Social Science blog

5 posts from September 2010

29 September 2010

That Paralympic Show

Andrea Cunsolo writes:

 That Paralympic Show is part of Channel 4’s drive to promote the London 2012 Paralympic Games. It’s a ten week magazine series hosted by T4’s Rick Edwards and wheelchair basketball Paralympic medallist and presenter, Ade Adepitan. The show is filmed on different locations every week, exploring both the athletes’ training grounds and their particular sport, with presenters Rick and Ade often being joined by celebrities who are given the chance to compete in Paralympic themed games, challenges which include taking part in events such as Paralympic sailing, rowing and wheelchair tennis.

The show has a radical stance compared to the more conventional one used by past broadcasters, and sends out a clear message to viewers. Why the Paralympics has hitherto failed to capture the nation’s imagination is a question for debate, but it is worth noting that in this show the producers have focussed not on the athletes’ disabilities but on their dedication, skills and will to win, and this may be what is needed to capture the public’s imagination. It seems likely that the series will turn Paralympics gold medal winners, David Weir, Lee Pearson and Sarah Storey into household names, an achievement only managed so far by South African ‘blade runner’, Oscar Pistorius and our own Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Watch That Paralympic Show as well for information on the technological breakthroughs being made in disability sport: Paralympian Jody Cundy tests his paracycling skills to the maximum by visiting a wind tunnel to see just how fast he is with a carbon fibre race leg and race bike compared to a race bike and prosthetic leg from the 1920s; Oscar Pistorius is interviewed about his ambition to compete at the Olympic Games using his radical new prosthesis.

 This last raises a controversial issue: where do we draw the line that determines whether or not a ‘Paralympic’ athlete can compete with an ‘Olympic’ one? In the mean time, I encourage people to sample Channel 4’s Paralympics broadcasting. It displays a pure, exciting and elite form of athletics.



20 September 2010

British Women Olympians

Sarah Evans writes:


We're really delighted to receive a new contribution to the website by Dr. Jean Williams who is a Senior Research Fellow at De Monfort University. She examines a subject which is close to our hearts at the BL -the relationship of British sportswomen to the Olympic Games (since the first modern Games in 1896). With so many women succeeding in the Games it is sometimes easy to forget that women's participation and success has not always been supported by the culture and organisation of the Games. Throughout the twentieth century a great number of women competitors have struggled to gain access to the Games and to be recognised as serious athletes. Dr. Williams has made a really lively case for a comprehensive history of these women.


I was particularly interested to read some the stories of women competitors which showed the relationship between gender, social class and the Games. Jean describes how the idea of 'gentlemanly amateurism' which significantly influenced the Games for the best part of the twentieth century is shown to have really affected who was able to be a competitor and who was not. Not getting paid for something which requires a considerable personal investment made participation difficult for many working-class people, not least women who also had to contend with concerns that sport would undo their femininity!


It was great to read about how, despite these unfavourable circumstances, there are examples of working-class women athletes who have achieved great success during earlier Games. I was particularly inspired by the story of Dorothy Hyman a sprinter who won Sports Personality of the Year in 1963. Jean describes how Hyman came from a coal-mining background and was one of five children. She trained at a stadium 8 miles away from her house and had to wash at a neighbour's house after training as her family home had no indoor bathroom. Hyman resisted the amateur principles imposed by men with money - and for good reason.


Please do feel free to download Dr. Williams' article and to post your comments and relevant links on this blog. It can be found here: We really hope that the article will inspire others to take a deeper look at the history of women Olympians.


Other useful links:


17 September 2010

The fascination of the quotidian

Sports memorabilia is big business, and Olympics memorabilia no less so; you only have to look on the internet to see the vast amount of historic items on sale, from badges and special stamp issues to events programmes. Not so long ago, a new shopping opportunity opened up in St Pancras station in the form of a London 2012 merchandise outlet. The station is right next door to the BL so this seemed like a good opportunity to combine business with pleasure and take a stroll over there to check it all out.


People keen to acquire a 2012 heirloom will be very interested in what’s on offer. There are cuddly Wenlocks and Mandevilles, lapel pins and key rings, sports clothes, mugs, posters etc etc. So if you’re one of those people psychologically equipped to defer gratification you can buy something and put it away until it becomes a rare and prized object. The IOC has a commission which oversees the merchandising of Olympics memorabilia and reveals that the collecting of Olympic mementoes started as early as the first modern Olympics in 1896.


There’s something about ephemera and keepsakes which arouses everyone’s interest. Old department store catalogues, knitting patterns, advertisements, posters - things like these - some of which in their serendipitous ways have found a place in the BL collections - are much prized, and the fascination of the quotidian is one of the reasons why the newspaper library collection with its daily, weekly and fortnightly publications, replete with their small ads, correspondence pages and illustrations, are so much used. It’s like getting into a time machine.


