MORTAL ENGINES by John M. Hoberman


The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport
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 An ambitious and jolting, if occasionally turgid, investigation into the origins and wider implications of the contemporary union of science and sport. Blending cultural history with ethical alarm, Hoberman (Scandinavian and Germanic Languages/Univ. of Texas at Austin) identifies the emergence of sports science in 19th-century assessments of human capabilities and traces it through the developing disciplines of physiology and physical anthropology. Viewed as physically ``pathological'' subjects, athletes were initially free from outside intervention. Later--Hoberman's history gets a bit sketchy here--nationalist anxieties, pharmacological advances, and the interests of the athletes themselves created an ``obsessional'' climate in which human values were sacrificed for improved performance. Today, despite testing for 3,700 banned substances, ``it is clear that international controls cannot put an end to doping'': Some in the sports community have advocated legalizing all enhancements. A more alarming possibility, one ``touching on human identity itself,'' is future use of genetic engineering to improve athletic specimens. Although impressive in its range, the book's power is undercut by a dense, pedantic style marked by frequent repetition. Even so, there are well-placed attacks on, among other targets, the hypocrisy of the sporting world and the dubious claims of sports psychology. While possibly overstated, this is still a frightening exposÇ of scientific abuse indirectly sanctioned by an alternately indifferent and medal- hungry political and social environment. Not quite a world-beater--and a bit of a downer for an Olympic year--but worth the attention of anyone serious about the future of humanity in the sporting arena and beyond.

Pub Date: July 6th, 1992
ISBN: 0-02-914765-4
Page count: 350pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1992