Social Science blog

3 posts from March 2011

16 March 2011

Touring the park

On Friday 11th March I, along with an eager throng of BL colleagues, took the train from St Pancras to Stratford (to Pudding Mill Lane Station to be precise, named after a mill nicknamed ‘the pudding’ that 
stood on the banks of a tributary of the Lea) for a tour of the Olympic Park.

Your eyes and mouth start widening long before you get on the site tour bus. There are fine views of the place from the railway, and everywhere you look space age structures loom, under a wide sky full of billowing clouds (it was a gusty bright day). Armed with cameras we climbed on board our bus and were whisked away to the foot of these amazing structures to the sound of a commentary provided by our tour guide the Rev Duncan Green. All around us was a scene of activity: some buildings are completely finished; some just starting - like Anish Kapoor’s tower. All of them have the air of a great undertaking, or even of an apocalyptic vision. The white bouffant shape of the basketball stadium positively dazzles in the light, the media centre displays its complicated internal clock works, and the Velodrome rears up like some alien spaceship (cf. the film 'Independence Day'). Naturally those of us with photographic pretensions were desperate to make the most of these opportunities despite having to shoot through the windows of the bus (strictly no getting out allowed). As we went round, workers were going about their business at all stages of construction: digging, rendering, wiring, painting, tidying, polishing, and planting trees. I was glad to spot a couple of swans on the River Lea as it snakes its way through the 500 acre site, one bobbing about on the current, the other peacefully asleep on the river bank while furious activity went on not so far away. Several moorhens beetled up and down, and doubtless all the newts taken out of the river at the start and since replaced, were doing whatever newts do in the peaceful depths.

It’s very impressive, no doubt about it; organised, purposeful and almost achieved. Everything is on schedule and loads of people are visiting already, for apart from the continual to-ing and fro-ing of buses, there were walking groups following special routes and congregating on the viewing platforms. Here’s my picture of one of the Olympic apparitions. It’s the basketball centre. For more, and better ones, see my colleague Matthew Shaw’s collection on Flickr

White olympic thing 

11 March 2011

The long road from Berlin 1936 to London 2012

Simone Bacchini arites:

I’ve been reading a fascinating, albeit disturbing, little book: ‘Hitler’s Forgotten Victims: The Holocaust and the Disabled’, by Suzanne E. Evans.

Bridget Lockyer, who wrote an informative article on race and the Olympics for this website (, commented on the defiance inherent in Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The superior performance of a black athlete in front of the champions of “racial purity” and believers in the “master race”, the Nazis, was a simple yet powerful act of resistance to a murderous ideology. It simultaneously reaffirmed the Olympic ideal of brotherhood through sport whilst challenging racial prejudice.

In her study, Evans informs us that only three years after the Berlin Olympics, in 1939, Hitler’s physician, Theo Morel, compiled a document which advocated the need for a law “authorising the ‘Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life [my emphasis]” (p. 24). By this he meant the killing of people with congenital mental and physical “malformations”. Why? Because such “‘creatures’ required costly long-term care, aroused ‘horror’ in other people, and represented ‘the lowest animal level’”. They were, in other words, an unproductive burden, an aesthetic offence, and ultimately sub-human. As a result, between 1939 and 1945 it is estimated that between 5,000 and 25,000 people with disabilities were exterminated. It is chilling.

One wonders what the Nazi ideologues would have made of the paralympic movement; of pieces of legislation such as the UK Equality Act of 2010 and of similar statutes across Europe and the wider world.

Today, itt is easy to be dismissive of efforts to bring about equality for people with a disability, to ridicule measures that the media often labels as “political correctness gone mad”. However, one ought to remember that Nazi euthanasia programmes and milder forms of discrimination against people with a disability that still persist today ultimately originate in forms of prejudice, in ideas of “normality” and “deviance”. As the feminist and disability activist Jenny Morris (1991: 15) writes, ‘[i]n our society, prejudice is associated with the recognition of difference and an integral part of this is the concept of normality’. As Morris acknowledges (p. 15), “in theory [normality] could be a value-free word”; yet language, as Luce Irigaray (2002) reminds us, is never neutral: who defines normality? According to what criteria?

Not every person with a disability is or even dreams of being a paralympian, this is certain. However, the symbolic power of the Paralympic Games is undeniable, if anything because of the visibility it offers to those with a disability. Without wanting to sound triumphalistic, society has certainly come a long way from the days when the “cripple and idiots” were thought to “arouse horror” in those around them.

Yet, the battle against prejudice, discrimination and inequality – this most unholy trinity – goes on, for most people, away from stunning, new Olympic venues and the glare of the media. It continues every day in the schools, workplaces, the courts. As pointed out in a previous post, language is central to this struggle. Emancipation is also achieved through awareness of the limits and dangers of particular discourses. One has to strive to find the right balance between discourses that frame people with disabilities as ‘the lowest animal level’, as Nazi Germany did, and “hyper-positive” discourses, which sanction and give visibility only to the “super cripple” (a definition used by American disability activists), the overachieving disabled. Although this kind of talk may appear, on the surface, liberating it can also be, disability activists argue, disempowering.

So, how are we to evaluate events such as the Paralympics, then? I would say positively. As long as it doesn’t stop there.


Corker, M. and French, S. (eds.) Disability discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2003.a.12954.


Evans, S.E Hitler’s forgotten victims: the Holocaust and the disabled. Stroud: Tempus, 2007.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2007.a.14644.


Irigaray, L. To speak is never neutral. London: Continuum, 2002.

Lending collections shelfmark: m05/.37044DSC.


Morris, J.Pride against prejudice: transforming attitudes to disability. London: The Women’s Press, 1991.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1991.a.5486.


04 March 2011

Getting there

9 o’clock this morning saw your intrepid reporter, armed with the departmental camera, heading purposefully towards St Pancras station to take some pictures of the Olympic rings which have been set up just in front of the clock, and which were unveiled yesterday.

Several other enthusiasts were clicking away and it was quite a photo opportunity given the imposing architecture of the station and the immensity of the rings ( a 20 metre-wide aluminium structure according to the BBC). Anyway, no one could possibly miss them.

 The presence of the rings really brings home to us the importance of St Pancras as a gateway to the London 2012 Games. It is from here that the ‘Javelin’ trains going to and from the Olympic park will run, and apparently the trains will take just seven minutes to cover the St Pancras-Stratford International section of the line. A huge amount of time and money has gone into providing this ace transport service, which aims to make the travel experience of the spectators fast and hassle free. Plus, all the tickets for the Games will have Travelcard accessibility built into them. Very impressive.

Impressive too are the ODA’s plans to create walking and cycling paths which will enable people to make their way to the Olympic park under their own steam. Walking and cycling groups have been closely involved with this initiative through the London 2012 Active Travel Advisory Group and their efforts will help to create a marvellous legacy for years to come. As an enthusiastic supporter of public – as opposed to private – transport, I find these aspects of the London Olympics enormously encouraging. They don’t get a huge amount of publicity, in comparison to other issues, but they are thoroughly laudable. Let’s celebrate them!