Veganism has experienced a significant spike in cultural awareness over the past few years, in no small part due to the varying success and promotion of vegan athletes. Not a plant-based documentary comes out without highlighting plant eating athletes as definitive proof of the value in herbivorous eating. The reasoning for this isn’t too veiled, in the ways we uphold athletes as specimens of optimal living, their bodies primed to execute beyond challenges most find next to impossible. The demands of these athletics upon their bodies demands an equally matched attention to fueling it, so it follows that plant-based athletes have a certain privilege in promoting veganism. It should also be noted that those in opposition to the vegan ethic kinda dug this hole they have found themselves in looking for a way out, constantly trying to burden us with the non-existent malady of protein deficiency alongside painting the stereotype of the frail and nutritionally deficient vegan, and finally attaching absurd notions of primal manhood to the act of eating animal bodies they buy so delicately packaged from the grocery store. To those dying stereotypes, plant-based athletes drive the stake through their heart.
Plant-based athleticism is a welcomed addition to the conversation in regards to veganism and the ways we relate to our fellow animals, notably because it simplifies the retort to the weakening arguments just mentioned, and then allows us to refocus the conversation back towards notions of respect towards all animals and an ever-widening ethic of liberation for all animals, human and non. If there is an ultimate value to promoting plant-based athletes, it is using them to underscore veganism (which is a drastically different idea than just being plant-based). The problem with arguing for plant-based athleticism, however, is when the conversation ends by pointing to the successes of the athletes so that the intentions of veganism are lost to selfish goals. The current discussions around plant-based athleticism continue to focus upon “shortened recovery time”, “lean muscle mass building”, and other PRIMARILY ANECDOTAL proclamations. I stress the anecdotal nature of these statements because, to my knowledge, there has yet to be a long-term, comprehensive study of plant-based athletes in relation to their progressions / digressions pre and post dietary changes. If the argument for plant-based athleticism is based upon the successes of the plant-based athletes and their stated reasonings for their personal success, then we have absolutely nothing to go on save for varied and personal experimentation. That’s fine and all, but doesn’t lend to valuable, credible research papers. The science isn’t even inconclusive because the science hasn’t even been tested. If the conversation around plant-based athleticism is limited to these anecdotal statements, then we aren’t talking about veganism at all, but rather listening to the braggadocio of athletes and their selfish ends. Athleticism is a deeply self-interested pursuit, of which I take no fault, and although all acts are at base self-interested, veganism at least breaks from the personal nature of plant-based athleticism to include others in it’s considerations. This is the juncture at which we need to reconcile plant-based athleticism and vegan athletes. One is a selfish diet, the other is an ethical guide for cooperative and liberatory relationships.
If plant-based athleticism is a gateway to veganism, then I fully embrace erecting an archway for others to walk through. Indeed, many activist groups have found athletic outreach as a way to bring attention to animal justice ethics and have begun forming teams or training programs to fundraise for their efforts or simply advertise veganism. Less encouraging, via my limited engagement with larger vegan culture, are the documentaries and plant-based athletes who signal boost themselves and their corresponding brands via their successes, but do little to nothing to promote veganism at base. They continue to confuse plant-based eating with veganism by definition and cloud the discussions around animal liberation and exactly what ends we are trying to achieve. I don’t necessarily fault the profiled athletes for being deliberately elusive or manipulative in their expressions, for I don’t think we are always seeking the same ends, and even some of them unwittingly found themselves speaking to an audience of vegans when they were only interested in experimenting with diets to achieve athletic success. With that acknowledged, it is up to us, as vegan athletes, to continue shaping the discussion towards animal justice, liberatory ethics, and, if we must shine a light upon athletes, then shining a light upon those athletes using their practice and exposure to promote veganism rather than self-interested physical accomplishments. Vegan athleticism has a powerful connection to dominant culture and we should not squander the opportunity to formulate relationships through shared athletic interests, but we also shouldn’t leave our ethics outside the conversations.
To lay bare a somewhat obvious personal bias here, this plea could be seen as a veiled whining about not getting enough attention for my own athleticism. Fair enough, but trust this is not my motive. My very small, dwindled readership could never constitute a force strong enough to signal boost my own weak branding. Couple that with my complete sabotage of a social media presence (flip phone future!) and I hope my intentions are taken as more self-interested rather than selfish. My genuine intention with writing this blurb is to do my small part in keeping the conversation upon veganism and the crucial immediacy of animal liberation while equally giving perspective towards the problematic nature of upholding plant-based athletes over vegan athletes. Vegans can be an understandably desperate bunch, pushed to the fringes of normative culture, with a knowledge of immense animal suffering that demands immediate attention, so any sliver of acknowledgement by larger culture is pounced upon by vegan culture, but sometimes this immediacy and urgency clouds a reasoned perspective and tactical approach to convincing others of the validity of our arguments. Every plant-based (or vegan) athlete, no matter how wingnut (Kyrie Irving) they turn out to be or how removed from animal ethics they are, tend to get put upon a pedestal and paraded around as the savior for all beings, which tends to support the idea that vegans are actually unhinged, mentally troubled individuals holding to their unhinged, irrational eating habits and behavioral ethics. Vegans have to be more rational and grounded in their approaches and arguments and discussions and pleas for veganism.
Ultimately, we need to use the tools of high-performing vegan athletes not as a trump card that only solidifies the selfish needs of athletes, but rather to promote an expanding analysis of total freedom and how to get there. A world of plant-based athletes can still exist within the parameters of great oppression and authoritarian strangleholds, while a world of vegan athletes can not. There is a very distinct difference to both approaches and as vegans and as vegan athletes, it is crucial that we keep drawing the lines dividing the two.