Social Science blog

4 posts from December 2011

29 December 2011

Art & Sport

It’s almost unbelievable that 2012 has practically arrived and the countdown to the London Games is currently only 7 months long. The Royal Mail is celebrating this milestone in the grand style with the launch on 5 January of first class stamps with the Olympic and Paralympic logos on them. Apparently, it’s the first time that a commercial logo has featured on this type of stamp, so you can be sure that collectors will be queuing up to buy the earliest issues.

While looking at the Royal Mail website for details I took a closer look at the series of brightly coloured stamps featuring Olympic & Paralympic sports which have already appeared, and very attractive they are too! There will be 30 of these in all, and each has been designed by a different artist. I particularly like Matthew Hollings’ wheelchair rugby stamp, but every one of them is fascinating in its use of colour, imagery and its take on the sport it portrays. You can see all of them on the Telegraph’s website:

Art and design has always had its place at the Olympic Games. The earliest of the revived Olympics had prizes for art, literature and so on, and these were not considered in any way inferior to the sporting events. In the end (1948 was the last Olympics to include such competitions) sport became the main focus, but the idea of a cultural side to the Games remained and is now gaining greater emphasis; nowhere more than at London 2012 where famous artists like Tracy Emin have already produced Olympic posters, and the Olympic Park has its own artist in residence (Neville Gabie) whose role is to encourage artist-led projects on the site, aided by the site work force and local communities.

Even the architecture of the site incorporates art. Along the fence of one of the buildings is a work by Carsten Nicolai which sees the Olympic rings transformed into a coloured image of a low frequency oscillation sound wave, and Monica Bonvicini has designed 9 metre tall letters forming the word ‘run’ for the handball arena. These act as mirrors in the daytime and at night turn into glowing shapes. Even the flower beds have a function as works of art in the form of the Fantasticology project which will see complex planting designs for wild flower areas. And what is more, over all of this stands Anish Kapoor’s Mittal Tower.

It all makes sense. Sport lends itself to artistic depiction (see the references below) but the Olympic Park has also incidentally provided a huge number of spaces, shapes and geometric planes of all kinds. Why not ornament them with works of art, given its wide popular appeal (and especially that of modern art) in the UK? Art isn’t necessarily a luxurious add-on to the main event; it should be embedded in our domestic and public lives. William Morris famously suggested that you should “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” and he of course was born in Walthamstow, not that far from the Olympic Park at Stratford.


Australian Gallery of Sport. The Olympic collections at the Australian Gallery of Sport. Melbourne, Australia Australian Gallery of Sport and Olympic Museum, [2002?])

London reference collections shelfmark: YD.2010.a.5223

Wingfield, Mary Ann. Sport and the artist. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club, 1988.

London reference collections shelfmark: YV.1989.b.399

Victoria and Albert Museum. Illustrations from the XIVth Olympiad Sport in Art Exhibition, London, 1948. Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London, [1952]

London reference collections shelfmark:



19 December 2011

More On Money

Simone Bacchini writes:

The recent publication by the National Audit Office (NAO) of a progress report on the preparation for the summer Olympics and Paralympics has been much commented in the press.


As the body responsible for scrutinising public expenditure on behalf of Parliament, the NAO has been carrying out—at regular intervals—audits on the progress made in the preparation for the Games. Basically, its main task is to verify that work for London 2012 is proceeding according to plans—on time and within budget—and that the taxpayer is getting value for money. It caused some outrage.


Overall, work is proceeding well. NAO found that the Olympic Delivery Authority—responsible for the construction of new venues and infrastructures—is on track to deliver its work on the Olympic Park on time, to the required standards, and, most importantly, on budget. Still, this won’t be a cheap affair with an estimated final delivery cost of £6,856 million. And the figure does not include £333 million to transform the Olympic Park after the Games.


So, what caused the outrage? Well, for a start there are Transport for London and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), which is the liaison point for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the preparation for the Games, responsible for staging the Games. According to NAO’s report, they have not yet developed fully integrated plans for the Olympic Route Network with local area transport plans. Until this is done, we will not know the full impact that the modified and increased demands on London’s transport system will have for businesses and individuals. I would venture to say that in reality we won’t know what the full impact will be until after the Games.


However, what really caught some commentators’ attention were the rising costs of security, mainly owing to poor planning. Initially, LOCOG estimated that around 10,000 guards would be needed to guarantee venue security. The estimated cost was £282 million. But when the venues were completed, the estimate was revised. All of a sudden, it appeared that 23,700 guards would be needed, bringing the cost of the security operation to an estimated £553 million. This amounts to a doubling of the cost, which in turn will mean more public expenditure. In other words: we—the taxpayer—will have to pay more.


Getting an estimate wrong by 50 per cent is certainly a lot. Personally, I lack the expertise to say what should have been done to get it right in the first place. My guess is that most of the public do too, including some of the journalists who were so incensed by the new figures.


