Social Science blog

4 posts from March 2012

29 March 2012

On researching sports and the Olympics: a curator's perspective

Simone Bacchini writes:

I have been in my current post and writing for this blog for just over a year now. It’s been busy but extremely interesting at the same time. In one of my earlier contributions to this blog, I wrote about my friends’ surprise - and indeed my own - at being asked to write about sport and the Olympics. If there is such thing as a sports gene, surely I must have been some place else when it was distributed (dozing off, most likely). Or so I thought. 

I’m not sure if my recent purchase of gym membership, and actually going, might be considered a materialisation of one of the promised legacies of London hosting the 2012 Games: more people becoming more physically active. And anyway, if you were to witness my pitiful performance on the treadmill or my trying to lift ludicrously small weights, you’d probably wish I hadn’t. What I am certain of, however, is the personal and professional ‘legacy’ of flexing my curatorial muscle to lift out of obscurity some of the many resources that the British Library can offer to people researching sport and its links with society. 

Over the past months, sometimes unaided but very often with the assistance of more experienced colleagues, I’ve come across a wealth of information and material on sport and the Olympics, the breadth of which is simply astounding. 

From black and white pictures of beefy men wearing leotards and Roman sandals to recorded interviews with ageing British athletes, telling of their training in their spare time to compete at the London 1948 Games. I have been fortunate enough to correspond with historians of football in Argentina and scholars of sport and disability in North America. Perusing the Library’s vast philatelic collection, I’ve been amazed by the ability of tiny bits of paper to help shed light on the significance of sporting events for national communities. Soon I’ll meet, you won’t believe this, the curator of our mediaeval manuscripts collection to find out how some of their materials could be of use to our Sport and Society website (I told you wouldn’t believe this – just wait and see). And how could I forget the time I was interviewed by a young schoolboy on the shape, size, and design of the medals for the 1908 Games? That was hard work. 

Whatever one thinks of London hosting the Olympics, and opinion is by no means unanimous, one thing is certain: it is a unique event that – for good or bad – will be discussed and analysed for years to come. Long after all the Olympians, Paralympians, dignitaries, and visitors have left, a wealth of material will be left behind for the researchers of the future. Hopefully, by using it they’ll be able to tell us more about not only the Games but also about us, as a nation. 

As a curator, my hope is that the material that will have been collected and presented on these virtual pages will be of help. It may not be an astonishing legacy, but it will be good enough for me. And the good news is you too can contribute to it. You can submit material or help us discover items we didn’t know we had or use known ones in novel ways. So, if you tire of the gym, track or swimming pool, pop into the Library.

22 March 2012

More about torches

It’s now well known that the Berlin Olympics of 1936 were the first at which a torch relay was introduced, and - as is clear from the official report of that Games - a lot of thought was put into the arrangements, with very careful planning in order to anticipate any problems; so that when some of the torches proved unexpectedly faulty in Yugoslavia and the torch bearers had to be whisked on their way by car before the flame went out, procedures were already in place to allow for the change in the schedule. The organisers in 1936 seem to have experienced something of a superstitious frisson at the prospect of the flame going out, so in addition to the torch itself, a car was driven alongside the runners containing another flame (with the same provenance of course) in a ‘ships lantern’. They don’t seem to have had to use it however.

The same amount of thought, if not more, has gone into the staging of all the torch relays since then, and London 2012 seems to be no exception. Apparently 95 per cent of the population will be no further than 10 miles away from the relay, which represents an impressive logistical achievement, bearing in mind that the relay has to take in all the principal tourist sights as well. An interview with Sebastian Coe on the BBC website gives this fact lots of emphasis; it is interesting, though, that Lord Coe doesn’t seem unduly concerned about the prospect of the flame going out. Apparently they’ve tested the torch in 35 mile an hour winds, and it seems to be doing the business. 

 Further details about the Olympic torch, and the torch bearers, have been recently released by LOCOG and I was somewhat surprised to learn that the greater part of the nominations for individuals to carry the flame have been given to the corporate sponsors, with only the magic number of 2012 nominations being made available for public vote. The sponsors themselves have made it clear that they will be using the same criteria as LOCOG when it comes to allocating their places, and that they will be awarding the honours to those who are considered to have deserved them. However, there is bound to be controversy about the sheer number of sponsor nominations -  amounting to nearly 6000 - and a lot of scrutiny will inevitably be applied to those who are chosen. In the media so far we have mainly been shown heart-warming pictures of very young and much older torch bearers, the iconic images being those of Dominic MacGowan (11) and Diana Gould (99).

 I blush to admit that I hadn’t known until recently that it isn’t one Olympic torch we’re talking about, but lots of them. It’s the flame that goes the whole way, being passed en route from one torch to the other. That means that at least 8000 will have to be manufactured, and seemingly the torch bearers will be allowed to buy the one they carry. In 1936, the official report tells us that “a special commemoration diploma was designed for the participants in the Olympic torch relay run” and that sounds to me like a good idea, and not so expensive an option souvenir-wise.

 The BBC has set up web pages dedicated to the torch relay for those interested in its many ramifications.


14 March 2012

Money, money, money


What is sometimes known as the ‘cult’ of amateurism has a long history in sport and sport research. Its implications and meaning can be seen as both benign and pernicious. Pierre de Coubertin saw the idea of amateur competition from the idealistic perspective of the Olympic Games revival, with its emphasis on healthy and amicable international rivalry undertaken for the love of sport itself. Other theorists see it in a darker light as betokening class exclusion and hypocrisy. And of course – as with most controversies - there is plenty of evidence for both these points of view.

