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Sport with Head and Heart

Triathlete and cultural studies scholar Yonca Krahn researches the links between space, sport, and the body.
Alice Werner
Active interviews: Yonca Krahn investigates athletes' perceptions of their bodies and their surroundings. (Image: Frank Brüderli)


Yonca Krahn has made her life both easier and more complicated with her choice of research field. The teaching and research assistant at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies lives and breathes triathlon – the endurance sport involving swimming (up to 3.8 km), cycling (up to 180 km), and running (up to 42.195 km). Whether it’s a long-distance triathlon on the Lofoten Islands, or the triathlon in Zurich, the thirty-something academic and athlete has put body, heart, and soul into the sport in recent years. What drives her? “The feeling of being capable of pushing past your own boundaries.”

Her passion hasn't just remained a sporting endeavor – she has also turned it into an intellectual pursuit with her interdisciplinary academic research: In her dissertation entitled “Der Raum des Triathlon”, Krahn uses empirical methods to research, among other things, the links between space, sport, and the body from a cultural-anthropological point of view.

“Sport will always be a big part of my life, but no longer at the elite level,” she says. Increasingly, she can be found at competitions wearing three hats: Athlete, academic, and coach. Most recently, she was at the 2017 Swiss University Games, where as ASVZ head coach she looked after both budding and more experienced triathletes, competed herself (finishing second), and at the same time noted down observations and took photographs for her research.

Krahn’s research constellates around questions such as: What perceptions do athletes have of their surroundings during training? How do elite or recreational athletes develop a specific sense of their own body’s needs – for example its capacity for endurance, or somatosensory factors such as thirst and tiredness?  

Active interviews

In order to try to get to grips with the ephemeral nature of our sensory impressions, and to document situational experiences, Krahn uses an autoethnographic  approach in which personal experiences are described, analyzed, and given a cultural interpretation. In addition, the sports ethnologist conducts interviews with athletes while they are doing their sporting activity, uses participants’ observations, and follows discussions on social media relating to trends and training practices, for example.

Krahn finds it interesting that new forms of competition are emerging thanks to modern technologies, such as the general trend for sports watches and fitness apps. People using such digital training platforms are in permanent competition, not only with themselves, but also with other users. “This makes for a rather questionable form of virtual competition, where the metrics are the only things that matter.” 

Personally, says Yonca Krahn, she prefers to use a tried and tested, albeit old-fashioned, self-assessment tool: Her own perception.

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