Whenever public money is involved, it only right that expenses be scrutinised and criticises, where necessary. However, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps all the talk of values, legacy, and the symbolism that surround the Olympics hasn’t perhaps blinded us to one incontrovertible fact: the modern Games is a colossal event, a gigantic machine that—once it’s set in motion—is impossible to stop.


Athletes do not take competing lightly; their careers might be relatively short but for their duration they know the training will have to be relentless, their attention focussed, and all else will have to take second place. All this requires psychological—as much as physical—preparation. I wonder if we ought to accept the same frame of mind for host countries too.

07 December 2011

More glitz

Much to my surprise - given these straightened times - the Prime Minister has recently announced that the budget for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies is being more than doubled from £40 million to £81 million. According to the BBC’s sports correspondent James Pearce, this unexpected windfall comes from savings made from the public expenditure budget for the Games. Apparently, funding for the ceremonies would usually come from LOCOG’s private budget (i.e., from ticket revenue, sponsorship and the IOC itself).

 Who pays for what is invariably a hot topic where the Olympics and Paralympics are concerned. Those opposed to the staging of the Games invariably find fault with the amount spent from the public purse on the Games infrastructure, and also with the sponsorship deals and the restrictions that hedge them round about, so there is generally plenty of mileage in funding controversies. This revelation though, that the UK government will be pitching in for the ceremonies, raises some interesting issues.

 Such as: presumably the ceremonies have a fairly similar budget allocation at each Games (if just funded by the OCOGs); therefore a government wishing to host an extra stunning spectacle has to make a pretty hefty contribution over and above the dedicated amount. The Beijing authorities, one assumes, must have pumped in vast amounts of funding to achieve their own mind boggling ceremonies in 2008 which were clearly intended to astonish the world with mammoth displays of son et lumiere and examples of human discipline, planning and physical agility. Whatever your feelings about the vaingloriousness of all this, such Olympic ‘rituals’ clearly can’t be characterised as simply irrelevant add-ons; they are obviously invested with a significance all their own.

 However, this isn’t what we expected from London 2012. Isn’t it being spoken of in some quarters as the ‘austerity’ Olympics, and haven’t we backed off from trying to emulate the Chinese? After all, nations – particularly the poorer ones - can’t keep on upping the ante in this way. Or do we have no choice but to do so?

 Despite such pious hopes, the fear now is that a run-of-the-mill ceremony is not going to do GB Ltd any favours. The current financial meltdown is partly about confidence (or the lack of it) and the PM’s stated aim in bringing more money to the party is to maximise the country’s business and tourism legacy by adding all the glitz needed to impress the watching world. We have to show ourselves to be efficient, imaginative, talented, decorative and fun. There’s really no way round it. A couple of jugglers and some fireworks will not meet the world’s enhanced expectations.

 So we find ourselves in a very difficult situation. It might seem shallow to sprinkle on some more fairy dust, but perhaps it’s a case of not spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar.

01 December 2011

Athletes and free will

Quite by chance I came across a marvellous book by John Bale called 'Running cultures’ which looks at running from a variety of unusual perspectives – from those of geography, time and space; and also from that of runners as ‘transgressors’ and ‘cosmopolites’. In short, it's an imaginative deconstruction of the art of putting one foot in front of the other.

 One particular section debates the interesting and controversial concept of ‘athletes as pets’. This reading is based on the humanistic-geographical writing of the Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, and it considers the way in which society can force elite athletes into behaviour that is not natural to them. The coach-athlete relationship in particular is seen as a paradigm, raising issues of paternalism and control, with its inevitable imposition of discipline and conformity to the achieving of goals. Tuan suggests that this is done in much the same way as animals and children are ‘trained’.

 When taken to extremes: when diet, training, thought and personal regime become strictly regulated, the ‘natural’ body, Bales suggests, “disappears, and its ownership becomes ambiguous. The power of the coach, buttressed by medical scientists and by the ideology of achievement sport, converts the athlete into a pet”

 Athletes can easily lose ‘control’ of their bodies, sometimes in the most drastic and irretrievable of ways. A few  years ago Andreas Krieger, formerly Heidi Krieger - the 1986 women’s shot-put champion – spoke of the anabolic steroids which were given to him by East Germany’s sports officials and doctors, with the result that after his competitive career was over he had no choice but to change sex. There have been numerous other such examples driven by the same ideologies in which the athlete becomes a commodity linked to the advancement of a political creed; or bears the weight of responsibility for upholding the nation’s glory and prowess. In extreme cases he or she may be lied to about the long term effects of the latest medical wizardry; or alternately threatened or cajoled, often in very subtle, but still effective, ways. In striving for excellence the athletes are deemed to have handed themselves over to those who purport to know better.

 A healthy coach-athlete relationship is obviously key to the athlete’s well-being both in the short and the long term. Both parties must make a contract between adults, which enables each of them to freely make choices: the athlete to acknowledge training demands based on logical and informed ideas; the coach to be aware of, to listen to and answer the athlete’s needs, to treat him or her as a rational (and not an infantilised) partner. 


John Bale

Running cultures: racing in time and space. London: Routledge, 2004

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2006.a.18903

DS shelfmark: m04/23290