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How Extreme Exercise Regime CrossFit Mirrors American Militarism

The fitness craze reflects the country's ongoing transformation from a culture of sports to a culture of war.
 
 
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The Weeklings

 

This article first appeared at The Weeklings.

America  is its sports.  That’s a strong claim, but try coming up with a more pervasive, more intrinsic lens through which we see ourselves.  Politics?  Religion?  Check the stats and you’ll find that about 122 million of us voted in the last presidential election and about 129 million of us regularly attend church, but in 2009 the US Census Bureau reported that nearly 270 of the 313.9 million Americans participated in “sports activities.”  That number includes everything from the little leaguers on the ball field to the huffers on the treadmills, with walking, unsurprisingly, as our number one sport.  America is a sporting land.  And that includes the land itself.  Sure, we may officially reside in states and counties, cities and towns, but we live in athletic divisions, regions, and rivalries: home team and visitors, us vs. them.  I’m in Ohio and on any given day I can probably tell you how our baseball and football teams are doing, even though I find both sports snoozers.  Like pop hits or smog, sports is in the air.  We breathe it in at the checkout counter, the water cooler, the bar.  All the more so in an age with an Internet and interstates.  There isn’t a great geographical or cultural difference between Cincinnati and Cleveland, but it sure as shit matters if you’re in Bengals or Browns Country.  Map America, and the Mason-Dixon line looks quaint compared to the scrimmage line.

That includes the very language in which I’m writing this, our workaday American English.  I hear my wife, whose sports know-how consists of having watched every season of Make It or Break It, saying to her boss, “We don’t want to bench our best players,” and I’m reminded that, as Americans, we speak in sports.  Will you score?  Will you win?  Will you take a hit for the team?  Sports—whether we’re talking about our love life or our daily grind—gives us one of the “metaphors we live by,” to quote the title of George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s study about how we shape our experience through language.  Cognitive linguists have shown that we make sense of our lives through metaphors: life is a journey; love is war; Syria’s use of chemical weapons is, in Obama’s words, “a game-changer.”  In sports, Americans have a set of analogies, images, tropes, and conceits, through which we understand ourselves, even when those metaphors, like Obama’s, woefully distort the reality we’re trying to describe.

So, when a new sport emerges on the American scene, it may signal more than just our love of exercise fads, crazes, and novelties.  (Thighmaster, anyone?)  A new sport may show us how we, as a culture of sports, currently envision ourselves, especially because sports serves as a surrogate for so many aspects of our culture that I’ve just mentioned.  Like religion, politics, region, and language, sports bring us into community and give us a sense of belonging.  It’s an academic commonplace that sports, with its rituals, fetishes, seasons, and deep devotion, has increasingly fulfilled the role of religion, but it’s an eye-opener when you find a figure such as Nelson Mandela upholding sports as a means through which humanity can achieve its highest aspirations.  At the Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000, Mandela saw the path to a brighter future, and it comes with a marching band:

Sport has the power to change the world.  It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.  It speaks to youth in a language they understand.  Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.  It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.  It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.