Social Science blog

5 posts from May 2012

31 May 2012

Conference season

The usefulness of the conference as a means of exchanging ideas and creating networks is undeniable. Standing with a cup of coffee before the event starts, discovering acquaintances in common and discussing the latest news in the world of research - its new appointments, projects, grant applications and discoveries – is an essential, and a satisfying, part of pursuing one’s professional life. In fact many of my greatest discoveries have been made with a coffee in one hand and one of those plastic name badges on my shoulder.

 A recent conference on sport resources held at the British Library on the 21st of May brought the value of the academic conference very much to the forefront of my mind. Organised by myself, and my colleague Philippa Marks from the Arts and Humanities section of the Library, the event focused on sports-related materials held by the BL, and also on current sports research, represented by our friends from the world of academia, Professors Andrew Sparkes, Kath Woodward, John Horne and Matthew Taylor.

 This was the first ever conference held here to focus on the Library’s sports resources, and the BL’s curatorial staff made the most of the occasion: Stewart Gillies from newspaper collections gave a taster of press reporting on the Olympic Games and on sport more generally, taking us back to sports journalism from the Victorian age, and we were transported back even further by Karen Limper-Herz who showed some fascinating images from a 16th century swimming manual, and from early manuals of horsemanship and fencing. Other curators had things to say about such diverse subjects as Dutch pole vaulting; sport under Russian communism, the oral history of athletics; cycling and lawn tennis, so there was a huge amount for the audience to get to grips with. Our point, as always, was to emphasise the sheer amount of sports stuff we have here, and to encourage people to use it.

 Thanks to sponsorship from the publisher Routledge, we were able to produce a booklet to accompany the conference which contains most of the presentations, as well as a number of articles by curators who were unable to present. Copies were given to all the participants and we are about to put an online version on the BL website which will be continually updated with more sports resources information. Watch this space for news about when that will be available.

The conference ended with the awarding of gold medals (chocolate ones) to the speakers and to other contributors. Here are the organisers handing the supreme acolade to Dr Phil Hatfield who is clearly relieved that he didn't peak too early.

 Phil Hatfield

28 May 2012

Olympics, protest and dissent

Simone Bacchini writes:

Can the Olympics (or any other mass event, for that matter) truly be apolitical? They must; some will say. They are; others will insist. 

The lofty principles of modern Olympism are enshrined in the Olympic Charter (2011). “Olympism is a philosophy of life”, states article 1 of the Preamble to this very lengthy document (95 pages!). It “seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” All well so far. To quote it more fully, Article 1 says that: 

Olympism s a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles (my emphasis). 

It seems to me – and, obviously, this is only my personal opinion – that such aims are eminently political. Not in the sense of requiring specific political affiliation or allegiances but rather because their essence is political. To be achieved, they necessitate the kind of multi-level engagement and the managing and smoothing of conflicts that are the business of all political action. Unless, of course, one believes the often repeated claim that the mere engagement in organised sporting activity will result, as if by magic, in peace, harmony, and mutual understanding. 

The Olympics are also political for other reasons. Their mere existence depends on the political will of Governments and Governmental bodies to make them happen. The intense negotiations between the IOC and Governments before and following a bid and in the period preceding the staging of a Games are testimony to this. And the staging of the Games itself depends on instances of political will, such as public funding for sporting venues, or more controversial actions that demand political will, such as forced evictions or the enforcement of specific trading and branding laws, not to mention security and surveillance operations and various human rights issues and controversies. 

For the IOC to maintain that these are matters over which it has no influence is at best naïve. The modern Olympics have become a giant – a testimony to their success; and size, on the world stage, does matter. With each bid, one can see the lengths to which countries go to host a Games. This must be accompanied by ever increasing responsibility on the part of bidding cities and the IOC. 

Presumably, some people will always be opposed to the Olympics, no matter what. Others are perfectly happy to enjoy a big party and admire an astonishing spectacle but refuse to give up all criticism for the fear of being labelled ‘spoilsports’ or something along those lines. 

