Social Science blog

4 posts from November 2011

25 November 2011

Strength, sport and ego

Simone Bacchini writes:


“To the average young man there is no subject quite so fascinating as a discussion of physical strength.” These are the opening words of Secrets of Strength, by Earle E. Liederman. I was going to say that if Liederman is right, then I’m not ‘average’ but as I’m no longer a ‘young man’ it doesn’t really matter.


But who was Earle Liederman? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has not heard of him. Even the mighty internet isn’t very helpful; and what it has is in part contradictory. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, he was born—the son of Swedish immigrants—in New York, some sources say in 1910, others 1926. However, he soon shot to fame when he gave up his medical education to become a ‘Strong Man’.


Strong Men were what we would call culturists, or body-builders. They made a living from taking part in competitions and exhibiting their muscular bodies in theatres and other venues, apparently attracting large crowds.


Earle, however, went one step further. Sensing that there was a market for physical self-improvement, he authored several books on how to develop a strong, muscular body. His books, which later included titles on sexuality (e.g. Sex Dynamite; The Hidden Truth About Sex) sold very well in America and abroad. I have copies of ‘Muscle Building’ and ‘Secret of Strength’ on my desk (the opening quotation is from the latter) that were published in Britain, in 1938. Advertised in the popular press, the books were bought and sold by post, making Liederman’s programme a great success story in the world of postal marketing.


In Britain, we had our own ‘Super Man’: Olympic middleweight champion Harold Laurance. He too had a training programme: ‘The World Beater Course’, and an illustrated book, presumably to whet his potential audience’s appetite for big muscles, suggestively named ‘Supermanity’. Laurance’s course promised to ‘transform a puny, sallow, nervous lad of from 15 to 20 into a strong, active, clear-eyed, self-confident man.’


Today, a visit to any newsagent’s will reveal the numerous magazines, aimed mostly at a male audience, which month after month advertise various programmes to help readers acquire the perfect ‘beach-body’. Similarly, a gym membership seems to be de rigueur for any self-respecting twenty-first century male. But I had always assumed that the current mass obsession with the body beautiful was a rather recent phenomenon; a fruit of the affluent post-war years in the West, but apparently it has a longer history.


However, there are differences as well as similarities between these early programmes and their contemporary descendants. To begin with, they are both aimed at large audiences and make use of the popular media: the press, the internet, and—to a lesser extent—TV. And it couldn’t be otherwise, since the message they convey is heavily reliant on images. Their aim is first to visually stimulate the viewer, convincing him that what he’s seeing is not only highly desirable but also, crucially, attainable.


Back in the Thirties, the focus of the message seems to have been more skewed towards the acquisition of ‘strength’. Other desirable outcomes would have been better health; and last, but not least (if you read carefully), success with the opposite sex. Nowadays, the stress seems to have shifted unashamedly to ‘looking good’, with well-being as a by product. In this respect, both the male and the female body receive equal attention for their aesthetic value. It is now acceptable, it seems, for men to be looked at because they are beautiful as well as strong.


Body builders are adamant that their ‘craft’ is in fact a sport, and attempts have been made to make the discipline an Olympic event, so far without success. Are ideas about ‘narcissism’ contributing to the IOC’s intransigence? 


Representations of strong men vary over time: bulky men wearing improbable leotards, or strategically-placed leaves, and gladiator sandals in the old pictures; and shiny alpha males in designer gear in the contemporary ones. Yet, although the accoutrements of physical prowess may have changed, it looks like all the books, magazines, and leaflets promising readers bigger limbs appeal to the one constant of men’s sporting endeavours: vanity. Plus ça change.










Liederman, E.E. Muscle Building. Manchester: Universal Institute of Physical Culture, 1938.

London reference collections shelfmark: Shelfmark:


Liederman, E.E. Secrets of Strength. Manchester: Universal Institute of Physical Culture. 1938.

