Finish...Whatever it Takes" Exploring Pain and Pleasure in the Ironman Triathlon: A Socio-Cultural Analysis
Bridel, William F.
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The Ironman triathlon began in 1978, according to popular accounts the result of an argument among a group of athletes about who was the fittest. Thirty years later, participation in the Ironman has grown exponentially despite the physical and mental demands of the sport. In my dissertation I examine the ways different types of pain and pleasure function in the production of bodies and selves within this sporting practice and how these understandings of pain and pleasure intersect with neoliberal discourses. My study adds to an important body of literature in the sociology of sport that has explored pain and injury. This literature has revealed the normalization of pain and injury in sport, at the expense of athletes’ short and long-term health. Exploring pain and pleasure in a recreational sport and fitness practice and in light of neoliberal governmentality offers new insights. I conducted semi-structured interviews with 19 recreational Ironman triathletes and incorporated my own Ironman experiences into the project. Mediated representations of the sport helped to contextualize the interview and autobiographical materials. I subjected the information that I gathered to a critical discourse analysis informed by the theoretical perspectives of Michel Foucault. My findings reveal that there are multiple ways that people construct their experiences of pain and pleasure in the Ironman context. Athletes strive to negotiate “positive” and “negative” kinds of pain in an effort to produce skilled, disciplined bodies, capable of finishing the event and claiming an “Ironman identity.” Pleasure in this sport seems mostly connected to ideas of challenge, achievement, rewards, and recognition. The constructions of pain and pleasure largely reify dominant sport and exercise discourses which promote discipline, toughness, and achievement. Considering the Ironman in light of neoliberalism, it was evident that values of health, self-esteem, the use of pain, and the primary use of non-work/leisure time for training and racing were intricately connected to ideas about individual responsibility. I argue that as the “Ironman identity” becomes more normalized, our understandings of bodies and health shift in problematic way. This reinforces neoliberal ideologies of self-responsibility and makes diminished State responsibility for citizens more insidious than it is already.