Marathon Running, “Bodies for Others,” and Social Class in Post-Communist Estonia

Friday, July 18, 2014: 12:00 AM
Room: 412
Oral Presentation
Toomas GROSS , University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Like many other countries, Estonia has in recent years experienced a veritable boom of recreational long-distance running. Since the turn of the millennium, the number of people running at least one marathon a year has grown nearly twentyfold, and year-on-year growth rate of marathon runners in Estonia has been constantly over twenty percent. This paper, based on an ethnographic study, seeks to understand the corollaries of this process and links the marathon boom to wider socio-economic and value changes in the post-communist setting. The paper pays special attention to the phenomenology of the body in the context of novel ideals of health, welfare, and success in post-communist Estonia. Bourdieu’s notion of “bodies for others” is particularly helpful when trying to make sense of the runners’ perception of their bodies in the new social and economic environment. As will be argued, long-distance running as a bodily experience is related to class identity. According to Bourdieu, a sport is more likely to be adopted by a social class if it does not contradict that class’s relation to the body at its deepest and most unconscious level. The paper demonstrates that subjecting one’s body to regular physical strain when training for and running marathons corresponds to various class-specific ideals of self-discipline, motivation, success, and perseverance. Also, runners now increasingly subject their bodies to constant self-monitoring and measurement by means of modern technology. Such technologically enhanced and informed “optimisation of the self” constitutes a new form of biopolitics that fits with the neoliberal values of efficiency and productivity.