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News & Features » June 2018 » “Breaking2: Technology and the African” by Amy Abugo Ongiri and Jason Brozek

“Breaking2: Technology and the African” by Amy Abugo Ongiri and Jason Brozek

In April 2016 Akashic Books launched the Edge of Sports imprint, curated by Dave Zirin, a sportswriter who has never shied away from criticizing that which die-hard sports fans hold dear. The Edge of Sports titles will address social justice issues across many different sports, and at both the professional and nonprofessional/collegiate levels. Parallel to this exciting new imprint, Akashic will be running a “Sports & Justice” series on our website featuring short original essays (750 words or less) paying homage to athletes who have demonstrated heroism outside of their field of play.

This week, Nike and National Geographic continue to reinforce negative stereotypes about African athletes.

Breaking2: Technology and the African
by Amy Abugo Ongiri and Jason Brozek

The blockbuster success of Black Panther at least partly revolved around its fantastical representation of its imaginary kingdom of Wakanda as the most technologically advanced society in the world. Wakanda is secretly located in Africa and completely inaccessible to the outside world. Director Ryan Coogler caused a global sensation by making this world visible in a film that is poised to be one of the highest grossing films of all time. For many, the vision of a technologically advanced society located in Africa seemed as fantastical and improbable as a superhero who could fly.

Lelisa Desisa, Zersenay Tadese, and Eliud Kipchoge, by being among the world’s greatest distance runners, come as close to flying as any human alive. With an Olympic gold medal, victories at multiple major marathons, and the third and fifth fastest marathon times in history, Eliud Kipchoge has a claim on being one of the greatest in history. This is why Nike recruited them into the Breaking2 project begun in 2016 that blossomed into a multi-year project attempting to utilize technology to break the world marathon record. In a repetition of the colonial project, the Africans would provide the human capital while the West would provide the finance capital that would bring science and technology to the project.

The Nike corporation marshaled all of its financial technological resources to attempt to not only break the marathon world record, but slip under the seemingly untouchable two-hour mark. For the attempt, a team of Nike scientists and physiologists calculated everything from weather conditions and diet, to shoes that were engineered to supply the highest speeds with the least energy expended. In May 2017 on a sea level Formula One race track in Monza, Italy, Desisa, Tadese, Kipchoge, and a group of thirty elite pace runners took their shot. Kipchoge came achingly close to the two-hour barrier, crossing the finish in 2:00:25.  Although the Breaking2 attempt was not IAAF record-eligible, Kiphoge’s finish time was over two and a half minutes under the current marathon world record.

The runners and Nike’s sports engineering team were filmed by National Geographic over the course of the year leading up to the two-hour attempt, and the resulting documentary, Breaking2: The Fastest Marathon Ever Run, was released in September 2017. Less than a year later, Marvel released its futuristic vision of a technologically enabled African kingdom of Wakanda. Though seemingly wildly divergent visions of race and power, both films shared surprisingly similar takes on the relationship of Africa and Africans to technology.

Breaking2’s formulation of the race as one in which western technology would be used to manipulate the “raw” power of African athletes put the relationship between race, politics, and athletics into stark relief. With sports physiologists, sports technologies, and scientists from a wide variety of western science disciplines, Nike will seemingly spare no expense to break the world record. It was all done unsurprisingly in the name of capitalism, as Nike used the athlete’s charisma and stunning performance as the backdrop to develop and market its newly created $600 “Vapor Fly Elite” running shoes. The shoe is reportedly “tuned by Nike to precisely match Kipchoge’s foot mechanics.” One consumer and want-to-be-marathoner gushes while buying the cheaper “Vapor Fly 4%”: “It’s like owning a friends-and-family version of the most hype lifestyle shoe ever—just that this one means something to us runners . . . It’s proof that nothing is impossible. It’s proof that with the proper training and the right technology we can do anything we want.”

Nike spared no expense and did everything seemingly possible to figure out how a human being could run so fast. They did everything that is except the obvious. Never does the staff of the Breaking2 project seem to ask these elite African runners or their trainers what made them run so fast in the first place or how they could run faster. Its as if they assumed that they could not possibly know, that their performance was somehow innate and purely physical. Similarly, the awe at the spectacle of Wakanda is a lot about its very impossibility. Technology is not seen as the terrain of Africans in any context be it documentary or fantasy. The Breaking2 documentary insists on its portrayal of its African runners as simple people living simple lives in Africa, despite them being millionaires at the absolute peak of their sport.

Unfortunately, rather than advance sports science, Breaking 2 ends up doing little more than reinforcing tired, offensive racial stereotypes when it could have highlighted one of history’s most remarkable distance running achievements.


AMY ABUGO ONGIRI is an associate professor and the Jill Beck Director of Film Studies at Lawrence University.  Her book Spectacular Blackness, explores the cultural politics of the Black Power movement and the search to define a “Black Aesthetic.” Her academic work has been published in College LiteratureJournal of African American HistoryCamera ObscuraPostmodern Culture, Black Filmmaker, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nka: The Journal of Contemporary African Art.  Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Black Girl DangerousMUTHA MagazineGlitterwolfBlack Lesbian Love Lab, and The Rad Families Anthology.

JASON BROZEK is an associate professor of government and Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs as well as director of the Sustainable China program and co-director of the Global Studies program at Lawrence University. He teaches courses on global politics, human security, environmental justice, international law, and foreign policy.


Do you have an essay you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Sports & Justice series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your essay should focus on a specific athlete (or, in some cases, multiple athletes) who has committed her or himself to some form of social justice or otherwise heroic endeavors off the playing field.
—Your essay should not exceed 750 words, and must be previously unpublished.
—Please include a short bio with your submission.
—Accepted submissions to Sports & Justice are typically posted 1–3 months after the notification date, and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Jun 28, 2018

Category: Original Fiction, Sports & Justice | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,