Social Science blog

5 posts from August 2011

30 August 2011

Olympic Designs

 Simone Bacchini writes:

Recently, I’ve sent out two tweets about Olympic logos. One tweet merely referred our readers to the existence of a website that’s catalogued most logos of the modern Olympics The other was a link to an article by Justin McGuirk on the unveiling of the Brazilian logo for the 2016 Games, containing the author’s musings on the art of creating a successful Olympic logo

 I agree with McGuirk. Nowadays, briefs for designers ask for too much. Logos are supposed to convey far too many messages: values such as inclusiveness and diversity; emotions such as “passion” and “transformation” (as in: the-unifying-power-of-sport-will-transform-you). And if too much is asked of a logo (a LOGO, for goodness sake!) we end up – as McGuirk points out – with too little or – to put it differently – blandness. The latter, according to McGuirk, is often down to the requirement that the logo be “inoffensive”.

 In my opinion, simplicity tends to win, and endure. Just think of religious symbols (bear with me on this, after all I’m the one who blogged about the Olympics and St. Augustine). Christianity: two intersecting lines and there you have it; the cross. Islam: the simple crescent; and the Star of David (or Magen David, the “shield” of David, to give it its proper name): two intersecting triangles. What strikes me about these symbols is first of all that – like I said – from a design point of view they are simple. Secondly, they are instantly recognisable and, as a result of the two previous factors, they are still in use after centuries.

 There is something else. Behind each of the religious symbols mentioned lie strong, meaningful values; bold statements of belief, with which one might   agree or disagree. The symbols, reflecting this, are bold too, without trying too hard which – McGuirk opines – is one of the reasons behind much of current Olympic imagery failing to make a (lasting) impression.

 McGuirk lists some of the logos that – in his view – have been successful: Otl Acher’s logo for Munich 1972 (and especially the pictograms depicting the different sports), Lance Wyman’s design for Mexico 1968 (my personal favourite), and Ivan Chairmayeff’s logo for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He did leave out, however, the Olympic logo par excellence: the Olympic rings. True, his article was about logos for individual Games and their host cities. But I’m of the opinion that the rings – because they possess all the qualities I mentioned when talking about religious symbols – are here to stay. Notwithstanding all the transformations the Games will undoubtedly go through, those five intersecting rings will endure.

 Long live good design then; even when (or perhaps especially when) it happens accidentally.


Aicher, O. The World as Design. Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 1994

DS shelfmark: m03/33574

 Evamy, M. Logo. London: Laurence King. 2007.

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2008.a.20961

25 August 2011

Tom Longboat


Last week we uploaded to the Olympics website an article by our Canadian and Caribbean curator Phil Hatfield ( It’s about the Canadian runner Tom Longboat, a Native American from the Onondaga nation who represented his country at the 1908 Olympics and was a formidable runner.

Longboat’s dramatic and unexpected triumph at the Boston marathon of 1907 thrust him into the limelight and burdened him with the huge expectations of the Canadian public and media. A number of ensuing successes made him odds-on favourite to win the Olympic marathon in London but unfortunately he was one of the many competitors who collapsed in the unusually hot conditions which prevailed on the day. This was of course the marathon which made Dorando – himself in a state of collapse – world famous. Two long distance matches were later arranged between these two men, both of which were won by the Canadian.

Prejudice and controversy dogged Tom Longboat throughout his career. His failure at the Olympics was attributed to the misuse of stimulants, and his amateur status was loudly questioned by his opponents. Later, when he did turn professional, he had numerous problems with his managers, one of whom sold his contract to an American promoter for $2000.

Inevitably, racism played its part in people’s perceptions of him, and Phil’s article takes a close look at his metamorphosis from private individual to national hero, using two photographs from the British Library’s Canadian collections to emphasise both the ‘fluidity of biography’ and the awareness that must be brought to the evaluation of sporting and cultural legacy, ‘especially when race and nationalism are significant factors’.

