California beaches in the Sixties: young, tan bodies ride the waves of the Pacific on a long board. Surfing is born: one of the first examples of that varied array of practices that today go under the name of "sliding sports" (snowboarding, skateboarding, sandboarding, rollerblading), in which the aesthetic pleasure and the playfulness of acrobatic antics prevail over more competitively-oriented efforts. Today, in the 21st century, "extreme sports" (skydiving, free-climbing, rafting, bungee-jumping, kayaking), featuring the experience of approaching and even exceeding certain boundaries, are widespread. The same goes for fitness, a religion that has taken root in all social classes, combining sweat and fun. Such activities have fuelled associations, periodicals, new professions, brand name clothing and equipment, and consumption behaviours that define a way of life, both on the job and during leisure activities. The author discusses how sports have changed over time and how these changes signal a deeper transformation in our understanding of our bodies, from a "prison for the soul" to a more authentic and gratifying "container of the self". Emerging sports - both the extreme types and the expressive, playful ones - embody this new ascendancy of the body, which is experienced as a project, plastic matter, a language for shaping and giving meaning to individual desires and identity. This stimulating essay manages to delve beneath the outer surface of apparently short-lived phenomenon and detect a major development of contemporary culture.
Raffaella Ferrero Camoletto has a Ph.D in Sociology and Social Research Methodology and works at the University of Turin.