Social Science blog

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


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