The rapid approach of London 2012 is being reflected all around us, especially in TV advertising, with British athletes appearing for their commercial sponsors, and presumably being paid to do so, actions which would have rendered them ineligible to compete in the Games not so long ago. Ultimately, though, the amateur idea could not be sustained by an IOC which sought to maximise its own wealth and power through lucrative sponsorship deals. So the ‘cult’ has been unceremoniously dumped - at least in the Olympic arena.

The corporate and commercial nature of the Olympic Games is now firmly established and totally unequivocal. This has to be good for the elite athletes, who can freely market their skills and be amply rewarded for them. But how has this changed the way we regard the Olympic Games, and is there any room in the future for the ‘higher’ ideals that motivated people like de Coubertin? Would he subscribe to the ethos of the current Games or would he set about creating new ones, untainted by considerations of monetary reward?

The cult of amateurism in sport has had a bad press in academic circles because it has notoriously functioned – or at least historically - as an instrument of social exclusion; but in its original, literal form denoting a ‘lover’ of sport it still thrives among thousands of people who take part in sporting competition for its own sake. Will we see amongst these genuine amateurs a movement towards an Olympics-style competition which operates strictly on an amateur basis? Such a movement would feed into the ideas of some commentators that the Olympic Games have become impossibly large and corporate, and that they ought to be ‘de-mythologised’. For host nations too, in the present world recession, the demands and expectations which inevitably accompany the holding of an Olympics may have become too inflated and unrealistic to sustain. The unspoken idea that each Games have to be better than the last creates daunting challenges and effectively prevents less developed countries from acting as hosts. Do we really want the Olympics to be the sole province of the wealthier countries?

There is no gainsaying the fact that the Olympic Games as a spectacle are an enormous crowd pleaser. The drama and the excitement of watching elite athletes at their best could not easily be equalled in any other way. As sports fans, would we look forward so eagerly to a competition between less gifted athletes, in an atmosphere of strict practicality and a whole lot less razzmatazz? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves these questions honestly.


Eisenberg C , ‘Playing the market game: cash prizes, symbolic awards and the professional ideal in British amateur sport’ in Sport in history: journal of the British Society of Sports History 2011, vol 31(2) p197-217

DS shelfmark: 8419.623500

Amateurism in British sport: it matters not who won or lost? edited by Dilwyn Porter, Stephen Wagg. London: Routledge, 2008

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS306.4830941

DS shelfmark: m08/11877

D.J Taylor, On the Corinthian spirit: the decline of amateurism in sport. London: Yellow Jersey, 2006

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2010.a.6751

DS shelfmark: m06/27381

Allison, Lincoln Amateurism in sport: an analysis and a defence. London: F Cass, 2001

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2001.a.12930

DS shelfmark: m01/33931


07 March 2012

A City of (at least) Two Tales

Simone Bacchini writes:

On 27 February 2012, I attended a one day conference on social sciences and the Olympic Games. Before you give your blogger too much credit for his effort to bring you new stories, I must confess that it didn’t take much effort, being held—as it was—only a few metres away from my office, in the British Library’s Conference centre. It was a joint event hosted by the British Sociological Association (BSA) Sociology of Sport & Recreation Studies Groups. 

The programme ( was particularly interesting, covering four areas: the Olympics, Space and the City; International and Transnational Development; Politics and Security; and The Olympic Games and Civil Society. 

Whereas all the speakers in the first three sections were academics, the two people, a man and a woman, who spoke in the last one, were not. They were members of the public; representatives—one might argue—of “the Big Society”. What the spoke about was the legacy of London 2012. Nothing new here, you might think; we’ve been hearing about it for quite some time and – surely- we’ll hear much more about it in the weeks, months, and possibly years to come. Or maybe we won’t. 

Yes, because the “legacy” those two people talked about was not the cosy, warm, reassuring concept that the term is associated with, especially in language about the Olympics. Whereas what I would call “the official legacy” is definitely reassuring and has unambiguous positive connotations, the “other” legacy doesn’t; quite the opposite. 

Conference delegates heard about evictions from homes in the Clays Lane Housing Estate and compulsory purchase orders. We heard about the destruction of the Manor Gardens Allotments to make space for the Olympic Park and the distress this caused to people who had been growing flowers and vegetables there for years. Some gardeners – we were told – had even dispersed their dead relatives’ ashes over those small corners of urban soil. 

Both speakers were adamant that they did not want to be seen and portrayed as victims. And there was nothing in what they said that made me think they were ideologically opposed to London – or any other city, for that matter – hosting the Games. These were not ‘spoilsports’ – a tag which sometimes too hastily attached to those who voice concern about large events. They were, quite simply, ordinary Londoners. 

It was instructive to hear their experiences. I was particularly impressed by a comment made by the woman from the allotments. She said that after starting campaigning about the issue, she receive a phone call from an academic who wanted to hear more. She was pleasantly surprised to hear that the issues she was facing were not unique. What was happening to her had happened in other parts of the world, to other people, and had been the object of academic research. So there it was, a revelation: academic research, social research can truly affect people positively. But is this an “impact” that can really be measured by Government bodies? 

I’m glad I was present at the conference. I believe that it is important – and one of the duties of social research – that all voices are heard. Call them dissenting voices, or simply different voices, it doesn’t matter. For listening to them will not result in no more Olympics; on the contrary: it will give us better ones.