Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

4 posts from February 2011

23 February 2011


The London 2012 velodrome has garnered a huge amount of publicity this week. Sir Chris Hoy in a BBC interview extols it as a ‘gladiatorial arena’ and wonders what the sound of 6000 excited spectators will be like. It has to be said that no team deserves a state-of-the-art stadium more than the British cyclists, whose medal haul at the Beijing Olympics easily outshone that of any other country’s team. The stadium has had rave reviews in the architectural press too, and it certainly looks impressive, with its elegantly curved roof (it’s been nicknamed the ‘Pringle’ already!).

 Designing an Olympic stadium must be one of the most highly sought after of architectural commissions. The high visibility of the project, the chance to indulge in a flight of the imagination, the ample budget; all these things potentially offer huge rewards. A number of fascinating books have been written about Olympic buildings (listed below).

 For one Olympic velodrome, the outlook hasn’t been so rosy. The Herne Hill Velodrome – just round the corner from where I live, and the scene of the London 1948 cycling events - has launched an appeal for support in order to preserve this fine old venue, which dates from 1891. The stadium has been in use almost continually since then, and serves as a resource, and an inspiration, for amateurs of all ages. Restoring its grandstand and upgrading the track would provide benefits for riders in the vicinity, including disabled cyclists, and its campaign has been supported by a number of influential groups and individuals.

 It seems to me that the London 2012 Olympics legacy needs to be inclusive of other Olympic legacies - like this track. Maybe concentrating on the state-of-the-art facility is only half the story.

 BBC London 2012 website: velodrome

Herne Hill velodrome website:

 Gordon, Barclay F. Olympic architecture: building for the summer games. New York; Chichester: Wiley, c1983.

London reference collection shelfmark: X.425/4626

Lending collections shelfmark: 83/34418

Bingham-Hall, Patrick. Olympic architecture 2000: building Sydney. Sydney, Australia: Watermark Press, 1999.

Lending collections shelfmark: fm02/1267 (0949284394)

Wimmer, Martin. Olympic buildings. Leipzig : Edition Leipzig ;London : Distributed by Prior, 1976.

London reference collection shelfmark: X.423/5141

Lending collections shelfmark: F76/31412

Sheard, Rod. Sports architecture. London: Spon, c2001

London reference collection shelfmark: LB.31.b.20585

Lending collections shelfmark: m00/42411

Schmidt, Thomas, Werner March, Architekt des Olympia-Stadions, 1894-1976. Basel; Berlin: Birkhauser Verlag, c1992

London reference collection shelfmark: YA.1994.a.9474 

Watts, John F Herne Hill track: the history of this famous cycling venue from 1891 to 2007

[Great Britain]: J F Watts [2007?]

 London reference collection shelfmark: YD.2011.b.1394 

16 February 2011

Selling the Olympics

LOCOG has now published the London 2012 competition schedule online, which appears along with the list of ticket prices for the events. Both look to have been a logistical nightmare, the latter perhaps even more so, given that it has to reflect a number of values and aspirations, notably inclusiveness and profitability. The prices have rather a poetic feel in fact – with seats for the opening ceremony ranging from £20.12 to £2012.00, while at some events, young people under 16 “pay their age for a ticket”: a neat symmetry.

 Ticket sales were ever a cause of apprehension for the Olympics organisers, as a glance at those wonderful documents, the official Olympic reports, demonstrate. The 1908 London Olympics was held in conjunction with, and had its venue funded by the Franco-British Exhibition, and the location of the sports stadium on the exhibition site caused some head scratching by officials on both sides. Writes Theodore Cook, in the official report of the Games, “it was obvious that people who only paid a shilling to enter the Exhibition could not be given free admittance to the stadium and that spectators who paid to see the sports could not thereby claim uncontrolled admittance to the exhibition”. Once this was sorted out “via a system of checks and counter checks which occasionally proved annoying to those unfamiliar with the complicated problem to be solved” the sale could go ahead, but as Cook complains, the Games was “never adequately advertised by the Exhibition authorities and the prices of the seats were at first placed so high that whole blocks remained empty” (a box on the opening day was eight guineas).

 At the 1948 Olympics Games the main source of revenue was the sale of tickets, but take up from abroad was very slow at first, much to the alarm of the organising committee. As late as July 1948 only half of what was needed to cover costs had been taken, and the media began to talk about a flop. Sales even for the opening ceremony were not particularly brisk and many complementary tickets had to be handed out to students, nurses and other deserving cases.

 Commentators in both 1908 and 1948 explained these difficulties by suggesting that the sport-loving British already had a panoply of sporting events to look forward to in the summer, from Test cricket and Henley to horse racing, and therefore had no need or inclination for other distractions, but it is obvious that these Games had particular difficulties to face: the modern Olympics were in their infancy in 1908, and 1948 saw the world in the complex grip of a post war shortage of resources.

 How London 2012 will fare – the world itself being in the grip of another financial crisis - is debatable. My guess is that the organisers are confident of selling all the tickets and that if they don’t, there will be a plan B in reserve to fill those empty seats. Only time will tell.

 British Olympic Association The Fourth Olympiad: being the Official Report of the Olympic Games of 1908 celebrated in London ... Drawn up by Theodore Andrea Cook, etc. [With plates.] London, 1919

London reference collections shelfmark: 7904.d.7.