London reference collections shelfmark: Shelfmark:


Radley, A.. The Illustrated History of Physical culture, Vol. 1. Blackpool: Radley, 2001.

London reference collection shelfmark: YC.2001.b.730


Thompson, J.K. and Cafri, G. (eds.) The Muscular Ideal: Psychological, social, and Medical Perspectives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007.

DS shelfmark: m07/.27303.


Picture Post, 12/11/1938

London reference collection shelfmark: (also available as electronic resource).

17 November 2011

Battle stations


My imagination was fired (!) by reports in the media that in the case of attack, ground-to-air missiles will be deployed to protect the 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games venues. Reading this immediately conjured up a vision of Usain Bolt breaking the 100m WR in the Olympic stadium while a series of heat seeking rockets head skywards from somewhere very close by: a neat mixture , one might say, of Independence Day and Chariots of Fire - both record-breaking films too in their day. (One of the more facetious of my colleagues has just suggested that Wenlock and Mandeville feature on the missiles but we’ll draw a veil over that).

 It’s obviously no joke though, if security measures such as these are being envisaged, and if the United States team is indeed bringing with it something like 1000 protective agents, including 500 from the FBI (according to the Guardian 14-11.11). More surprising to me is that as early as 1996, surface to air missiles were available for use at Atlanta (ie pre 9/11), and the Beijing authorities were also ready to use weapons of this kind to maintain the safety of athletes and spectators in 2008.

 As events have proved, there are practically no limits to what terrorism can achieve - it’s a hydra headed monster, and therein lies its strength. Security forces nowadays are consequently obliged to guard against a huge range of potential threats, from the very smallest incidents like hoax bomb scares to full on military assaults, with the possibility of a missile launch in retaliation. One of the most insidious threats though is something that military hardware won’t be able to resolve and that’s the possibility of cyber attacks.

 The BBC reported in October that computer experts will be running a series of tests on the Games computer systems early next year in order to see how they would cope with a major cyber attack at Games time. Apparently China suffered almost 12 million per day during the Beijing Games, and a number of high profile organisations – including the IOC – have been hit by malware. It’s not surprising that terrorists seek out mega events and organisations as targets. Why wouldn’t they, given the PR impact?

 It is impossible to estimate at this point just how much the total bill for security will be, but efforts to combat all these threats will reap some rewards in advancing our understanding of how to manage the security of mega events, from their computer systems to public safety.


London 2012: a safe and secure Games for all.

[London] : Home Office, c2011.

London reference collections shelfmark: OPA.2011.x.686



09 November 2011

Olympic Flame

Simone Bacchini writes:

When I read the news my interest was raised. As I learned of the details of the route I got excited. And when my colleague sent me the link to the official promotional clip, I confess, I was totally taken by it.

I’m no fool: I know that, like everything else surrounding official aspects of the modern Games, this Olympic Torch Relay too is part of a carefully crafted plan at the heart of which lie immense economic interests, and not only a “love of sports”. I know as well that the image of Britain it aims to offer is one studied to showcase the most appealing, uncontroversial views of this country. Sebastian Coe, quoted in the Independent newspaper, said that he “hoped the relay would provoke a similar reaction to this year’s royal wedding”, another highly-staged, somewhat “artificial” but feel-good event, one might argue. Well, I truly hope it will.

These are difficult, often depressing times. The continuing financial crisis has left many of us disheartened about the present and worried about the future. Last summer, social unrest brought scenes to our streets that we would have preferred not to have seen. In the coming weeks, months, possibly years, there will be plenty of opportunities to reflect on what went wrong. But we do also need a bit of respite and some cheering up.

The 8,000-mile Torch Relay will go through every county in the UK. It will visit 1,018 of our beautiful towns, cities, and villages. It will pass through spectacular scenery, like the summit of Mount Snowdon in Wales; the quasi-surreal Giants’ Causeway, in Northern Ireland; and the somewhat otherworldly landscape of the Shetlands, off the coast of Scotland.

