26 April 2010
Elites and 'grassroots'
I'm writing on the day after the London Marathon and thinking about the great ethos of endurance running where amateurs are allowed to race with elites. Being a slow but steady runner myself I've always been interested in the experiences of grass roots athletes: people who would describe themselves as ‘ordinary’ but who have started from a very low base line and gone on to attempt marathons, ultra marathons and similar sporting feats. Quite a few of these are eager to spread the word by publishing their experiences, and their accounts tell us a great deal about how sport can contribute to a positive sense of self, and give meaning to sometimes damaged lives. The way people write about these things: the words they use, the tone they adopt is full of significance too.
Owing to the fact that they aren’t standard sports biographies, some of these books have a tendency to slip under the radar of libraries, so I’m making it my mission to keep an eye on them and ensure that the British Library acquires them - either through legal deposit or purchase. Quite a few are produced in the U.S, where publishers like Breakaway Books give this sort of author a voice. Some are privately published though, and even harder to get hold of or even to find out about. The standard at the Olympic Games is far removed from the sporting world of the leisure athlete, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t have effects on such people or the wider population of the UK. With the focus on sport and sports facilities we will hopefully see a much wider take-up of physical recreation, inspired by what people see on the screen in 2012 - and hopefully more people will be writing about their experiences.
Sporting biography isn’t restricted to print media, of course, as the internet has provided a platform for people to recount their experiences in lots of different ways like on video via Youtube, or on blogs and message boards. Naturally this poses a problem for libraries because of the issues involved in archiving these types of resource, and we’re only just beginning to grapple with the enormity of capturing what’s out there. Archiving websites is one way of doing it, and the BL is in the forefront of these efforts; it also, through its oral history activities, is playing a part in getting people’s experiences recorded and 'The oral history of British athletics' is a collection in our Sound Archive which represents one of those initiatives. Now that digital technology is available to everyone, everyone’s experiences are theoretically recordable – so Andy Warhol’s famous dictum has every chance of coming true!