Social Science blog

3 posts from July 2012

27 July 2012

Runners, Divers, and Bakhtin: The London Olympics are Finally Here

Simone Bacchini writes:


The wait is over; the XXX Olympiad is finally here. So I’m going to disobey instructions and – hoping my boss can forgive the temporary mutiny – I will write about the wonderful ISSA2012 conference I attended in Glasgow next time. As a Londoner, as a contributor to the Sport and Society website, and as one of your bloggers, I just could not let this day go without somehow marking it. 

I have been working in the social sciences team, here at the British Library, for just over a year. A lot of this time has been devoted, through developing the website and other activities, to assisting researches and interested members of the public in exploring sport through the lens of the social sciences. Undoubtedly, the Summer Olympics and Paralympics has been a fantastic catalyst for this. 

I’m well aware that – when it comes to the Games – hyperbole has been with us from the very start. An inflation of positive adjectives has characterised media coverage and official discourse about it. But I have to admit that – deep breath – this is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to witness a rather unique event. If you live in Britain, and especially London, you happen to be right in the middle of it. And yes, it’s impressive. 

Of course I don’t mean to say that one should accept all the propaganda (caution: I’m using the term in its strict etymological sense!) that inevitably accompanies an event such as this. It is only right that we don’t abandon our critical faculties. Social scientists, researchers, and members of the public must continue to scrutinise the grand claims made by the IOC and the Government, about things such as the “legacy” of the Games. Here at the British Library, we hope to enable people to do just that. 

However, healthy scepticism and a certain excitement, even enthusiasm, can coexist. If not to the entire world, London has become host to a large part of it. People who will be physically here, as well as those who will follow the next few weeks’ events through the media. 

Walking though St Pancras International train station this morning, on my way to work, I found myself unusually cheerful. There were coloured banners, people speaking numerous languages (in itself not unusual for London; quite the contrary), Olympic volunteers in their shiny new uniforms and – in the tradition of English eccentricity – members of the public wearing outrageously over the top, carnivalesque costumes they had obviously made themselves. 

So perhaps that’s what it is. The Olympics –quite aside from the sport – is also a carnival. In spite of all the hyper regulations touching upon commerce, traffic, branding, and so on, this is – or can be – a liberating moment. Temporary, with limitations, but still liberating. And perhaps that’s why – if we’re honest – most of us like it, at least a bit. 

Could it be that Mikhail Bakhtin could maybe tell us more about London 2012 than Lord Coe, Jacques Rogge, or David Cameron? Oh dear, I feel a PhD thesis coming…. And for that, the British Library’s reading rooms might be more appropriate than the Olympic Park!

24 July 2012

Voices from the past

It wouldn’t be exaggerating at all to say that excitement is mounting exponentially here, in anticipation of the rapidly approaching Olympic Games. This morning saw the press launch of the Olympex exhibition at the British Library which shows a fascinating collection of postage stamps, postcards and other memorabilia relating to the London Games of 1908, 1948 and 2012.

Visitors can see a 2012 torch and torch-bearer’s uniform, numerous wonderful images and films from the vast collections of the IOC, listen to the recorded voices of British Olympians, and play with an amazing electronic version of the exhibition, the software for which has been developed by the Library itself. Outside on the piazza a booth where people can buy Olympic stamps and send cards is rapidly taking shape, and there’s a definite buzz, here and in St Pancras station, where numerous non-accredited press representatives wearing large badges and heading purposefully towards Russell Square can be spotted round every corner.

The celebrations almost seem to be taking on a life of their own, touching every aspect of London’s life. The athletic events seem like only one tiny part of it, and quite far away. However, the Library is now an official Olympic space, and we have the flag outside to prove it (solemnly raised at 1pm today).