And it’s not only the country’s natural environment that the light of the Olympic Torch will shine upon. Its path will remind us and the world of past and present British achievements in the arts - like Gormley’s majestic Angel of the North and the megaliths at Stonehenge. And of the ingenuity of British architects, exemplified by steel and iron bridges across the country, the Eden Project in Cornwall, and the Lovell Telescope, one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world. If well-attended, the Relay will also show Britain’s greatest asset: its people, united in joyful and celebratory mood.

Of course, once the big Olympic tent will have been picked up and folded away, ready to be sent to Rio, Britain will still have to deal with many of the same old problems - just like Greece, that other mythical place from which the Olympic Torch will begin its journey. But quite apart from any talk of “legacy” (only the future will tell), the Games is a mighty spectacle, perhaps the biggest show on earth. Isn’t the main purpose of any show, first and foremost, to entertain by offering an escape, albeit temporary, into other worlds? So, well done, Olympics; and what a great idea this Olympic Torch journey.

02 November 2011

The view from on high

Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Orbit tower (properly called the ArcelorMittal Orbit) had its final steel ring attached to it last week -  amidst much fanfare -  and as a big fan of Anish Kapoor I pored over all the pictures (I took one myself when it was first being built – see below).

 Kapoor tower2

I ask myself whether this tower will be the iconic image for London 2012, just as the Bird’s Nest was in Beijing, but this remains to be seen, as icons clearly have a life, and a resonance of their own, and every observer has a different perspective. Looking back over the Olympic Games of yesteryear my image of Barcelona is of the diving competitors somersaulting from the diving board against a backdrop of the city of Barcelona itself and looking as if they were jumping from at least two miles up in the air. There’s a much sadder one from Munich 1972 of course: that of a hooded terrorist on the balcony of the room where the Israeli athletes were being held hostage.

It’s whatever strikes you as memorable that becomes an icon, I guess.

Iconic structures do have a head start on other aspects of the Games though, and the ‘altius’ part of the Olympic motto frequently finds an echo in extravagant and even surreal architecture. Sometimes the stadiums themselves are iconic, but often stand-alone features like towers and art works win the day. People love high, visible structures like the Skylon from the 1951 Festival of Britain (now equalled and probably surpassed in its popularity by its successor the London Eye).

The Orbit is 376 ft tall, 35 stories high, and has a central staircase which spirals down through its core. It sounds like the perfect location for those stair climbing marathons which are attracting the super-fit at the moment, but you need to take a lift to the top; though you are allowed to walk down if you choose.

And it’s not alone in utilising the seductive appeal of the tower. The Franco-British exhibition at White City in 1908, which incorporated the Olympic Games of that year, had the famous ‘flip-flap’: which was both a ride and a viewing device combined. The website ‘Winning Endeavours’ shows a newspaper picture of it:

Other host cities had similar lofty structures. The Munich Games of 1972 had a wonderful tower which was (still is!) 190 meters high, and gives great views of the city and the Alps in the distance. It stands as a benign legacy of these Games, and as a much loved landmark. The Berlin Games of 1936 on the other hand managed to fit not one but three towers into its building project. The twin towers by the entrance to the stadium stand 156 feet high, and resemble brick stacks, very square and uncompromising. From a certain perspective they framed (but were actually dwarfed by) the Olympic Bell tower at 247 ft high which held the Olympic bell weighing 30,450 lbs.

Other curiosities: Montreal 2004 certainly had the quirkiest tower. Forming part of the Olympic stadium, it is said to be the largest leaning tower in the world. It looks positively Dali-esque, and may not be the ideal location for those suffering from vertigo. Rio has an even more astonishing idea for a tower (which is currently competing with other concepts for acceptance). See this webpage:

Whatever your inclination, the vertically challenged (this includes me) can stand at the foot of these towers and gaze optimistically skywards; which is what the Olympics and Paralympics are all about, really.