Perhaps doing away with much of current rhetoric around the Olympics is the best legacy that athletes, spectators, host cities, and organisers can hope for.




Jefferson Lenskyj, H. and Wagg, S. (eds.) (2012) The Palgrave Handbook of Olympic Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS 796.48 OLY 12


Jefferson Lenskyj, H. (2008) Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda. Albany, NY: SUNY.

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2009.a.21648


O’Bonsawin, C.M. (2010) “’No Olympics on stolen land’: contesting Olympic narratives and asserting indigenous rights within the discourse of the 2010Vancouver Games”, Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics. 13:1, 143-156.


General Reference Collection: ZC.9.a.7405

17 May 2012

Summer arrives - Official


According to my newspaper last week the appearance of cygnets on our lakes marks the official start of summer. However, I tend to mark this by looking at the starting dates for blockbuster events, and – which won’t be news to you - there is no shortage of these this year. Quite apart from the obvious ones, there are several gems to be held here at the British Library which might – quite understandably, given the competition, have escaped your notice.


First up is Olympex 2012: collecting the Olympic Games, which runs from 24 July to 9 September here at St Pancras, and which is a special exhibition presented jointly by the International Olympic Committee and the British Library. Admission is free, and it will be well worth a look, particularly if you are keen on the collecting & memorabilia side of the Olympic Games or on Olympic iconography more generally.


Unusually for the Library, the exhibition is based not on our collections (although we do, of course, have many Olympics-related materials) but upon the collections of private individuals. There will be more than 2500 stamps on display – showing how the imagery of the Olympics has changed over time - as well as handwritten postcards and letters from athletes, spectators and public figures. One of the themes will focus on the three occasions upon which London has acted as the host city (in 1908, 1948 and 2012) so a treat is in store for nostalgia seekers! Two fascinating evening talks accompany the exhibition and these can be booked online. Follow this link for further information:


Olympex is by no means a one-off event, but takes place during every Olympic Games and proves a magnet for Games philately enthusiasts. Olympex 2008 in Beijing was a huge success, giving ample evidence – judging from the queues of eager participants -  that Chinese collectors are becoming involved in the hobby in a very big way.  But non collectors will be interested too, because the Olympic stamps are clearly works of art in themselves and can tell us a great deal about the way the Games are regarded, on both the political and personal levels. The issuing of them dates right back to the Athens Games of 1896 and the Olympic stamp issue is a significant part of the host country postal administration’s contribution to the cultural side of the event. In addition around 100 nations will celebrate the summer Games with issues of their own.


So if you can, try and pay us a visit!


11 May 2012

Get them to play: physical activity for/and book lovers

Simone Bacchini writes:

Do you want to learn about the psychology and sociology of sport participation? Read a novel. 

That’s what – unexpectedly – has recently happened to me. I’ve just finished, and thoroughly enjoyed, Black Swann Green, by David Mitchell. Set in 1982, it’s the story of Jason Taylor, a middle-class, twelve-year old boy living in rural England. Against the background of an almost idyllic countryside, Mitchell takes the reader through the joys and turmoil of growing up. 

The problems of Britain in the Eighties – the Falklands war, a recession, unemployment (sounds familiar?) – intertwine with Jason’s own challenges, like trying to fit in at school whilst finding and affirming his own identity; coping with bullying, and the realisation that human relationships are always complex and often fragile. I know, this isn’t a literary blog; but as is often the case, literature can reveal more about behaviour than many a research paper (and in much more enjoyable language). 

At one point, whilst wandering through the woods, the young protagonist reminisces about the war games he used to play with other kids in those very same woods, and compares them with sport activities at school: 

“Those war games were ace. Sport at school isn’t the same. Sport doesn’t let you be someone you’re not.” 

Current discourse around sport participation is almost entirely positive. The media often reports on Government strategies to get more young people involved in it. As I mentioned in a previous blog, one of the promised ‘legacies’ of hosting the Olympics is an increase in the number of youths taking up a sport. But are we certain this is always desirable and undeniably beneficial? And why do some people never get involved in sports, either as spectators or participants? 

