Social Science blog

4 posts from August 2012

31 August 2012

Watching the Paralympics

Simone Bacchini writes:


If you’re expecting a balanced, unbiased article on the Paralympic spectacle I’m afraid you will be disappointed. To my surprise, the level of excitement I’ve been experiencing has been rather startling. Partly, it may be due to a semi-conscious desire not to let go of the party atmosphere, the general sense of excitement that took hold of Great Britain, and especially London, during the Olympics. I may be generalising, but I think the Games made us fell good about ourselves and – like all good parties – they gave us a break, albeit a temporary one, from the daily worries of our challenging times. But like all parties, the Olympics too ended. Except that they didn’t, really; the Paralympics got it started again. 

Undoubtedly, for the host city and the host country, both the Olympics and the Paralympics have a special value. They are occasions to showcase the Nation; to project a preferred image, both to outsiders and, crucially, to itself. In the case of the Paralympics, an extra layer of meaning is added and it has to do with the way we – as a society – view disability. Of course one can’t be naïve; a few days of highly visible elite sportsmanship will not translate instantly into the removal of all barriers, some of them physical, some cultural and psychological, that still affect the live of disabled people. For every Oscar Pistorious (isn’t he great?), there are probably hundreds of people who find it difficult to go the office because of architectural barriers and transport systems that are not fit for purpose. According to data published in the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey (, in 2009 there were 1.3million disabled people available for work in the UK. Of those, only half were in employment, compared with 80 per cent of non disabled people. There are certainly complex reasons behind this but certainly part of the problem has to do with perceptions of disability, which in turn has to do with still insufficient visibility of disability itself and of people with disabilities. And this is where the Paralympics and the attention given to them can and does help.  

The first International Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed, held in Rome from 18th to 25th September 1960 received little attention. I wasn’t able to find a single article in The Times for the period concerned (but I’m still searching!). During the Games the largest Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, only published three articles on the event which, after all, was being held in the Country’s Capital. According to The Times (31/08/2012), 20 years ago the Barcelona Paralympics had only one British TV programme devoted to them. It is therefore impressive that this time Channel 4 was willing to pay £9million to outbid the BBC for the rights to broadcast the Paralympics, promising around 500 hours of coverage over the 11 days of the event. So far the bet appears to have paid off. The viewing figures are stunning: peak viewing of 11.2 million and an average of 7.6 million viewers for the stunning opening ceremony. And let’s not forget the 2.4 million tickets sold. In contrast, according to The Times, NBC - the US broadcasters – will only show its viewers a 90-minute programme with highlights on September 16. This in spite of the fact that the US has 340 athletes in the Games, and the UD disabled population is estimated at around 38 million. In other countries, the situation is likely to be worse. Clearly, there’s still work to be done. 

But does this all matter? And don’t paralympians want our attention to be focused on their sporting performances, rather than on whichever disability they may happen to have? Are we – the able-bodied viewing public – patronising when we watch the Paralympics with added interest and Paralympians’ performances with added admiration? I may be wrong on this, but I don’t think we are. In my view, paralympians – just like any disable person – are who they are not in spite of their disabilities but because of them. Impairments are facts of life; just like skin colour and sexual orientation: they just exist. The Paralympics, among other things, can help society become more aware and accepting of this fact. In addition, they are fun to watch and an opportunity to be excited by the athletes’ physical prowess and sheer determination. On top of this, they can help change attitudes. So in this case – but alas not in the Paralympics or the Olympics – everyone’s a winner!

24 August 2012

Sport and the Social Sciences: ISSA, World Congress of Sociology of Sport, Glasgow 16th - 18th July.

Simone Bacchini writes:


The organiser of London 2012, Lord Coe, has demanded more compulsory sport in school ‘to capitalize on the enthusiasm generated by the Olympics’, as the London’s Independent ( reports. As I wrote in a previous post, the words ‘compulsory’ and ‘sport’ in the same sentence still have nightmarish reverberations for me. However, I’m willing to reconsider. Especially if Professor Peter Donnelly’s invitation to allow people to be bad at sports is taken on board. 

Peter Donnelly is a professor in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. He was only one of the numerous speakers who presented papers at the recently-held world sociology of sport congress (ISSA), at Glasgow Caledonian University, 16th – 18th July 2012. The title of this year’s event was: “Sport: Challenging Boundaries”. And indeed, that’s exactly what it did.  

Over four days, young researchers and experienced academics from numerous countries presented their work. In parallel sessions, topics such as the evolution and future of mega-events, the inclusion/exclusion of gay and lesbian in sports, corruption and clientelism in Argentine football, and the increasingly vague meaning of words such as ‘sustainability’ in Olympic bid documents were addressed and discussed.  

I don’t have the space to give even a brief summary of all the papers that were presented. Hopefully, some of them will find their way onto the pages of the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, as well as other media. Among the most attended papers were those dealing with various aspects of the Olympics. Various interpretations of the notion of ‘legacy’ were explored; questions were asked as to what exactly can be considered a legacy, and whether it can be measured.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of attention and criticism was devoted to the IOC and the often perplexing lengths governments are willing to go to in order to win an Olympic bid. In fairness, neither the Games nor the IOC were depicted as entirely negative or malevolent. But it was refreshing to see the ‘sociological imagination’ applied to examine some extravagant claims and to question commonly-held assumptions, such as the ability of the Olympic to ‘inspire a generation’ and to create harmony and smooth out conflict often ascribed to sport.  

