Emmanuelle Tulle (Glasgow Caledonian University)
Jo Pavey won the 10k at the European Championships in Zurich in August 2014. She was just short of her 41st birthday, the mother of two young children, one of whom was born only 11 months ago. She is married to her coach. All these biographical details are not mere padding. In the media reporting which has greeted what has been touted as a historical win, these details have been used to highlight and celebrate the extent of Jo Pavey’s achievement. In athletics age 40 is old. To win one has to devote one’s entire life to training and competing. The investment of time required for this is not necessarily compatible with the requirements of family life. So her win is amazing because it appears to challenge age and gender norms. Is something new happening here or is it just a one-off?
My contention is that the techniques deployed in media reports to celebrate this win risk the reinforcement of its deviant status, rather than triggering a reconsideration of how we understand ageing processes and gender-appropriate dispositions. Let’s consider Jo Pavey’s win in context. It is not easy to find examples of other athletes of a similar age, either male or female, who have won a professional, open race, especially a 10k, at international level. ‘Older’ athletes compete in a parallel setting, Master athletics, and attract practically no coverage. So they are largely invisible to a wider public.
Sport celebrities, such as Roger Federer or David Beckham, attract media attention when their performance is perceived to be on the wane. Talk tends to be of retirement. Pavey’s win is also noteworthy because of the history of women in mid- and long distance running. Women’s legitimate place in these events has a very recent history: the first Olympic women’s marathon for instance took place as recently as 1984 (LA Olympics). The first Olympic women’s 10k race was held at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Before that, women had fought hard for over 20 years to be allowed to compete in distances exceeding 400m.
Jo Pavey would have been in her teens when these historic developments took place. Thus she is part of a pioneer cohort of female athletes who have benefited from the relaxation of gender barriers. They have also benefited from the professionalization of sport, which has enabled them to dedicate their lives to the development and harnessing of elite athletic capital. Funding arrangements and spectacular advances in sport science and improvements in the treatment of sport injuries would ensure that these women could forge a career in running.
However we should beware of seeing in this win any indication that gender barriers have been completely knocked over or that the discourse of decline which has long shaped sporting narratives is being significantly eroded. I see at least three reasons for the need to be cautious: firstly despite the fact there are other women (and women) of advanced years and juggling family and career objective, media coverage tends to concentrate on a narrow range of individuals; secondly media accounts have been torn between celebrating and diminishing the significance of Pavey’s achievement; thirdly the inherent fragility of athletic careers (at any age) and the strong support structure needed to ensure success and longevity has not been explicitly articulated.
How media outlets have chosen to report Pavey’s win (for representative accounts, see the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Independent, and Daily Mail) and the language deployed in the process has favoured the recourse to chronological age, ie objective age, rather than lived age, as a significant marker. She is ‘evergreen’ or has ‘come of age’ and is in her ‘golden years’. At the same time she is a ‘veteran’. Also, she has barely had time to savour her win that she must now turn to thoughts of retirement. These statements could be accepted as the statement of the obvious, but only because one version of age, that is chronological age, is given primacy. They represent a firm restatement that she is old. Her future is literally foreclosed and the win is potentially not the start of something but perhaps only its end, a last resurgence of strength and speed before the decline process becomes manifest.
We find some support for this interpretation in how one media outlet has chosen to make sense of her win – in dedicating an entire article to the science of running. What was instructive about this piece was that it subtly shifted its emphasis from explaining ‘the science of her [my emphasis] long-distance success’, as the headline promised, towards describing what makes older athletes (all of them, that is) physiologically unable to deliver explosive power in sprint races. The physiology of ageing lends legitimacy and substance to chronological age as the most important marker of lifecourse chances which holds that by age 35 athletes lose explosive power. Thus, by sticking to long distance running (which requires more endurance and less explosive speed), Pavey conforms to age-appropriate behaviour. Nevertheless she did have to up the pace and sprint in the last two laps of the race, to ensure she beat much younger competitors. This of course has to be explained. As according to the science this is impossible, an alternative explanation has to be invoked: that her experience and superior psychological capital makes up for age-related physiological deficits. So she is presented as a heroine and fulfilling her physiological destiny both at the same time.
Being the mother of two young children under 5 who was still breastfeeding only months before the race were also used to interesting effect. These details of course can be seen to underscore what a remarkable runner she is. But how? For instance there is no evidence that breastfeeding is incompatible with running: it doesn’t impede lactation. There are several examples of female runners competing whilst still feeding infants. These women all possess a key resource however: time and a good dose of fortune. Time to recover, time to train, time to attend competitions, as well as resources to keep the body going. In addition many of these women have a strong support structure, mostly embodied in a cooperating partner (in Pavey’s case, her husband who doubles up as coach), which facilitates the dedication of their lives wholly (or mostly) to athletics. Incidentally, in several articles he is identified as a key asset in her success. Thus, his participation in this joint enterprise gives legitimacy to the investment of time and single-mindedness that is required to build an athletic career, especially at elite level. Time and legitimation are two assets that many women lack. Yet, Pavey becomes co-opted as a model for physically inactive women to follow. However, what is reported is that she still feels the need (or at least that is what is reported) to reassure us that she puts her children first.
What is not explicitly highlighted is that athletic lives are led in exceptional conditions that cannot be assumed to be present in most women’s lives. In other words sporting careers can (and often are) cut short. Nor does this win challenge the dominance of science and the concomitant reliance on a narrative steeped in the discourse of inevitable decline, which continues to inform contemporary understandings of ageing. Far from unsettling the tendency in science to universalise the ageing process, thus masking individual variations, wittingly or unwittingly, my conclusion is that the reporting of Pavey’s win risks reinforcing understandings of age as primarily biological and not as an opportunity to promote and nurture the potential for athletic achievement well into the later years. Thus, ironically, in sport and leisure older women remain largely out of the public eye.
Emmanuelle Tulle is Reader in Sociology at Glasgow Caledonian University. She undertakes research on ageing bodies, especially in relation to scientific discourse and on older people, and physical activity, in which context she has studied ageing elite athletes. She is the author of Ageing, the Body and Social Change: Running in Later Life (Palgrave, 2008).