Social Science blog

4 posts from February 2012

23 February 2012


As with every great performance, the months immediately before the actual event are taken up with rehearsals at which unforeseen problems are sorted out and people are allowed to make as many mistakes as they like, in order – hopefully – to get them out of the way before The Day. Not far from the BL – at the old Aldwych underground station to be precise – the security forces are currently engaged in carrying out a disaster scenario (which we devoutly hope won’t turn out to be a prelude to an actual event); much further away a happier rehearsal will be taking place in a month or so’s time – for the London 2012 torch relay. In April the torch will be taken on an 80 mile trial run from Leicester to Peterborough in preparation for the real thing, which actually begins on the 18th May when the flame arrives in the UK from Greece.

A lot of imagination has gone into determining the course taken by the Olympic torch once it reaches the UK: it will use a variety of means of transport, from the chair lift at the Isle of Wight Needles (where I went for my hols last year so I know this will be a picturesque event) to a boat across Loch Ness (with plenty of scope there for a monsterous – and purely incidental - surprise).

The Olympic flame is obviously full of meaning for the Olympic movement, as it is one of the symbols which has made the transition from the ancient Games to the modern. The concept of the sacred nature of the flame and the significance of those who bear it is central to the Olympic idea, although the torch relay itself is a modern innovation: it was first instituted at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 (the torch used on that occasion is shown below)

Olympia 1936 Torch

Although forming a vital part of the complex ceremonial of the Olympics and Paralympics, the torch relay has developed something of a raison d’etre of its own, in terms of the effects it may seek to create and the meanings with which the host countries invest it. The final team of torch bearers is chosen by the organising committee of the host country, and that choice can be founded on a number of factors, and indeed operates very much like a mini ‘honours’ system. The types of people considered worthy of the honour have expanded hugely since the original procedure was set up. Nowadays, the torch bearers need not necessarily be great athletes, but those who have contributed in some other way to the well being of the country or district concerned; so as well as fulfilling its original purpose of alerting the world to the imminent arrival of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and bringing the flame from Athens to the host city, the relay provides another means of reinforcing national pride and inclusiveness and of promoting the host nation to the world. Dramatic and beautiful scenery is chosen for the route and unusual means of transportation are often organised. The whole process is increasingly one which has wide non-sporting resonance. Lately, of course, we have seen the relay (especially in Beijing) become the focus of both international and national protest – a testimony perhaps to the power of the event itself – with all the logistical implications that this has for the organisers.

So nothing about the Olympics and Paralympics is simple, especially now that information technology has transformed ‘global’ events into 'local' ones.

15 February 2012

Sourcing sport


Today’s blog is more of an announcement really. In other words: we’d love you to sign up to our forthcoming sports conference called Sourcing sport: current research; British Library resources which is to be held on the 21st May 2012 in the BL Conference Centre here at St Pancras.

It was partly the prospect of the Olympic Games in London that focussed the minds of the organisers - myself and my colleague in the Arts & Humanities section of the Library, Philippa Marks. We were both aware that the BL sports collections were an absolute cornucopia of resources; not simply textual ones, but audio, visual and virtual too, and so what better year in which to showcase them than this one!

Curatorial colleagues and academic speakers will be discussing aspects of the sports collections held here as well as current research and where it’s heading. We’ll be talking about the particular items that interest us, smiling at some of the images we’ve discovered and asking what comes next in the way of collecting for the researchers of the future. It should be a learning experience for all concerned!

Full details are on our events page


10 February 2012

The Power of Attraction

simone Bacchini writes:

Once again, it’s all about Greece. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about an episode in the story of Ulysses, told by Homer in the Odyssey (Book XII). It relates the hero’s encounter with the Sirens, sea nymphs who lured sailors to their death with their beguiling song. Ulysses wanted to hear the song but he knew well that if he did so he would jump into the sea and perish. The song just couldn’t be resisted. So he ordered his men to put wax into their ears and tie him to the ship’s mast. 

Fast forward a few thousand years, and the Sirens are still around. Two of them, to be precise; one is called Euro, her sister Olympics. And to be sure, Greece is still very much in the picture. 

I’m not going to say much about the common currency. This is not an economics blog and even if it were, my understanding of the topic is patchy at best. It is intriguing to observe, however, that in spite of all the troubles that countries in Europe are facing also because of the Euro, the gravitational pull of the common currency is still powerful. Not only are nations reluctant to leave it—even when it’s obviously part of their problems, as in the case of Greece is caused by it—but some are still queuing up to join. It’s the power of an idea, I believe. 

