My paper about regulation and social control in the marathon swimming community is progressing apace. My four big insights from the last two days follow Durkheim’s idea of the latent functions of social control, as presented in The Division of Labor in Society and The Rules of Sociological Method, as well as by Martin Killias‘ theories of legitimation crisis and power concentration.
1. The suspected deviance was an opportunity for the community to experience and strengthen solidarity.
I’m in the process of coding the MSF Forum responses to threads on Nyad’s fifth attempt. One thing I’m noticing is the way the threads gradually lose their acerbic tone and become more matter-of-factly, which could be a factor of forum members realizing that the conversation is a watershed moment for the sport (pun not intended). But at least initially, the tone of the threads was jocular and mocking. There are many posts that received a large number of “likes”, and the “likes” were mostly attached to posts disparaging the swim than to posts supporting it, though gradually an opposition to the jocular tone yielded a counterreaction in the form of a “cheering section” item. The message in the disparaging posts is a very strong “she’s not one of us”. Nyad’s past reputation for non-authenticity and unsportsmanlike behavior is repeatedly mentioned, and she is unfavorably compared to other Cuba-to-Florida swimmers like Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardel, considered well-respected “insiders” in the community. At a later phase, there is a posthumous collective embrace of Walter Poenisch, whose swim was also assisted (fins!), both as a form of highlighting Nyad’s unsportsmanlike behavior and to send the message that the community values tradition, record-keeping, and respect for the achievement of past generations of athletes. There’s also a sense of almost retributory glee: Nyad, who once disparaged and doubted another swimmer, now finds herself disparaged and doubted as well.
2. Social control gained importance and became a priority because of the legitimacy crisis.
One thing I’m finding out reading marathon swimming historiographies and memoirs is that, during the “golden age” of marathoning competitions, between the ’60s and ’70s, there seemed to be a strong prevalent notion of the rules, accompanied by a “no big deal” attitude toward them. Penny Dean, when retelling her Golden Gate swim in 1965, says matter-of-factly that she was cold, touched the boat, and was promptly DQ’d. Her discussion of the rules in her manual is mostly in the competition context (where they arguably matter more) and she basically concludes as follows: (1) There are rules about not kicking and hitting other swimmers. (2) They are not enforced and people do whatever they want. (3) Since there’s no enforcement, you have to learn how to deal with it. (4) Let me teach you some retaliation techniques. That pretty much sums up any discussion of integrity and rule compliance in the sport in her manual.
I’m now parsing through Lynne Cox’s manual, Steven Munatones’ book, and Conrad Wennerberg’s historiography. The latter, interestingly, includes some incredible photographic footage of mythological Middle Eastern distance swimmer Abdul Latif Abou Heif from the 50s and 60s (in Egypt and Syria, these marathon swimmers are national heroes, per the book Zeitoun), showing him coming out of Lake Michigan, supported by family and friends with his legs still in the water. In other words, at that point everyone understands that Heif, otherwise known as the Crocodile of the Nile, has completed his amazing feat, and no one feels the need to be obsessed with the niceties of clearing the water. (Check out the fabulous YouTube video on top for snapshots from Abou Heif’s illustrious and incredible career!)
While English and Catalina Channel regulations always included lots of detail about the swim itself, unregulated channels did not necessitate that until the Diana Nyad issue brought things to a head: Regulation-wise, as Evan Morrison defined it, there was a “loophole”, and media-wise, the chasm between insiders and outsiders in the sport threatened the purism that provides people with integrity and self definition. Which is why the focus on rules now might seem to many to be too punctilious and perhaps unnecessary. The suspected transgression provided the community with a golden opportunity to clarify the rules.
3. Conversations about social control were an opportunity to clarify the norms based on importance.
Another thing I’m noticing in my analysis of forum posts is the gradual shift in conversation topic. Earlier posts tackle, for the most part, the technological innovations involved in the swim and the media coverage. As the swim was progressing, the conversation turned to the more serious issues of authenticity and integrity.
These priorities are reflected in the final regulatory framework. What I see in the MSF rules is the authorization to use a variety of devices, classified based on their contribution/assistance to speed or buoyancy, as long as they are authentically reported. Touching the boat or getting on it is, however, a categorical no-no. So, not only did the suspected deviance draw attention to the need to clarify the rules, it also provided an opportunity to prioritize them.
4. Some of the proposed rules provoked genuine conversations about their justification, arbitrariness, and future usefulness.
Following the publication of the MSF rules, important conversations started occurring in other threads in the forum. For example, the categorical prohibition of wristwatches did not sit well with many. The ensuing conversation brought up interesting themes: The question of future technologies (will future watches transmit information?), issues of bulk and comfort, issues of arbitrariness (if the people on the boat tell me what time it is, what’s the difference?) and issues of distinction (in what ways does this provide “assistance”?). I don’t know whether the rules will be modified to allow wristwatches, though as I eagerly expect my Bia Sport delivery I obviously have a preference. This conversation could not have taken place without the prompting of the initial suspected deviance.
This, with my Lance/Diana piece from yesterday, is pretty much the gist of the paper. I’ll devote today to do the bulk of the write-up. And, will stop by the pool for about 3500y in the evening!
In some personal news, my MRI results are in. No new pathology; the hernia from 2012 is almost healed. The pain I’m experiencing is a phantom from the disc bulges touching the nerves. The doctor is prescribing painkillers, and I’ve been cleared to go on with my life. I am again planning to run the Kaiser Half, and will walk it if I’m in pain. Also, all my marathon swims for the summer are still on target. Yay!