughening up is infuriating. The swimming community is highly attentive to questions of safety, and this kind of nonsense just puts people at risk unnecessarily. But I'm also deeply disturbed by the escalation of suffering that is demanded for these charity challenges, which actively trade visible suffering for money. In 2012, comedian David Walliams swam the length of the Thames while violently ill from the pollution that had washed into the river during heavy rains; in 2013, another comedian, John Bishop, did a Paris-London 'triathlon', cycling from Paris to Calais, then rowing as part of a team across the Channel before completing 3 marathons in 3 days while suffering from a suspected stress fracture. These Sports Relief 'zero-to-hero' stories tell a story of spirited overcoming in the face of suffering, but rely on an annual escalation of spectacular suffering to maintain public interest (and their donations). I find myself wondering about a public that needs to see manufactured suffering on this scale before giving money to charity; I am nauseated by the celebration of spectacular, dangerous suffering that we see in the cheering and applause as McCall is hauled onto land. No-one should have been applauding when McCall was dragged out; to be hauled out in that condition is, in my view, a venture gone badly wrong and I find nothing to celebrate in it (other than that she is safe).

And this escalation is not just evident in the charity domain, which I think is toxically implicated in this trend but by no means alone. Within open water swimming, we are witnessing the rise of increasingly ambitious and demanding 'ultra' swims, and cold water challenges; the completion, for example of 'ice miles' in increasingly hostile and unforgiving environments is a good example of this. The difference between the Sports Relief ventures and those within the established swimming community are manifold, not least in the commitment to long-term training, acclimatisation and safety. But I also find myself wondering what is at stake in these celebrations of suffering and overcoming, and perhaps, what is lost. The constant pushing of boundaries undoubtedly brings its own satisfactions and rewards, and suffering is also relative - what to me might feel like an excessive risk is a manageable reality to others, just as my own modest swimming ventures may seem excessive and dangerous to some. But the escalation of suffering is also closely tied to the idea that suffering itself, especially when voluntarily undertaken, has moral value and that makes me uncomfortable - firstly because it silences the pleasures of endurance sport; and secondly, because I think that the logic of the escalation pushes us towards a very dangerous space indeed.

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