Social Science blog

3 posts from September 2011

22 September 2011

Images of 2012

Of all the wonderful art galleries in London, the one that I am fondest of is the National Portrait Gallery, which is tucked away to the side of the National Gallery on St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square. Whatever my current interests and concerns, I can always find something stimulating and enlightening there, from the astonishing portraits of the Tudors and their court by Hans Holbein to action shots of Mick Jagger and his contemporaries. Actually seeing the faces of people you have read about adds another dimension to your understanding of them; sometimes surprises you, and sometimes seems to reveal attributes that perhaps even the sitter and the artist aren’t aware of.

 At the moment, the NPG has a very interesting exhibition of photographic portraits called Road to 2012, which is a project that is part of the cultural Olympiad. It’s available online:

 The project, which is funded by the NPG and BT, not only features the athletes preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics but also the ‘project enablers’: the behind-the-scenes men and women who are getting the show on the road. There are also opportunities for people living and working in the Olympic boroughs themselves to demonstrate how the Olympic and Paralympic games experience has inspired and affected them by giving them an opportunity to upload their own photographs on Flickr.

 The photographs themselves are fascinating. Some show athletes training amidst beautiful scenery. Some show them hard at work with their coaches in gyms and swimming pools. Others are of people in offices and on the Stratford site, standing in various attitudes. The images are in chronological order, so you can trace the development of the project through the characters depicted.

 What comes across? Well, to me the portraits strongly suggest two particular elements: that of quiet determination certainly, but also a sense of the essential aloneness of each person, even when that person is in the presence of others. It is a sense I suppose of their feelings of individual responsibly, whether those lie in wrestling with the logistics of marketing or communication, or in improving strength and endurance in the water or on a bike or a horse.

 I wonder how future generations will view these images and what messages they will receive from them? Portraits – unlike that of Dorian Gray – change over time, becoming invested with our knowledge of what has transpired since the sitter was first portrayed.

The British Library has a number of portraits, some of which are paintings that have come down to us from the old India Office Library. The great majority of them, however, appear in our magnificent collection of autobiographies and biographies, and often represent the only depictions of the people written about, whether they be grainy old photographs or engravings taken from paintings now lost. I have to admit that when I buy a biography my first action is to pore over the endlessly fascinating pictures – it’s a poor biography that doesn’t have them.

 So all power to the National Portrait Gallery and Road to 2012!





14 September 2011

The symbolic value of physical pursuits

Simone Bacchini writes:

 Last week, I attended a one-day symposium at De Montfort University, in Leicester, whose theme was: “Historical Perspectives on Jews and British Sport”. Six extremely interesting presentations told the stories of prominent British-Jewish sportspeople; some as well known as the sprinter Harold Abrahams – immortalised in “Chariots of Fire”, others unknown by the general public (certainly by me!), such as the successful bridge player Fritzi Gordon. Born in Vienna to Jewish parents, she immigrated to Britain following the Anschluss of 1938.

 The story of Jewish involvement in British sports remains largely untold, or little known; a situation that this symposium began to address. All the papers were extremely interesting but I was particularly impressed by Dr David Dee’s presentation: a panoramic of Jews and British sport since c1800. The subtitle, “integration, ethnicity, and anti-Semitism” well illustrated the role that sport plays for the presentation and negotiation of different, at times conflicting, identities for Jews involved in sport. Sport is often the means by which conflicts and prejudices are played out; sometimes to be resolved, sometimes to be accentuated.

 If I may risk a bold comparison, I would go as far as saying that sport is very much like sex. Both activities are very rarely - perhaps never - about what, on the surface, they purport to be. What goes on in the privacy of one’s personal space takes on meanings that extend well beyond it. Similarly, what is played out within the confined space of the race-track or the football stadium has implications that go far beyond performance and victory (or defeat). In passing, it’s also quite interesting that both sex and sport are highly embodied activities.