The Official Report of the Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad. [With plates.] Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad: London, [1951.]

London reference collections shelfmark:7920.d.28.

Schedule of events and ticket prices. London 2012

11 February 2011

Paralympic Discourse

Simone Bacchini writes:

Overall, the Olympic Games is an event that has overwhelmingly positive connotations. It is a showcase for physical excellence where the human body takes centre stage. The body beautiful is displayed in all its splendour and signifies a number of things. The competing athlete, especially when winning, embodies a number of highly valued qualities: physical and mental strength, effort, determination, stamina, and endurance. It is perhaps unsurprising that sport, where the connection between personal dedication and personal triumph is so direct and apparent, should prove to be such a rich source of metaphors for other areas. This is even truer of the Paralympics.

 Paralympians want to be seen as simply athletes, judged for their performances. In the discourse of and around the Paralympic Games, disability is something that competing athletes have but it not coterminous with them. And yet, disability itself is never too far from any Paralympic performance. Perhaps it acts as a constant reminder that we, as a society, are still not completely comfortable with disability itself.

 Shortly before the start of the 2000 Sydney Summer Paralympics, Richard Hinds (The Sydney Morning Herald, 14th October 2000) wrote of the unease felt by many sport commentators in writing about paralympians’ performance. At the heart of the dilemma was, fundamentally, a question of what to focus on: performance or disability. If the focus is on the performance, then one might feel free to criticise, even harshly, a paralympic athlete. If, however, one focuses - albeit unconsciously - on the disability, the commentator might feel inhibited in heaping anything other than praise on the athlete; after all, she or he has achieved what most able-bodied individuals could only dream of achieving; all this notwithstanding a physical or mental obstacle.

 Therein lies the problem. Is it truly possible, or desirable, to completely separate individuals from their disabilities? This is, after all, what is implied by the International Paralympic Committee’s guidelines on ‘reporting on persons with a disability’, where the phrase ‘person with a disability’ posits, linguistically and conceptually, a separation between the individual and her or his disability.

 Such policies are understandable and obviously well-intentioned. But are they necessarily right? Are they what all paralympians desire? Some scholars have argued that, for example, the linguistic policy mentioned above (known as “People-First”) in reality eliminates the possibility of understanding disability as a complex phenomenon, social and political.

 It is also far from certain that that is what paralympians themselves prefer. Recently (Evening Standard, 20th Jan. 2011), Sophia Warner, a runner with cerebral palsy, has said that, although she wouldn’t let her disability rule her, she’s not sure she would have been as determined to succeed, had it not been for her disability.

 The achievements of all sportspeople can be immensely inspiring; but the achievement of an athlete who has had to contend with a disability can prove tremendously encouraging. Like the exempla popular from the classical through to the renaissance period, paralympians’ achievement can be used to emphasise virtues such as fortitude and determination. Disability, in this context, is highly relevant and, although not the whole story, is an important aspect of it. And after all, aren’t the Olympics supposed to inspire?

 The debate, I’m sure, is unlikely to stop.

 Wilson, C.J. and Lewiecki-Wilson, C. (eds.) (2001) Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2001.a.20236

 Lending collections shelfmark: m01/40694

Titchkosky, T. (2001) ‘Disability: A Rose by any other Name? “People-First” Language in Canadian Society, in Canadian Review of Sociology, (38)2, 125-140.

Lending collections shelfmark: 3044.649000 DSC 

 Davis, L.J. (ed.) (2010). The Disability Studies Reader. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

London reference collections shelfmark:

Lending collections shelfmark: m10/28356


03 February 2011

A welcome return

Great news that Australian record-breaking swimmer Ian Thorpe (‘the Thorpedo’) is coming out of retirement and hopes to compete in the London 2012 games. He has always been a favourite of mine, with his fabulous swimming technique and sheer grace in the water. Watching swimming on the TV has been enormously enhanced by the underwater shots available nowadays, because you can really see how the swimmers move and breathe, the shapes they’re making in the water, the accuracy of their turns. For those of us who are trying to improve our strokes, it’s as good as a master class! Youtube takes a detailed look at Thorpe doing the crawl here:

 I blogged a few months ago about the equally amazing American swimmer Michael Phelps and his diet as revealed by the media. This proved to be an astonishing list of calorific foods, and it occurred to me to check out Ian’s take on it. And it’s completely different: super healthy and very close to the ideal nutritional recipe one would imagine elites would follow. Again, the BBC elucidates.

 The physical demands on Olympic swimmers (as on all elites) are huge, especially in the early years when junior athletes are often forced to travel long distances to train in Olympic-sized pools. The competition is also super-intense, with all the stresses and strains that this imposes. One of the most interesting books I’ve read about this is Gold in the water, by P H Mullen, a book published in America (which I’ve just asked the American curator to try to get for the BL). It really gives you an idea about the intensity of training required and the climate of competition in this hotly contested area.

 Thorpe, Ian, Ian Thorpe: the journey Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2000.

London reference collections shelfmark: LB.31.a.9561

 Hunter, Greg, Ian Thorpe: the biography Sydney: Macmillan, 2004.

London reference collections shelfmark: YD.2007.a.9167