Running to Labor: Ethiopian Women Distance Runners in Networks of Capital

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2022

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Abstract

Perhaps second only to coffee, Ethiopia is best known worldwide for its long-distance runners. Since the 1960s, the country has indeed won countless Olympic medals and major marathons. However, the persisting explanatory rhetoric for East African running dominance relies on deterministic understandings of race, genetics, and environment. Little attention has been paid to the dimensions of labor, culture, and gender at work. This dissertation is the first in-depth ethnographic study of young Ethiopian women seeking a career in long distance running.

Based on two years of fieldwork in Addis Ababa and surrounding areas, domestic trips to competitions and training camps around Ethiopia, an internship at an international sports agency based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and travel to competitions around the world, the dissertation investigates the transnational networks of people and corporations that female runners move within and across as they navigate a global athletics market. Foregrounding gender, body politics, and global capitalism, my project revises the biology-centered concept of “running economy” into a multi-faceted sociocultural analytic for exploring how aspiring runners strive to make monetary value. How, I ask, can we look at running economy more holistically?

In underlining the social and cultural dimensions of running economy and centering the perspectives of women who exist within the transnational economy of running, we can see how Ethiopian women contest commonsense understandings of how this global athletics economy functions – and make their own moral judgements about what a more just economy would look like. Even as some of them drastically improve their lives by running, and remain hopeful while reaching for success, they find ways to cause frictions and disrupt hegemonic flows of ideas and money. By listening to how they politicize their training as labor, and by hearing their demands and desires, I argue that Ethiopian women runners expose many of the failed opportunities that capitalist structures and ideology espouse and urge us to rethink how we could better structure transnational economies.

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Borenstein, Hannah R (2022). Running to Labor: Ethiopian Women Distance Runners in Networks of Capital. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25803.

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