(Self-)Improvement in and through Sports – Cultural-Historical Perspectives


The human body in (late) modernity is an insufficient one. It has to be improved and in almost every phase of its life it is confronted with the imperative of optimization. The consequences of these developments are on the one hand the rise of sports – the proper anthropotechnic of augmentation – and on the other hand the evolution of an improvement industry with specific subfields like plastic surgery, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics or the fitness industry.

Improvement and self-improvement are very broad terms and phenomena which are currently investigated intensively by different scientific disciplines ranging from philosophy to pedagogy, psychology and the social sciences but also by economists, geneticists or computer scientists. Within the field of sport science this topic should not be discussed under natural scientific perspectives only. It should also be on the agenda of sport historians.  

This study is theoretically based on two historical-critical approaches: First on Peter Sloterdijk’s general concept of the modern man as a subject which is permanently struggling with itself, which is anxious about its shape. From this perspective improvement is interpreted as a central metaphor of modernity. Secondly on Michel Foucault’s and Gilles Deleuze’s analyzes of the disciplinary society and the society of control and especially on Foucault’s concept of “self-technologies”. 

Empirically the question of improvement will be investigated by the means of three different paradigmatic fields of movement cultures in three different historical periods. 

The first one is the invention and the establishment of systematic rational enhancement regimes in the second half of the 19th century, which can be summarized under the term physical training. The second one focuses on the formation of the big number (of bodies) as we can determine it e.g. within the “sport-for-all-initiatives” during the 1970s in Europe (especially in Germany and in Austria).Thirdly we take a look at the highly individualized fitness practices from 1980 to the end of the millennium and discuss also the post-Fordist body regimes as we can find it for example in the “life-logging–“ or “quantified-self-movement”.

At the moment it is not possible to present a theoretically closed history of improvement and enhancement with the help of physical activity. Therefore only a few significant examples of that topic should be shown to give some objections and suggestions for further investigation and discussion.


Topic(s): Modern and post-modern approaches to sports historiography

Keywords: Body History, Self-Technology, Improvement, Cultural History



Müllner, R. (2016). Self-Improvement In and Through Sports – Cultural-Historical Perspectives. The International Journal of the History of Sport, S. 1593-1605. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2017.1301431

Müllner, R. (2018). Sich in Form bringen. Historische Facetten der körperlichen (Selbst-) Verbesserung im und durch Sport seit 1900. In S. Scholl (Hrsg.), Körperführung. Historische Perspektiven auf das Verhältnis von Biopolitik und Sport. (S. 64-82) Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag.