Running to stand still: Why the notion of a perfect body is doing untold harm in sport

Running to stand still: Why the notion of a perfect body is doing untold harm in sport

It’s beyond time, now, to reclaim body positivity in sport, and to embrace the message that body shape and sporting fulfilment are not mutually exclusive

Sharad Kohli

“I was never the leanest cricketer in the world but I won games for franchises. I won games for my country,” Dané van Niekerk told BBC Sport Africa earlier this year. “You cannot diminish somebody or make them feel bad because they don’t look the way that you expect.” There, in that last line, is the nub of a very contemporary argument, of nature coming up against conditioning.

The decision by the selectors to omit van Niekerk from the South African squad hastened the end of the international career of one of the finest cricketers to have worn her country’s colours. And it came on the back of a stressful 12 months for van Niekerk. A year earlier, she had hurt herself while taking the longer route to exiting the gate at home, fracturing the bone in her ankle. Agonisingly, it meant she had to sit out the 50-over World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Recovery, unsurprisingly, was lengthy and painful, and van Niekerk ended up putting on weight while allowing her ankle to heal. Still, slowly but surely, she worked her way back to peak fitness. The all-rounder took part in the Hundred tournament in England in 2022, lost much of the weight she had gained, trained on and off with the national side and put herself through the fitness test, her results improving each time. Yet, neither could van Niekerk meet Cricket South Africa’s rigorous standards, nor was CSA in any mood to show leniency towards her, for all the service she had rendered to the game in South Africa.

After acing the strength test, she failed to meet the two-kilometre ‘time trial’ target of 9 minutes 30 seconds – obligatory for earning selection to the national team – by 18 seconds. In fact, while van Niekerk was focussing on building back to her best physical self, Cricket South Africa had – in an effort to emulate the consistency of Australia and England – brought down the minimum fitness criteria by a half-minute, from 10:00 to 9:30.

When the CSA’s decision came, van Niekerk confessed to being ‘absolutely broken’. A TV network, which should have known better but didn’t, then rubbed salt into her wounds by saying she had been ‘fat shamed’. 

In 2022, van Niekerk’s team-mate Lizelle Lee was dropped during South Africa’s tour of England because she failed to prove she was fit enough (she was deemed overweight) to be picked for the national XI, even though she was the leading run-scorer in short-form cricket in 2021. “I know I don’t look like an athlete but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my job. I looked like this last year and I had a brilliant year,” said Lee in a BBC podcast.

Both Lee and van Niekerk claimed that Cricket South Africa did little to support them as they strove to return to full fitness, to meet the bare minimum of proving their worth to the powers-that-be. Cricketing talent, it felt, had taken a backseat to athletic prowess.

In defence of ‘beauty with flaws’

In the journey to building the perfect athlete, we have lost much, including the emotional equilibrium vital to attain success.

To understand the journey, it’s worth time travelling back a few decades, to the 1980s and early 1990s, when fitness was an obsession with only the most committed of captains and coaches. When the likes of David Boon, Merv Hughes and Mark ‘Tubby’ Taylor (the nickname a straight giveaway), and Arjuna Ranatunga and Inzamam-ul-Haq, could earn their bread-and-butter without troubling themselves too much about a little bit of excess body fat, flab, or too-visible skin folds. Golfers, at least until Tiger Woods came along, could be portly without it negatively impacting their livelihood.

However, with increased attention on stamina, speed and strength, allied with advances in sports science, nutrition and recovery processes (from injury and from physically gruelling contests), sport for much of the 21st century has resembled a competition between the super fit, a battle to find out who can be the last woman – or team – standing. But there is no one size that fits all, and it’s not necessarily the fittest that outlasts a rival, but the best.

Additionally, the unhealthy preoccupation with winning puts extra burden on sportswomen and sportsmen to measure up to often unreachable physical and physiological standards.

Off-spinner Rahkeem Cornwall, who turns out for the West Indies, believes all that a sportsman or sportswoman has to think about is making the most of their skills when confronted by an opponent. “I can’t change my body structure,” he admitted to Firdose Moonda of ESPN, adding, “Everybody is not going to be slim and trim and everybody is not going to look ripped. Whatever structure you come in, you have to monitor that and make sure you can finish the day’s play and make sure you do well for your team.”

The flip side is that uncertainty and doubt can creep in if you flunk the fitness assessment, and your body type is resistant to transforming into a toned frame – even with hours of gym time. Because, it is distressing to be told that whatever skills you possess, the way you are is not good enough to make it on the biggest stage.

South African fast bowler Sisanda Magala sums up the quandary of the modern yet far-from-perfect athlete. “I have never let the way I look put me at a disadvantage. Even though I have a hefty size, I don’t make an excuse to do less,” he told Moonda. “(But) I have been drained and it’s overflowed at times. It’s been very tiring mentally. Exhausting.”

Azam Khan, son of Moin Khan, who kept wicket for Pakistan in the 1990s and 2000s, is another whose figure attracts more discussion (mostly unflattering, some of it cruel) than his cricketing talent. Azam is a batter born for the T20 age, someone who can hit the ball a mile and easily clear the boundary. Still, some folks prefer to focus on how bulky he is – and, by extension, un-athlete-like – rather than marvel at his see-ball-hit-ball potential.

When you’re thinking too much of what you lack than what you have, it does little for your equanimity.

Aiming for body positive

As much as sportspersons must put up with snide comments on their ‘lack’ of fitness, the habit of body shaming among young athletes in school – girls and boys drawn to a sport and eager to embrace its physical, psychological and emotional benefits – is probably more widespread, and thus more concerning, simply because it is so under-reported. This, after all, is the age of puberty, when children are just finding out about their physical selves, about what their bodies are and are not capable of.

A stray taunting remark on a student’s physique, usually coming from a place of envy or insecurity, can drain her or him of the self-belief and self-respect, which that particular sport has instilled in them. Adolescence is an especially vulnerable time in life, and such trauma can be extremely difficult to deal with.

Rarely, though, do elite athletes – or even those below that level – diss or disrespect each other purely on how they look. The barbs, instead, come from the fans who, emboldened by social media, aim insults against the rivals of their favourites. The abuse and trolling of women athletes is far more rampant, sickeningly so at times, whether directed at a known figure in an individual sport like tennis or golf, or a key member of a team.

The pressure to conform to the perception that a sporting body must be flab and fat free brings with it its own expectations, and invariably affects a competitor’s mental health. It leads to low confidence and, consequently, a decline in performance. It’s a vicious circle, at times an ordeal from which there’s no escape.

Yet, every individual, with or without sporting ability, stands apart from the next. She might have to meet basic strength and endurance requirements but she should not have to seek validation, whether from her peers or from society. She knows her body, and the limits of that body, better than anybody else. Thus, she’ll know the kind of training and physical exertion that’s suitable for her, that will allow her to stay healthy and perform at an optimum level for the longest time.

This, in the end, is all that matters.