The images of Tom Longboat, which were taken by the photographer Charles Aylett in 1907, form part of a collection of Canadian photographs which were acquired by the Library between 1895 and 1924. They were received under Colonial Copyright Law from photographers who wished to register them as copyrighted material, and they form a fascinating resource of images of Canada captured by a number of professional and amateur photographers in the Dominion. As with many of these ‘incidental’ acquisitions, the photographs lay largely fallow on the Library shelves until Phil wrote his Ph.D on them, thereby bringing out their significance and value to scholarship. Phil’s thesis can be accessed at


Kidd, Bruce. Tom Longboat. Don Mills: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, [1980]

London reference collections shelfmark:  X.629/24653





16 August 2011

Waving the flag

Whatever you think about the sporting events themselves, there’s one thing about the Olympics which always draws the crowds and that’s the opening ceremony. These events have been increasing exponentially in scale and razzle-dazzle over the years, and one of the main problems for each host city these days is the question of how to improve on the previous city’s efforts. Beijing really upped the ante in 2008 and one could easily imagine the good souls at LOCOG getting glummer and glummer as they watched each mind-boggling set piece unfold. No chance of trumping that approach, so what other extreme can we opt for: something whimsically cack-handed perhaps; something charmingly rustic and spontaneous; Sooty and Sweep? Well, your guess is as good as mine, and the actual event will for some time be as deep and dark a secret as the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress was. What we do know now though, is that LOCOG have started on the process of choosing the participants in the ceremony and have called for 10,000 volunteers. ( )

Of course opening and closing ceremonies weren’t always like this. The opening ceremony at the 1948 London Games involved some massed bands, some marching and the usual IOC rituals of the singing of the Olympic hymn, the taking of the Olympic oath and the lighting of the Olympic flame (all of which must be included, whatever flights of fancy the host city has in mind for the rest of the occasion). However, it is inevitable that such globally consumed events take on a significance which is to some extent disassociated from the sport to follow. The host city and the nation to which it belongs are on show. Much depends – in terms of reputation and other more convoluted attributes – on impressing the world audience in some way or another, depending on what impression you actually wish to leave them with.

For those with a sociological turn of mind, the subtext to these ceremonies is by far the most interesting aspect of the whole thing. What are these host cities really trying to put across, we ask ourselves: how inclusive they are, how democratic, how disciplined, how efficient, how inventive, how colourful? Or even how pragmatic they are, perhaps. Will London 2012 opt to say to the world ‘it’s all very exciting, but isn’t this opening ceremony thing getting just a bit too much?’ For sure, if we do manage to lower the ante, generations of host cities can only thank us for it.

See our mega events bibliography for books and journal articles on ceremonies:



10 August 2011

Unsung heroes and new legacies


 If you asked someone to reveal his or her Olympic heroes, you would normally expect them to name famous athletes like Jesse Owens, Emile Zatopek or Kelly Holmes. We naturally expect Games heroes to be athlete-centred because that is where all the drama and the spectacle is. But in some ways the unsung heroes are just as interesting, and by these I mean those people who make the thing happen, and who sometimes pay the price.

 Round the corner from where I live is a congregational chapel (now in use as a nursery). It is popularly supposed to contain the grave of a workman who was one of the several casualties during the erection of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, which is (or rather was in the Palace’s case) just up the hill. One can picture that sad scene as a navvy – which he probably was- was laid to rest in the dark green shade of the chapel’s small burial ground. He may have been one of those who died in a scaffolding accident at the Crystal Palace in 1853. The Times says of the accident that it was  " example of the risks to which the working classes are exposed in the course of their employment” and observes that the men concerned “ have perished while engaged upon the construction of a building unparalleled for its magnitude”

Now, lest you think I have turned into Charles Dickens or am about to embark on a gothic horror story let me hasten to add that there’s actually a sunny side to these reflections, and that’s the occasion of the recent awarding to ODA and its delivery partner CLM of a RoSPA award for health & safety in the construction of the Olympic site at Stratford. According to the British Safety Council, “The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) announced that the Park and Village workforce had achieved 3 million hours worked without a single reportable injury. Despite being the largest construction site in Europe, with more than 12,000 workers…the Big Build is also the first Olympic project of its kind in the world to have been completed without an accident-related fatality”.

This is no mean feat in a dangerous industry such as construction, and it deserves to be given prominence as one of the most important legacies to come out of the Games. Tom Mullarkey, RoSPA’s Chief Executive is clearly aware of this aspect, claiming that “the lessons the project has generated for health and safety form an important part of the overall Olympic legacy – with enormous potential to influence health and safety in the UK as well as globally and to demonstrate further the contribution which high standards in this area make to overall business success.” To celebrate, the British Safety Council has created a five minute video (available on Youtube at ) which is well worth a look.

