Social Science blog

3 posts from November 2010

26 November 2010

The flight of the imagination

The controversy over government funding of youth sport continues, but the pumping in of cash alone won’t inevitably ensure success when it comes to getting kids moving. I started to enjoy sport rather late in life, and if I have any regrets, the main one is that I didn’t get active sooner; but what was lacking in the early days was not opportunity but inspiration - the vital difference between having to do something, and wanting to do it. This makes the Olympics, and indeed any mega sporting event, an ideal opportunity to change the way people – and especially impressionable youngsters - think about physical activity. The drama of the situation, the excitement, the buzz; this puts a spin on physical exercise which makes it a more enticing prospect than dire warnings about obesity, or a compulsory PE lesson on a cold Monday morning.

The effects of seeing a sporting drama unfold have an inevitability about them: look at the take up of tennis courts after Wimbledon fortnight; the Olga Korbut effect on the gymnastics ambitions of young girls. In short, the flight of the imagination has to take place before people feel the urge to take up something that is often hard, demanding and uncomfortable (as physical exercise is, there’s no denying it) and win through to the rewards – self esteem, fitness, joy (which physical exercise brings, there’s no denying that either).

What puts spin on the need to do exercise? I suggest: to watch sport in action; to listen to sportspeople talking; to read about it the experiences of those who do it, high and low. There are lots of books out there about the sporting achievements of ordinary and extraordinary people. I’ve been fascinated, and inspired by, the following:

Taylor, Russell. The looniness of the long distance runner: an unfit Londoner's attempt to run the New York City Marathon from scratch

London: Andre Deutsch, 2001.

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2003.a.5380

Grey-Thompson, Tanni, Aim high

Bedlinog: Accent, 2007

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2007.a.8674

Hines, Mark,

The Marathon des sables: seven days in the Sahara: enduring the toughest footrace on earth

London: Health Body Publishing, c2007

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2009.a.19238

McDougall, Christopher.

Born to run: the hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen

London: Profile, 2009

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2010.a.16168

11 November 2010

Sporting English

There’s much excitement here about the BL’s new exhibition ‘Evolving English’ which opens on the 12th November and which has already garnered a huge amount of publicity. A variety of events around the theme of language have also been organised, and the one that really interests me is ‘Over the moon: the language of sport’ which is scheduled for the evening of January 11 2011 (details below)

The problem is: how will the panel participants (a starry cast) cram in everything there is to say about the language of sport, which to my mind encompasses all sorts of things from the way sport is described to the words, clichés, metaphors and similes which we all know and love? If we’re talking evolution, it’s fascinating to look at fashions in sports terminology and how this has ebbed and flowed over time. Footballers were notoriously over the moon in the eighties and nineties. They don’t say it now; so what has taken its place? Centre forwards aren’t doing  jinking runs any more (a description much beloved of sports journalists in the seventies) and at last sports broadcasters have dropped the distinction they usually made between men and girl athletes (terminology dating, I imagine, from time immemorial) which has to be good because it always used to send my blood pressure sky high.

 Sport has always had a predilection for ‘in words’ used by the cognoscenti. Here’s Pierce Egan writing in 1812 about the boxing match between ‘Jemmy the postman’ and Jack Lamb: ‘It was a complete mill on both sides, and after a hammering of near fifty minutes, they both agreed to sheer off!” You don’t hear milling coves saying that sort of thing these days.

 Some words I love and haven’t encountered very frequently in the sports context.  Geoff Boycott often describes a cricketer as bamboozled when he’s misread the pitch of the ball which is both funny and evocative, but cricket abounds with words that paint a picture (maybe because of the celebrated commentaries on Test Match Special) he’s skyed it; a daisy cutter, a tail-ender. Some of these words have found their way into common parlance. Where would we be these days without ‘well that’s got him on the back foot!’

 Event: The language of sport


Pierce Egan

Boxiana: or sketches of ancient and modern pugilism…

London: G Smeeton, 1812



04 November 2010


Just how competitive are women athletes? I ask this because it’s one of those questions which inexplicably seems to have puzzled psychologists, sociologists and educators for years. It’s also a loaded question because how we define competitiveness and how appropriate we consider it for different types of people continually undergoes change – the debate about whether children should be encouraged to compete against each other is one example; the issue of how women perceive and approach their goals is another. Early research in this area was predicated on stereotypes about gender roles and suggested that competitiveness was a ‘masculine’ trait, so female athletes (who were found in tests to be more competitive than female non-athletes, as well as possessing other traits traditionally considered to be ‘masculine’) felt a certain ambivalence about the findings. Later research avoided those labels, and investigations using a measure known as SOQ (Sport Orientation Questionnaire) now suggest that the answer is a lot more complex than previously supposed. Using SOQ, men tend to score higher than women on ‘competitiveness’ and ‘win orientation’ and women score as highly as men on ‘goal orientation’ – which I interpret to mean that women want to win, but aim to achieve their ends in a less ‘aggressive’ manner. What does this actually mean in practice though? Watching men & women compete at the Olympic Games, one can’t perceive any difference in the determination with which they prepare for and perform their events. So do women somehow train and compete less ‘competitively’, or more ‘cooperatively’, or less ‘aggressively’, or more ‘ambivalently’; or what?  Maybe the issue doesn’t arise with elite sportswomen; they’re determined to win and that’s that. But ideas about what attributes it is appropriate to display, might conceivably deter some women from taking up sport at all.


There was certainly something of a stigma attached to the notion of competitiveness in women’s sport, in the early years at least. The American educator Lucille E Hill writing about college women’s sport in 1903, was a pioneering advocate for women’s participation in all kinds of strenuous activities and edited a collection of essays about women’s sport in her ‘Athletics & out-door sports for women’. However, some of her contributors struck a note of caution: Herbert Holton of the Boston Athletic Association, who wrote the ‘Running’ chapter in her book, warned his female readers against striving for speed and records lest their “thought and manner…become manly; and grace, that natural condition for which woman stands, be lost in an effort not naturally a woman’s”. Christine Herrick on ‘Track athletics’ ends her piece with a quotation: “Women have a different object in athletics from men. Health is ours, moderate effort bringing pleasure with it, but competition is secondary”.


 These were the days, of course, when international sporting competitions for women were limited. That isn’t the case now, and there are huge rewards for athletic success; so no one gets anywhere in sport today without ambition and a strong streak of competitiveness. In fact, does anyone know a successful athlete who hasn’t possessed these attributes? Answers on a postcard...

 Gill, Diane L., Psychological dynamics of sport and exercise.

Leeds : Human Kinetics, 2008.

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS796.01

Lending collections shelfmark: m08/.38026


Hill. Lucille E Athletics and out-door sports for women, each subject being separately treated by a special writer…

New York: Macmillan, 1903

London reference collections shelfmark: 7912.h.15