More pertinent to the topic of this blog is the power of the other Sire: the Olympic Games. Two sets of beliefs about hosting the Games seem to be at work, both exercising the Sirens’ bewitching power. The first has to do with De Coubertin’s vision of what this revived tradition represents: fair-play, the uniting power of sport, and international harmony, among other things. The second is a separate but related belief; a modernised, commodified version of it. It’s the conviction that hosting the Games is the solution to a country’s current problems. The economy is lagging? Host the Games. Unemployment is rising? Host the Games. People are overweight and not exercising enough? Host the games and they’ll become athletes and shed the extra pounds. 

Recently, the debate on whether or not to bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2020 has been raging in Italy, a country that faces problems similar to Greece’s. Pietro Mennea, a former Olympian whose achievements are revered in the Country, spoke out against it. In an interview with the Corriere della Sera daily, he said that—in spite of his continued support for the “Olympic ideal”—“Italy is a country that’s been bled dry, devastated by a scary economic crisis. How can one, today, suggest such a thing [i.e. hosting the Games in 2020]?” Yet, it wasn’t long before another former Olympian—gymnast Juri Chechi—came up with a riposte. In a letter to the same newspaper, he said that Roma 2020 would “represent an enormous opportunity not only for Rome but for the […] Country and for the whole Olympic movement. […] Rome could finally give birth to a sustainable Games, without cathedrals in the desert and on more ‘human’ scale.” A number of active athletes followed suite and addressed an open letter to Mario Monti—the Prime Minister—asking him to support the bid. 

I don’t think I’m truly qualified to evaluate all the arguments for and against hosting the Games. I’m quite sure they’re complex and there’s truth in both. What strikes me, however, is the power of the ‘Olympic myth’, as embedded in much of the discourse around the entire event, from the bidding to the actual hosting. Perhaps the Games are not a Siren but a real beacon, a lighthouse. But its power to attract is certainly impressive. 



Olympic Games Impact Study: Final Report. Great Britain. Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport.

London reference collection shelfmark:



Hayes, G. and Karamichas, J. (eds.) (2012) Olympic Games, Mega-events and Civil Societies: Globalization, Environment, Resistance. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

DS shelfmark:



Preuss, H. (2006) The Economics of Staging the Olympics: A comparison of the Games 1972-2008. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

London reference collection shelfmark:



01 February 2012

Swimming to work


Whatever the outcome of the transport ‘issues’ surrounding the London 2012 Olympics, the problem has certainly been (endlessly) debated. Nearly 6 months in advance of the actual event a website has been set up to let people and businesses know what’s in store and plan accordingly : and London mayor Boris Johnson has suggested that Olympic officials think about taking the tube to get to the Games, so confident is he that the transport system will take the strain.

 The website pin points congestion ‘hot’ spots; and there are quite a spread of these throughout the UK, though obviously the hottest ones are centred in the capital. Clicking on these reveals the details of what will be happening at tube and rail stations and people are encouraged to try alternative forms of transport like the buses (subject to diversions) and the river.

The thought of sailing serenely up the Thames is an attractive one, and really opens up the prospect of an additional Olympic legacy: that of returning the Thames to its old prominence as a major means of transport for Londoners.

 This may not be news of course for those who regularly commute from Putney to Blackfriars or from Woolwich Arsenal to Embankment, as river buses have been happily plying their trades on these routes for some years, and especially since the advent of riverside housing and apartment blocks. It seems such a wonderful option to me, and a terrific way to start the working day – or indeed to go to the Olympics & Paralympics: back to nature, with the gentle plash of wavelets accompanied by a flotilla of weed-gathering waterfowl. If only we still kept above ground the old London rivers like the Fleet and the Wandle which fed into the Thames. I can quite easily see my self rowing into London on the River Effra (alas forced into a tunnel now by the tides of industrialisation) instead of slobbing it on the tube and bus.

Or even swimming my commute! Which brings me via a very circuitous route to sports involving water, which have undergone something of a revival in this country over the past few years. The British have always been enthusiastic sailors and pool swimmers, but with increased participation in the sport of triathlon, open water swimming has become extremely popular and we seem to be very good at it. For aficionados of icy water (and I know several) there is an outdoor swimming society which campaigns for waterways to be opened up to leisure swimmers, and it has a super website with lots of historical accounts of swimming and waterways old and new I’m also pleased to say that the BL’s sound archive has some cold water swimming interviews in its oral history collections- See below.

 As far as the Olympic Games are concerned, I’m expecting the wonderful Keri-Ann Payne, the British world 10K open water champion to emerge as one of the stars of the 2012 Olympics. Watching her swim in Beijing was one of the absolute highlights of that Games for me.


 Cold water swimming interviews

British Library Sound Archive

 Gavin Mortimer The great swim New York: Walker & Co, 2008

DS shelfmark: m08/16107

 Janet Smith Liquid assets: the lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain

London: English Heritage, 2005

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2007.a.6366

DS shelfmark: m09/18468