Here’s the cover of an Olympics souvenir issue of the Athletics review of 1948


Athletics review 
BLreference collections shelfmark 7917.d.38


The BL has quite a few artefacts which it mostly acquired as part of larger collections, but we have more than enough to do with actual publications, so don’t actively collect individual objects. But you never know what might end up in a library collection. The National Library of Australia has a commemorative carpet from the 1956 Melbourne Games, and it published an interesting plan of action for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games which embraced the collecting of all kinds of materials, and which you can read online.




07 September 2010

The Olympics in bloom

Well, as a devotee of sport and gardening I find all my dreams coming true in the Olympic park, following accounts of great success with a wild flower meadow in the vicinity of the stadiums. This was reported by the BBC on 31 August and was accompanied by a beautiful picture of wildflowers creating a golden vista. See


The BBC tells us that with advice from experts from Sheffield University, an area as large as 10 football pitches has been sown with cornflowers, marigolds and poppies: the sort of plants which attract insects like Burnet moths and Marsh Fritillary and Meadow Brown butterflies. The success of the project this year seems to have surprised even the experts, for anyone who has tried it knows that it is by no means easy to create a successful wildflower patch. The seeds have to be scattered at just the right time and the soil has to be perfect: fertile for some wildflowers and gritty for others.  Which ought to bring me to some metaphorical reflections on the cultivation of young athletes, but I’ll spare you that, and talk instead about the pleasure it gives me to see the environment taking centre stage during the build phase of the 2012 Olympics.


Environment is one of the themes we are showcasing on the website, and we have discovered numerous publications in the collection which look at the impact of the Olympics on the countries which host them

The urgency with which cities have lately approached the issue reflects fears about global sustainability and puts into sharp focus the legacy of some of the Olympic Games stadiums of the past which now lie unused, and which provide a constant reminder of the danger of projects which are purely vainglorious. To its credit, the IOC quickly realised that host cities must be explicitly guided in the direction of doing the decent environmental thing. In 1994, it and the United Nations Environment  Programme signed an Agreement of Cooperation to incorporate environmental concerns into the Olympic Games: and the two bodies co-host the Global Forum for Sport and the Environment whose website is full of interest. The home page currently has a picture of our Olympic park’s floriferous achievement.


03 September 2010

Whither the cultural Olympiad?

Culture and sport don’t always sit well together, but Pierre de Coubertin was very keen on the idea that the Olympic Games should be something more than a sporting event, and that it should include competitions for artistic excellence, with victor’s laurels for music, the fine arts, and literature. London 1948 saw the last of these ‘events’ however, despite the fact that some of them had been very popular with the public, particularly at Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936. So why didn’t the concept of artistic competition work? Opinions differ, but it is generally agreed that logistical problems, changing tastes and concerns about the professional status of the best competitors played their part. After 1948, the ‘arts’ aspect of the Olympics began to be restricted to exhibitions celebrating the culture of the country in which the Games were being held, and this continued until the idea of a more prolonged Cultural Olympiad was pioneered by Barcelona in 1992. An interesting account of the arts and cultural history of the Olympiads is given by Margaret Gold and George Revill in Olympic cities [] (details below).

 How feasible is it to create a cultural festival in a city already gearing up for a massive sporting mega event? It clearly isn’t easy, for London’s Cultural Olympiad has come under fire from commentators already, being accused of lacking focus, of being late getting off the ground and of being poorly understood by the public. London is such a great cultural capital in any case, and that makes it hard to imagine what could take place, over and above what’s going on anyway.

 Perhaps a proper brand identity is once again key here, for there is plenty of eagerness on the part of London’s cultural institutions, including the British Library, to showcase their treasures and their cultural meaning in the support of the Olympic ideal. The questions are how best to do it; and more importantly, how best to link it up to the main event? It’s an interesting conundrum for the organisers in a city like this: do you opt for something entirely new, or do you attempt a spin on existing festivals and traditions (BBC Olympic Proms 2012 perhaps!). Or maybe you can attempt a mixture of both?

 Olympic cities: city agendas, planning and the world games, 1896-2012 edited by John R Gold and Margaret M Gold London: Routledge, 2007.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2008.a.11704

Lending collections shelfmark: m07/.34581

Gold, John Robert and Gold, Margaret M. Cities of culture: Staging international festivals and the urban agenda, 1851-2000 Aldershot: Ashgate, c2005.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2006.a.8347

Lending collections shelfmark: m05/.18513

Stanton, Richard. The forgotten Olympic art competitions: the story of the Olympic art competitions of the 20th century Victoria: Trafford, 2000.

Lending collections shelfmark: m02/36119