Debating Sport and the Arts: aesthetics and representation


By Jonathan Long
Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure
Leeds Beckett University (UK)

For the second in a series of three seminars for our AHRC research network (for background see the LSA blog: we swapped the sporting environment of the National Football Museum ( for the artier environs of The Watershed in Bristol.  This time the theme was ‘aesthetics and representation’.

We noted in our initial application to AHRC that while both lie within the remit of DCMS the worlds of the arts and sport are commonly separated in academic study, research, professional practice and cultural policy.  Indeed Professor Stephen Mumford (University of Durham) kicked things off in Bristol with a challenge.  He asserted that however aesthetically appealing some sporting moments may be this is fundamentally different from the arts.  He insisted that in sport, unlike the arts, competition takes primacy; the aesthetic is not the motivating force.  He was challenged in the case of sports like gymnastics, diving and ice-skating, but suggested that the pursuit of the aesthetic there was purely to score more points than an opponent.  It was also pointed out that competitive arts can be found in the Eisteddfod (or indeed the Greek and Corbusian Olympics) and in poetry slams.  Stephen was also taken with the struggle in sport between the certainty of outcome of determinism and the pure chance of indeterminism.  He suggested that the drama produced by this struggle contributes to the aesthetics of sport and argued that this struggle for an outcome that is not guaranteed is rarely found in the arts.  But then he provided his own examples and others there were keen to contribute their own.  I would argue that the uncertainty lies more in the interpretation than the art itself.  Stephen also identified the aesthetic in team sport derived from the emergence of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.  He got his equivalent examples from the arts world in before others could beat him to it.  Stephen Mumford was careful to explain that he was not trying to be categorical, but like the expression, ‘tends to’.  And in talking about common aesthetics my eyes were drawn to the very last words of Stephen’s summary statement: ‘Indeed, sport and art might then have much in common’.  But of course those at the seminar were more interested in disputing what he had said earlier.

Jo Longhurst, a practising artist, whose work seems to demonstrate the benefit that can be derived from art engaging with sport, also commented on some of the distinctions.  The gymnastics group she had worked with in Rio were quite insistent that their performances had nothing to do with samba despite their coming from the favela that gave birth to the Rio Carnival.  Jo contrasted her work with movements like the constructivists of the Soviet era and an extended tradition of representing peak performance and notions of perfection.  Although not interested in representing sport herself she is interested in how others seek to do that.  Her own work celebrates ‘the dirty nature of competition’ and often uses images that are ‘wrong’ in some way.  As a researcher Jo is also intrigued by the fixed attitudes to gender and class in gymnastics and observed that the use of full make-up was the norm in practice/training.

Dr Mike O’Mahony (University of Bristol) shares Jo’s interest in how photographers seek to represent sport through smiling women, strong men and excellence.  Most of the iconic sports photographs, Mike suggested are not works of art in their own right, and their significance can only be properly understood when placed in their social/cultural/political context.  You have to know what was going on to appreciate the significance of the photograph – the Black Power protest at the Mexico Olympics, the ‘hand of god’ at the world cup, Jesse Owen at the Munich Olympics or ‘The Catch’ (I didn’t know either, but apparently it was Dwight Clark taking Joe Montana’s Touch Down pass in the 1982 Championship Game)[i].  Although the prime role of sports photography is to document, Mike demonstrated artifice and inauthenticity through its history as photographers strove to present a very particular image of sport, playing their part in the formulation of conventions.

The subsequent discussion took up some of these themes and considered the impacts on both sport and the arts of changing technology/materials and the growing influence of business.  More positively, one of the arts workers argued that, in the course of their practice working with the community, the same principles applied whether the subject was sport or the arts so it was not difficult to bring the two together.  Mike O’Mahony argued that we would be more effective at getting our messages to the government and to the public if the arts and sport worked more collaboratively and Graham Deakin concurred, insisting that we need to build the message that it’s OK to be involved in both.

Our next seminar is in Leeds on January 16th when our theme will be ‘wellbeing, social capital and cultural citizenship’.  Beyond that the goal we have set for the research network is to produce a declaration that might even become a manifesto for the relationship between sport and the arts. So if you have ideas about what might usefully be included, please contact

If you would like to join an email group to correspond with people who have such interests, please subscribe (free) by going to:  There is also a Fields of Vision web site: (, which, amongst other things, contains a link to some of Jo Longhurst’s work and a summary of Stephen Mumford’s presentation.

[i] The photographer, Walter Iooss, had spent a season behind the scenes with the Dallas Cowboys who lost as a consequence of that touch down.
I’d become friends with one player who, the first time I was in the locker room, came up to me and said, “I want you to take a picture of me getting a needle in my shoulder.” I looked around, thinking maybe I was being put on, and said, “You’re kidding, right? Why would you want me to do that?” He said, “Because I want to give it to my son to make sure he never plays football again.”
It was the photographs from behind the scenes that Iooss was proudest of, yet it was an on field snap that became famous across the US.

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