The IOC’s aim is that the idea of legacy should be central to the Olympic Games – for a variety of reasons, but obviously to disarm the inevitable criticism about the costs and logistics of staging what is virtually a one-off event for a host city. It is incumbent on OCOGs to furnish information on all aspects of their planning and carry out – in order to provide a textbook on how to do it – for future host cities, and indeed for others not involved in the Games at all. Each of the Olympic reports give detailed information about the construction of the stadiums and the rest of the Olympic infrastructure and lessons are clearly intended to be learned from past experience. They have to be. London’s Olympic build will be able to pass on some extremely valuable lessons for the planning and carrying out of huge works which actually centre on the well being and safety of those involved in these complex projects. Our experience will save lives. What could be better!


RoSPA . ‘A legacy for safety’

The big build: structures: milestones to 27 July 2010. London: Olympic Delivery Authority, 2009.

DS shelfmark OPA.2010.x.1380






03 August 2011

St Augustine in the Olympic Park.

Simone Bacchini writes:

 If someone had said to me that one day I’d be writing about sport and the Olympics, I simply wouldn’t have believed them. Even now, when my friends hear about it, their reactions vary from the slightly bemused to the totally incredulous. That’s not surprising. As a child and teenager, my very curious mind just seemed to be programmed not to care about sports. And my body followed suit. In school, I remember the torture of PE classes; the humiliation of being picked last for the football team – ironic, considering I never wanted to be involved in the first place – and the boredom of having to watch matches. Maybe an Olympics would have helped; but Italy had had its one already, so no chance for me to be “inspired”.

 Then came the British Library; and the Sport and Society website. Looking at sport “through the lens of social science” did it for me: there was a way in which I could be interested in sport after all. (Ok, I still can’t play it, but that’s another story). Gender, discourse, social exclusion and inclusion, personal narratives, and even – hold your breath – spirituality. I mention spirituality because I’ve recently come across two most interesting edited volumes; both deal with the subject in relation to sport.

 The first, “Sport and Spirituality”, by Parry et al. (eds.), looks at the “spiritual” dimension of the sport experience: its transcendent, metaphorical, and ethical values. This may surprise us today: in the run-up to London 2012, I’ve heard many things mentioned but spirituality was not among them.

 But it shouldn’t. As Parry reminds us, for Coubertin, the man who revived the Olympics at the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of a ‘religion of athletics’ was central. We may not wish to dwell on it (especially in the West, in these secular, post-religious, and politically correct times), but the entire Olympic spectacle mirrors a religious ceremony. There are rites, symbols, “priests”, and a congregation. And isn’t all the discourse of the Olympics - especially the forthcoming one, with all its talk of “inspiration”, “transformation”, “bravery”, and “triumph over hardship” – reminiscent of religious language?

 The second volume I’ve been enjoying is again edited by Parry et al. “Theology, Ethics and Transcendence in Sports” has an ambitious aim: to look at some of society’s ethical dilemmas as reflected in sports, and to discuss possible solutions which are grounded in a theistic understanding. Sounds all very complicated and abstruse, I know; but in reality the papers collected in this volume offer interesting insights – and yes, possible solutions – to problems that anybody perusing current reporting on sports and the Olympics will have come across. For example: why doping? What do we do about it? Is the competitive nature of sport at the root of all of its problems? And is competitiveness a bad thing?

 I’m not sure how your average sport enthusiast would react to this, but I must admit that I was fascinated by Mark Hamilton’s use of St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), the great theologian. He basically argued that there are no evil things in creation, but that one can give something (sports, for example) too much importance and that this will result in evil. Ergo: athletes and fans, you can enjoy sports but, at the end of the day, it’s only sports. And winning shouldn’t be all (I can’t believe it: I’ve just reduced Augustine’s thought to a few words!).

 So, in conclusion, there are many ways to look at sport and the Olympics. A “social” approach may just be what some need to be reconciled with it. It did me. Keep an eye on our website!


 Parry, J., Robinson, S., Watson, N.J., and Nesti, M. (eds.)Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2007.

Lending collections shelfmark: m07/32223.

 Parry, J., Nesti, M., and Watson, N. (eds.) (2011). Theology, Ethics and Transcendence in Sports. London: Routledge, 2011

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS796.01

Lending collections shelfmark:8026.515780 no. 4.