If you go out on Tom McCall Waterfront Park on a sunny day at noon, you’ll see a spectacle: hundreds of runners in brightly colored shoes and clothing streaming by. Once in a while someone will stop to stretch or do a few pushups, but running is nearly exclusively what people do here for exercise.
Granted, the river is a great place to run. There are paths on both sides and bridges that connect a very popular 3 mile loop (perfect for a quick lunch hour tempo run) with river paths beyond to link longer routes. Still, why is this virtually the only form of exercise people perform here?
An article I came across a few years ago awakened me to the role of culture in sport. It turns out, there is a body of research out there on this, which suggests we tend to gravitate toward certain sports based on ethnicity, social class, and other cultural factors. The upper middle class gravitates toward endurance sports, whites do sports that require facilities (like tennis and golf), African Americans focus on fitness (strength and/or endurance training), and Mexican Americans gravitate toward team sports. It could be said that the waterfront is a running facility for upper-middle class whites to use on their lunch hour.
Running requires dedication and hard work without much glory. The research suggests that the upper-middle class goes for this form of exercise to distinguish themselves from lower classes through “boundary-making around ‘self-actualization’ and ‘moral character.’” Running requires one to endure pain for long periods of time and have little to show for it physically other than thinness. An upper-middle class runner might subconciously think that “those people” (lower classes) engage in strength training to build gauche muscles, compensating for their lack of real power within society.
While I haven’t come across research on it, I’ve noticed a materialistic element to cultural identity and sport. You don’t need any particular equipment to run, but you wouldn’t know it on the waterfront. Brightly colored, hi-tech, synthetic clothing with special wicking properties, GPS watches that measure your heart rate and log your fitness data, the latest motion-controlled or ‘minimalist’ running shoes, compression socks – most every runner has two or more of these things. Some of this material stuff is kind of useful, but more importantly, it tells others (and maybe runner himself) something about his level of commitment and fitness identity.
My recent sport choices have led me to thinking about social class and sport. I started practicing parkour last year, and have been fascinated to learn just how much it breaks through cultural barriers. The sport, which involves overcoming obstacles in efficient and/or creative ways, is practiced all over the world, and practitioners appear to have diverse backgrounds, although young males are most prevalent – the sport can be high-impact and dangerous depending on how it’s practiced. I enjoy parkour because it requires no equipment other than a (usually urban) environment with interesting obstacles, and cultivates a balance of strength, flexibility and coordination that can apply to other sports.
Still, every sport has a cultural connection. In particular, social networks are a huge factor in the kind of physical activity people engage in. A guy at the downtown Cultured Caveman food cart told me about Ramman Turner’s Primordial Playground classes which in turn led me to his Intro to Parkour class last year, revolutionizing my approach to physical activity. It makes one appreciate the possibilities. What social connection might lead to my next health and fitness discovery?
On the flip side, what if I hadn’t made a social connection to Ramman? I might still be in chronic cardio mode, dutifully running along the waterfront in my synthetic shirt and compression socks like a compliant upper-middle class white guy.