Are We Becoming Ivan Drago? Analyzing Today’s Fitness Tech through Rocky IV

Are We Becoming Ivan Drago? Analyzing Today’s Fitness Tech through Rocky IV

Are We Becoming Ivan Drago? Analyzing Today’s Fitness Tech through Rocky IV

Emily Contois

In Rocky IV (1985), American Rocky Balboa fights the USSR’s Ivan Drago in a boxing match that animates Cold War tensions. In the film’s now beloved training montage, Rocky moves with his family to the wintery Siberian countryside to prepare for the fight, performing functional movements in the great outdoors. He runs through steep snow drifts, heaves giant rocks, chops wood, and pulls a heavy sled. Drago, on the other hand, trains in a lab-like gym under the careful attention of white-coated scientists and trainers, his every move captured, measured, and improved upon by technology, all of it cast with a red glow. In these one-to-one shots, Rocky’s unpretentious workouts and big heartedness win against Ivan’s complex technique and cold calculations.

Viewers love this montage and its clear matchup of good versus evil. It’s accumulated more than 30 million views on YouTube across its postings. Whether ironic or earnest, various corners of the Internet have crowned it the GOAT of film training montages. Rocky reflects back at viewers a simplified menu of American culture and values, a nation paradoxically imagined as the perennial underdog to cheer on and embodied within Rocky’s “natural” rather than “scientific” training. Fans, whether they regularly exercise or not, love to see themselves in Rocky.

But as I look at our contemporary fitness landscape, I worry some of us have become Dragos, obsessed with smartwatches and fitness metrics. This bears out in demographic data. In a Pew Research Center survey from June 2019, about one in five Americans used a smartwatch or other fitness tracker, with usage higher among women than men (25% vs. 18%) and among those making $75,000 or more a year (31%), with lower but not negligible rates (12%) among those making less than $30,000. Since 2019, these devices have become even more popular. Figures and survey methodologies vary, but 30% (or maybe even 41% to 45%) of Americans used a smartwatch or other fitness tracker in 2023. Whatever the precise percentage, a growing number of us are outsourcing self-knowledge of our bodies to these devices, coupling a datafied life with a constant quest for self-improvement. What’s gained and lost in this bargain? And how can Rocky help us to understand it?

To begin, the Rocky versus Drago montage documents some of the most profound shifts that transformed premodern games into modern sports. Historian Allen Guttmann characterizes this as a process of increasing specialization, bureaucracy, rationalization, quantification, and an obsession with records. As these pressures remade professional sport over the centuries, these elements have reshaped personal fitness activities and infiltrated everyday life, too.

Today, fitness increasingly involves an obsession with quantification and records. (Image courtesy ThisIsEngineering)

The relatively recent rise of personal fitness tech amplified cultural obsessions with quantification and records, but also made them physically intimate and increasingly customized in ways even Drago didn’t experience. Now referred to offhandedly as “wearables,” such devices took hold of enthusiasts at a record-setting pace, rewiring notions of health. The Apple iPhone launched in 2007, followed by the Fitbit in 2008. Just five years later, in 2012, the Apple app store featured 13,000 health apps. In 2015 Apple launched their watch, combining many of these app features into a single device. In 2020, the updated Apple Watch Series 6 came out, claiming “the future of health is on your wrist” with features to monitor heart rhythms, blood oxygen levels, and falls. The watch’s “always-on display” served as a constant reminder to focus on health and fitness, alongside work optimization compulsions like email, calendars, lists, and other productivity apps.

Focused on constant development and upgrades, fitness tech can also denigrate simple exercises and equipment, like those that Rocky exerts in the Siberian countryside, which are also the most financially and spatially accessible forms of exercise. Take for example Orangetheory, which describes its studio fitness approach as “science-backed, technology-tracked.” In a blog post welcoming exercisers back to the gym after the COVID-19 pandemic, they asked readers, “Tired of curling cans of beans on a yoga mat in your apartment?” However fun and sweaty their gym workout, Orangetheory constructs a false consumer dichotomy between a gym’s fitness equipment tech and home exercise, the latter reduced to pathetically exercising with cans of beans.

While Rocky and Drago push themselves to the limit in their workouts, today’s fitness tech urges every user to optimize themselves, even in moments when they might not want to, and for good reason. Take for example the Apple Watch Series 6 “Hello Sunshine” commercial, which aired in July 2021, reaching screens after viewers had lived and worked through the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year. I saw it myself in multiple ad breaks during the Tokyo Olympic Games broadcast, a media moment when many of us find ourselves more easily convinced to “go for gold.”

The ad opens with a shot of a black woman wearing a colorfully-striped sundress, peacefully lying in a sunny field. She says, “This summer, all I want to do is relax,” a sentiment many burned out workers could relate to. But then, her Apple Watch beeps and a notification appears on her thin wrist, prompting her to move. The ad’s protagonist adjusts her plans, saying, “Okay, relax, and maybe run a bit.” But after she starts a leisurely run, she suddenly wants to swim, too, and dance, take up rock climbing, flip a massive tractor tire, and hike to the top of a mountain, oh, and become a master in taekwondo. She lists these activities breathlessly, adding a new one each time the ad runs through its sequence, speaking faster and faster. The ad’s tone and visual style is light and humorous, but it ends with the ad’s protagonist looking at us through the screen to say, “Wait, are you still relaxing?” Apple Watch pitches itself as the future of health, as a device that can evolve us into an upper echelon of productivity, motivated away from relaxing. Within today’s fitness tech landscape, rest is only redeemable as “recovery.”

Fitbit has taken a similar approach, using personal health data to ameliorate lagging motivation. Fitbit intended for a 2021 “What’s Strong with You” campaign to encourage “audiences to reexamine wellness through a holistic lens…that strength isn’t just physical but also mental and emotional.” This framing opens a door to valuing these other parts of wellness—mental health and emotions—but Mark Silverio, VP of sales and marketing at Fitbit, describes them as “invisible data points to life.” What are the risks of understanding our mental health and emotions in quantified terms, as simply assets or detriments to our performance during our workouts and in life, too?

Emotions certainly fuel Rocky’s workouts, but he wouldn’t reduce them to a data point. Alongside Drago’s machine-like excellence and flat affect, Rocky feels. And so do those who watch him. Rather than seeking motivation in an Apple Watch, chirping at its wearer to close a ring, those who love this montage turn to it for inspiration, whether for a workout or life’s challenges. As John Cafferty’s “Heart’s on Fire” plays through the montage’s second half, it’s an anthem for only one of the athletes on screen, who’s in touch with his mind and body, fighting for what the film deems a noble cause. A 1988 analysis of Rocky IV defended the film as more than just a violent, nationalist tale. Authors Stephen C. LeSueur and Dean Rehberger situated the formulaic Rocky installments as a ritual in which the hero battles the bureaucratic, commercial, and technological forces that alienate and disempower individuals in order to reestablish social bonds.

Decades later, viewers’ passionate responses to this film and its main montage reveal similar tensions between who we desire to be and what we might be becoming as the information age resculpts fitness. More and more of us are now conditioned into Dragos, motivated, tracked, and made meaningful through data. But if we all temper fitness’s technological turn, we can continue to fully know ourselves, to understand our limits, and to connect with others without the mediation of monitors, devices, or wearables.

We’ll be able to feel our hearts on fire.


Featured image courtesy cottonbro studio.

Emily Contois is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (2020) and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation (2022). She completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University and holds an MA in American Studies from Brown, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.

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