The voices of the Olympians at Olympex are of particular interest to us because – unlike the Olympex exhibits themselves which belong to private collections - they are drawn from the British Library’s own oral history archive. This resource, which is of enormous - and increasing - interest to researchers, covers a wide range of subjects from Jewish history and politics to the history of medicine and industry, and it also includes a number of recordings of sports people. These have been collected over the past twenty years and comprise interviews with track, field and road athletes as well as tennis players, fencers, canoeists and swimmers. Also included are unique interviews with those involved in the coaching of sport as well as those who witnessed historic sporting events such as the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

The Olympians’ accounts are fascinating: Dorothy Tyler, who won an Olympic silver medal in the high jump in 1948 speaks of her experiences then, and also in Berlin in 1936, when there were chaperones to ensure that moral decency was observed. Bill Roberts, who also went to Berlin to compete, sensed a threatening atmosphere at these Games and speaks eloquently of the antipathy of the British team to the Nazi regime. What comes across in all of these accounts is how relatively unsophisticated the whole process was in those days: training for the Games was not centrally organised, and the athletes themselves bore many of the costs of competing. Dorothy Tyler explains that in 1948, at a time of austerity, competitors were housed wherever space could be found, often in army or air force barracks – clearly, the Olympics of the immediate post war period led a remarkably hand-to-mouth existence. Hearing these things reminds us just how explosive - in terms of its organisation and bureaucracy - the development of the Olympic idea has been since those much simpler days.

The good news is that these interviews, and many others, have now been put online on the Library’s website for everyone to hear.




11 July 2012


In the plethora of TV programmes about the Olympics, one recent BBC offering has really stood out: ‘Faster, higher, stronger’, a one hour broadcast which looks in almost forensic detail at specific Olympic events like the 100 metres, swimming, the metric mile & gymnastics.

The first programme in the series – the 100 metres – was a micro-analysis of what happens within that crucial 10 seconds, and described the ingredients for winning: the perfect start (aided nowadays by starting blocks and the runner’s crucial angle of ascent); explosive muscular power in the central stage of the event which generates crucial forward propulsion; the ability to stave off the inevitable deceleration in the last few metres, and finally the crucial dip towards the line.

Great runners from the past and present were featured in fast and slow motion, and these talked a lot about attitude: the crucial frame of mind in which you really believe you can win (and which you can hopefully convey to your opponents).

One of our articles on the Sport and Society website takes a similar look at the finer details of an event: ‘Running [the 400m] with Jon Silman’ describes the actual experiences, physical & mental, undergone by an athlete in the course of a race (complete with wonderful images by Rebecca Andrews). It gives us a window into something which normally flashes by, and shows how time can stand still for the runner himself. Interestingly enough, this idea about the relativity of time is emphasised by the 100 metre runners in the BBC programme. One of them suggests that the 10 seconds (now rather less than 10 in fact) may seem impossibly fast to the crowd observing it, but to the runners it feels almost like a ‘life time’ . Here's a link to Tanya's article below:

 This idea of how time can be psychologically compressed or expanded according to the nature of the physical event is a fascinating one and gives us some idea of how essential  it is to have the right (i.e., the appropriate) mindset in a race. The quickness of the 100 metres requires a corresponding mental shorthand: an ability to process all the emotional elements of a race (and its preliminaries) in quick time.  Marathon runners have totally different issues to face, and no less difficult ones. No wonder sports psychology is a burgeoning field.

 The  crucial nature of getting it right in the 100 metres, and the drama created by the luminaries of the event have spawned numerous books and articles over many years, some of which are listed below. It would be interesting to see how speed theory has progressed since the first Olympic sprint final saw a winner’s time of 12 seconds.


 Duncanson, Neil The fastest men on Earth: the story of the men’s 100 metre Olympic champions London: Andre Deutsch, 2011

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2012.a.13888

 Sands, Robert R Instant acceleration: living in the fast lane: the cultural identity of speed Lanham, Md; London: University press of America, 1995

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1995.a.2129

 Morton, J W How to run 100 yards London: British Sports Publishing, 1906

London reference collections shelfmark: 07908.1.14/9

 Goater, Julian; Melvin, Don The art of running faster Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012

London reference collections shelfmark:YK.2012.b.5716