Recently, there have been reports about a survey carried out by the Institute of Sport at Loughborough University for the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF). The result was a report that showed that more that 51 per cent of (girl) respondents had been put off sport at school because of negative experiences during PE lessons. 45 per cent said sport at school was too competitive, whilst 48 per cent said that being sweaty was not feminine. 

So, blame it on excessive competitiveness, undesirable perspiration, or – as Harriet Walker, of The Independent newspapers, does – on incompetent, even sadistic, PE teachers, it is clear that competitive sport is not everyone’s cup of tea. And why should it? One thing that should be kept in mind is that enjoying sport (just viewing it or actually taking part) and enjoying being physically active are not the same thing. To return to Mitchell’s book, the young Jason clearly enjoyed being outdoors, moving about, and competing in the ‘war games’. And there was team work too, since –presumably – he had to work cooperatively with his fellow ‘soldiers’. It was not just the same as (competitive) school sport. 

The regimented nature of competitive sport, with its rituals, its temples, and tribal allegiances, is not for everyone. Many – not only girls – would love to be physically active; it’s sport they (we) don’t particularly care about. Can a compromise be found?



Mitchell, D. (2006). Black Swan Green. London: Sceptre.

London reference collections shelfmark: Nov.2006/1443 

Mumford, S. (2012). Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics and Emotion. London: Routledge.

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS 796.01 MUM 12 

Perelman, M. (2012). Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague. London: Verso.

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS 306.483 PER 12

03 May 2012

It’s all about controversy

Where did anyone get the idea that the Olympic & Paralympic Games were all about sport? In fact - as is clear from the long parade of incidents and issues that have cropped up since the announcement of the awarding of the event to London in 2005 - the Games have, characteristically, been all about controversy. No one can agree about anything – from the design of the logo, to the course of the marathon, and the choice of the rock bands for the Olympic concerts.

 So the opening ceremony will inevitably polarise views. It already has (before we even know what it’s going to consist of) judging by the comments on the BBC website about the choice of bands for one of the concerts which will be taking place at the same time. I’m really curious about the opening ceremony and have been trying to piece together various clues about what it might be like, so I pricked up my ears when I heard that bands would be involved in some way. Could it be that the whole thing will have a federated feel to it, like the Proms in the Park, with the focus shifting periodically from the stadium itself to the areas where other crowds are gathered? (to be quite honest, I can’t stand that sort of thing; others will love it)

 According to LOCOG, some 15000 performers will be taking part in the opening and closing ceremonies but that’s pretty much all we know about what has been planned apart from ambiguous references to schoolchildren and people with performing skills. I think we can rule out thousands of perfectly arranged and rigidly timed drummers (it’s been done) but the details are a closely guarded secret and our best guesses must be pretty broad ones. Mine are: the UK’s history of musical theatre will play a huge part, as will its dramatic and literary heritage. I just hope it’s not too focussed on superannuated rock and rollers. I have to admit this, I rather like Morris dancers, so while maypoles might not charm some people, I’ll be perfectly happy if they make an appearance! But can you imagine the headlines the following day? Controversy again…

 What is perhaps not generally known is that the Olympic charter specifies that certain elements of the occasion, such as the receiving of the Head of State, the taking of the Olympic oath and the lighting of the flame must always take place, so there are some fundamental elements to work on from the organisers’ points of view, and plenty of room for creativity, particularly with regard to the lighting of the cauldron. In times past the final torch bearer has achieved some remarkable athletic and dramatic feats in the process of doing this: in Beijing the gymnast Li Ning appeared to run in the air along the top of the stadium to light the flame, and at Sydney, runner Cathy Freeman lit a lake of fire which itself travelled up to the cauldron.

 Even events that seem straightforward enough can cause problems though. At the  1908 Olympics, the parade of athletes was marred by several rows. The American team refused to dip its flag to King Edward VII, and some of the Finnish team refused to march under the Russian flag; events which set the scene for further controversies which were not resolved by the time the Games were over. Hopefully those teething problems have all been sorted out over the years. Generally we all know what to expect now – or do we?