 Leaving sexuality aside (this blog , after all, is meant to be more Sport & the City than Sex & the City and I – alas – am no Carrie Bradshaw), what clearly emerged from the talks in Leicester was that – consciously or unconsciously – all these sports persons were enlisted in efforts that were cultural, as much as physical. Especially in its early stages, involvement in sport was seen by many Jews as a way of becoming anglicised. It was thought that this involvement would lead these (mostly) men to acquire the distinctive (and desirable) values of British society: fair-play, teamwork, and loyalty. Sport, in other words, represented an attempt at nation-building and integration or assimilation. By taking part in the host country’s pursuits, and abiding by its rules, immigrants and their children could show they were indistinguishable from the rest, and posed no threat.

 Perhaps this was too heavy a burden for many. After all, what most wanted was to compete, to be a sports person. During the talks my mind went to another athlete, from another era and from another minority: the brilliant boxer Amir Khan. Although he always does it gracefully and - apparently - effortlessly, I’ve often wondered how demanding and challenging it must be, at times, to be so often displayed (dare I say “used”?) as the poster boy for ethnic integration and inter-community harmony in today’s Britain.

 Perhaps that’s an unavoidable consequence of involvement in any sporting activity. It may even be desirable, but it goes to show that sport matters, not only to the hardcore fan, but also to the social scientist. It is an enormous stage upon which so much more than competition is displayed. Indeed, it is truly a spectacle, and none more so than the Olympics. Let the show begin!


Dee, G. D. Jews and British Sport: Integration, Ethnicity, and Anti-Semitism c1880-c1960. DeMontfort University, Unpublished PhD thesis, 2011. View online at

 Ethnicity, Sport, Identity: Struggles for Status. Mangan, J.A. and Ritchie, A. (eds.) London: Frank Cass, 2004.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2007.a.450

07 September 2011


The gasp of shock and disappointment that greeted Usain Bolt’s disqualification from the 100m final at the IAAF world cup just over a week ago was probably reproduced in just about every athletics-loving household in the world. One moment we were eagerly awaiting the sight of Bolt storming to the finish, and the next we were seeing him disappearing in the direction of the dressing rooms. How could this possibly have happened? For British fans there was the added disappointment of seeing Dwayne Chambers and Christine Ohuruogu disqualified for exactly the same reason – getting a ‘flyer’.

Under current regulations it’s easily done. One twitch, one unintended reaction at the starting blocks, and that’s it. You get no second chance (as used to be the case) and no one is exempt. What happens next inevitably comes as a dreadful anticlimax to the audience, although not, in this instance, for Bolt’s training partner Yohan Blake who won the race in a fabulous 9.9 seconds. Bolt himself had no complaints to make. He had made a mistake and he accepted it immediately.

To the IAAF’s credit it made no bones about the fact that it might have got it wrong, and said it would reconsider ‘the one strike and you’re out’ rule, which came into effect on 1 January 2010. Sebastian Coe is reported to have said that the rules should not be reversed, but one wonders if a long distance athlete could conceivably share the perspective of the speed merchants themselves. Who but they know what it means to be delicately poised at the start of a hundred metre race where fractions of a second count, super alert to the slightest sound or movement that will light the blue touch paper, and twitching in both mind and body.

So we are left with something of a dilemma. Do we suffer the sometimes endless succession of false starts that occurred under the old system or do we risk a big disappointment (and perhaps penalise someone who didn’t actually mean to do it)? To me, the old system of ‘two strikes and you’re out’ made sense. If someone made a false start under these rules, his break was noted and he made absolutely sure he didn’t make the same mistake next time, to the extent that he’d be extra cautious at the replay - which was punishment of a sort. In return for this, the excited audience would stand a good chance of seeing the super stars run, with little fear of an agonising disappointment. Does it really need saying that nowadays you have to bear the audience in mind when you consider these things? Cricket umpires are increasingly being put on the defensive about their rulings on playing in poor light, and there is a growing consciousness that the paying public have a right to their money’s worth. But how to accommodate this with the structure imposed by The Rules?

 Clearly we need them: the rules that is. But when do they cross the line between being useful and being counter-productive? So interesting to see what happens next!