Social Science blog

3 posts from October 2011

26 October 2011

Team GB


 One of the more fascinating issues in the build up to London 2012 is the ‘will they/won’t they?’ question mark over the creation of a Great Britain football team to represent the whole country at the Olympic Games. I, for one would absolutely love to see a team with players in it from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and would thoroughly enjoy the process of selection and training, the inevitable dilemmas of which players are chosen, who gets to coach the team, and how the various individuals rub along together.

 According to the media, a number of footballers have shown themselves to be enthusiastic about the project, with Welsh defender Gareth Bale, and England women’s captain Faye White expressing their interest. The issue would also make a great talking point in pubs and sitting rooms nationwide, as everyone seems to have an opinion - at least judging by the large number of comments to blogs on the subject. See BBC sports news correspondent Gordon Farquhar’s blog particularly at

 The main problems though – almost inevitably - are national rivalries and insecurities, each of which open up a can of worms. It’s strange: whereas players from many different continents play happily together at club level (at least for the most part), the really fervent fans of the home nations, and more particularly the football associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different views about the chances of fielding a GB soccer team.

 Why? There are a number of reasons; the most prominent of which is that the football associations fear for their own autonomy. And this has some basis in possibility. After all, what would happen if Team GB won the soccer gold medal at London 2012 and exhibited a set of transcendent football skills (no sniggering at the back)? There would inevitably be a call for the separate national teams to be disbanded and a GB team set up on a permanent basis, giving the trophy-starved national teams a real chance in global competition. However, this happy outcome, though it might please some of the fans, would be the worst case scenario for the associations themselves.

 At some point in football history – i.e., before the setting up of the individual football associations - there might have been a chance for a GB team to become a reality, but once the English FA had appeared in 1863, the other home nations seem to have taken their cue, and progress continued on parallel rather than convergent lines. Of course, if we had known then what we know now about the huge significance and commercial importance of sport and winning, we might have sought to optimise our international chances then and there. However, in Victorian times, football’s status as a working class pastime, along with feelings about the déclassé nature of competitive sport itself rendered this impossible.

 I remember well the Four Nations football competition which used to take place every summer in the close season (alas no longer). These were exciting matches, eagerly anticipated and hard fought, most particularly the Scotland/England clash. The fierce passions surrounding this competition give a strong clue, though, to the difficulties in creating a Team GB. Real antagonism to the other teams was expressed; just as home derbys are often very antagonistic in character in the Leagues. Clearly, the closer to home you get, the more intransigent people become. Why is this?

 It’s a shame, though isn’t it, that the talk now is that we will be fielding an under 21 British team at London 2012? Nice for the lads playing, of course, but maybe not quite the same as seeing Rooney and Co step out for GB.

 I’m really not sure whether this controversy actually carries over into the Paralympic sphere where there are two (5-a- side and 7- a-side) soccer competitions. It would be good to know. Maybe the Paralympians can set a sterling example.



Football culture: local contests, global visions editors Gerry P T Finn & Richard Giulianotti. London: Frank Cass, 1999.)

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2002.a.7443

DS shelfmark: m00/28392


Duke, Vic. Football, nationality, and the state. Harlow: Longman, 1996.

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.1996.a.24119

DS shelfmark:97/06916

20 October 2011

Sport and peace

The BBC reports that Britain has ‘set an Olympic record’ by getting all the countries in the UN (some 193 of them) to co-sponsor a truce resolution for London 2012; the first time every country has signed up in the history of the Games.

 We blogged about the Olympic truce some time ago (6 July 2010) but make no apologies about raising the subject again in the light of this achievement, which apparently took weeks to engineer and which involved lots of lobbying, and even detective work, on the part of British diplomats. Lord Coe was then able to present the resolution to the General Assembly – as a done deal, one assumes.

 The devotees of the Olympic truce are many and varied. They range from institutions like the Olympic Truce Centre in Lausanne: to individuals. Not the least of the latter is Lord Michael Bates who has elected to walk from Greece to London in order to promote the UN resolution, and whose Walk for Truce website has details and a video about the attempt, as well as real time information about where Lord Bates has reached (Switzerland as we write). The English peer’s aim is to make the resolution a reality in terms of its actually being implemented throughout the world, as opposed to merely being paid lip service to  - which has too often been the case in the past. See this link for the website:

 A number of other initiatives are being pursued elsewhere. The Peace Museum in collaboration with Coventry University’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies launched an exhibition called ‘Playing for peace’ in Coventry Cathedral earlier this month which celebrates occasions when sport - and the Olympics in particular - was instrumental in promoting peace

 Elite sport is particularly well placed to promote peace. Athletes who regularly travel the world competing against those of other nations almost invariably have a great deal of respect for their opponents and there are numerous examples of close friendships developing between competitors whose native countries eye each other with suspicion. Taken – as they are - out of the arena of diplomacy and foreign policy, international sporting, social and cultural encounters often result in  better understanding at an individual level and promote feelings of warmth which prevail over stereotypes. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that some sporting competitions can lead to heightened feelings of antipathy. Team sports specifically seem to lend themselves to this type of thing. It’s as if the team – our group of people against theirs - comes to symbolise, more than an individual can do, a state of war. This is certainly the case within national boundaries, where one football team and its fans engage in defending their territory against another. Clearly the issue of territoriality is key. So it isn’t all doves and laurels where sport and peace are concerned.

 Jerry Jenkins the British Library’s curator for international organisations has a particular interest in how these two elements: sport and internationalism naturally come together. Read his article for the Olympics & Paralympics website here :



12 October 2011


Simone Bacchini writes:

With the Olympics approaching fast, the issue of doping is never far below the radar. The public and the media are enamoured of two things: elite sport, and the idea - or ideal - that it should be “clean”, by which is meant a number of attributes: among them fairness, honesty, and freedom from “performance-enhancing drugs”. But is this really possible?

Pierre de Coubertin borrowed from Bishop Talbot, in 1908, the phrase that taking part is what matters, not winning. It became the maxim that, perhaps more than any other, has exemplified the spirit of the Olympics and, more generally, of sport. But has it ever been true in practice, or has it always been just that: an ideal?

Professional athletes are never just athletes. Society has assigned to them many, often competing, roles. Consider the oft used label “role-model”. Who actually decided that athletes should aspire to this? And isn’t it telling that we usually hear this description when one of them has been caught doing something society objects to? I’m not sure in what ways an athlete differs from any other celebrity; perhaps it’s because – as a society – we still operate under the assumption that sport is the natural site of good, desirable values, like honesty.

Which brings me to my topic of doping. I was really impressed by a recent interview with Scottish cyclist David Millar. David was (well is) a brilliant cyclist whose career has been marred by revelations of doping that landed him a prison stint, a hefty fine, and a racing ban. Obviously, I’m not privy to all the details of Millar’s story (and by the way, I got the above information mainly from…you’ve guessed it, Wikipedia). However, what clearly transpires from his interview with the BBC (which can be watched by following this link is the sense of impotence, almost of inevitability that he felt. What Millar depicts in the interview is the image of a young, promising athlete caught up in an environment where the prevailling motto could have been: “what’s important is not taking part; it’s winning. At all costs”. And win he did. And the cost was high, very high indeed.

Obviously, I have no way of verifying the details of the story. They are, however, strikingly similar to the ones voiced by other athletes. Does this mean that the public’s idea of the world of elite sport is outdated? And do we – the public – still believe that taking part matters more than winning? Provocatively, I’d like to ask: is this really true?


Hunt, T.M. Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960-2008. Austin, Tex: University of Texas Press, 2011.

DS shelfmark: m11/.13123

Miah, A. Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping and Sport. London: Routledge, 2004.

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2006.a.3899

 Møller, V. The Ethics of Doping and Anti-doping: Redeeming the Soul of Sport? London: Routledge, 2010.

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS 362.29 MOL 10