Another theme that was explored was the extent to which sport is and can be truly inclusive. Some fascinating papers explored the links between patriarchy and the world of sport. To a large extent, sport remains a favourite arena for the displaying and the reproduction of dominant ideas of masculinity and heteronormativity. However, as Jonah Bury, of the University of Bristol, pointed out with reference to English association football, the way in which footballers are expected to ‘come out’, i.e. through the media, can be problematic in itself. Yet, it is true that overt gay participation in main sporting events is still minimal and is a source of ‘invisibility’. This can be also said of the presence of women in the world of sport, in which sport reporting was included. According to one speaker, in spite of the undeniable advances that have taken place, it is still predominantly males – for example – that act as experts in the world of sport reporting.  

It is not possible, here, to do justice to the scope of research that was presented in Glasgow. What was clear, however, was the fact the field of sport sociology has reached maturity. There are innumerable areas of investigation to be discovered and re-discovered and their relevance extends far beyond the realm of the individual sport or sports concerned. Hopefully, this blog, the Sport and Society website and, ultimately, the resources of the British Library will assist present and future researchers. It is certainly my hope that they will.

16 August 2012

Confessions of a Dove Biker

One morning, just over seven years ago, I received the most welcome cup of tea in my life.  It had started as a normal journey to the Library - a 24 bus from Pimlico, and then hoping onto a 30 at the top of Tottenham Court Road - but that morning, 7 July 2005, the morning after London had been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, the bus route got messed up, and I ended up walking towards the Library through Bloomsbury.  You know the rest of the story.  Because of the bombings, the final bit of the route to work was blocked off, there was an exploded bus at the end of the road, smoke on the ground, and people in tears, running.  Friends House opened its doors, gave people a chance to call family and work, and offered a cup of tea.  As I said, it's the most welcome one I've received.

I bought a bicycle the next day, something I had been meaning to do, but was precipitated by that week's transport problems.  Seven years and three bikes later, I was cycling around the Olympic Stadium, dressed rather improbably as a dove and bobbing up and down to flap some illuminated wings.  Oh, and retro-quiffed Arctic Monkeys were playing a cover version of The Beatles' Come Together.

There's a path that can be picked out between these two surreal moments (one horrific, one rather glorious), something highlighted during the opening ceremony by the Abide With Me section.  It's a story strikingly illuminated by an interview with a medic, Andrew Hartle, who treated some of the victims of the 7/7 bombings, and volunteered to be part of the Olympics medical team. For Hartle, the Opening Ceremony proved to be a turning point.  As he told The Telegraph,

I did it because there was part of me that wanted to be involved in this and make it good, to make up for 7/7... It was really important to me that the Olympics worked, that London could demonstrate that it was about something other than 7/7. That we could deliver something brilliant, to be proud of. We don’t do pride very often, and I think we should.

Watching the opening ceremony, 'There was a sense of calm and real excitement. A sense of closure. The Olympics were here. They were cathartic. The anxiety had gone. London was not about 7/7 for me any more.'

In this, and a thousand other ways, the London Games tied together personal and the public, the individual and the national.  The Ceremony, it seems, also acted as a fulcrum, shifting the national (or at least the London) mood from one of indifference or cynicismto something else, something that has been worked over by commentators from across the political spectrum.  The confidence, humour and perhaps unexpected success contrasted greatly with the summer riots of the preceding year, as Dizzee Rascal noted in Time Out, while also drawing attention to the continuing deprivation experienced by many living near the Stratford stadium.  The task for the social sciences, it seems to me, is offering the tools to record and investigate these processes and tensions at a deeper level than that offered in the pages of the press and opinion pieces.

Another potential PhD topic would be (if it's not too late), the anthropology of the volunteers that underpinned much of the Games' success.  What motivated them?  What did they get out of it?  How did it change, if at all, the way communities saw themselves?  To what extent did it stop people 'bowling alone'?

As a Dove Bike, my responses will be biased.  For what it's worth, I spotted a call for cyclists 'with upper body strength' on the forum. (It was also posted on British Cycling.)  Ignoring that muscular requirement, and taking the view that if the Olympics were going to happen one might as well make the most of it, I signed up and attended an audition at 3 Mills early in March.  A hundred or so cyclists, many in team kit, where there. We were asked to ride around, bob up and down, and cross through each other, all in front of video cameras.  Like any groups, it soon took on it's own character, with plenty of humour, sarcastic asides, suggestions from the volunteers, and a growing sense of curiousity and interest in what the opening ceremony might be.  How naff would it be to just have a bunch of bikes cycling round in circles?

I received a callback in late May, with some of the rehearsals already underway. These took place in a certain amount of secrecy at Dagenham, inside a big top tent, and on one of two staked out stadium, or 'field of play', as we soon came to know it.  The commitment required soon became apparent: most weekends, some evenings, and a lot of time waiting around in the cold and rain.  Many people were travelling a long way, some were also volunteering as Gamesmakers, and, among the cyclists, were trying to fit their usual training in.  But once Danny Boyle showed us the 'pre-visuals' - a remarkably accurate computer animation - we were sold.  Not only would we get to ride our bikes in the stadium, getting a sneak peek inside the greatest show on earth, but we'd be doves, just before the lighting of the cauldron (avoiding the risk of setting alight any real feathered friends). 

We weren't the only bikes involved.  Many acquintances and friends from across London had also signed up and were being rehearsed for the 'Bike AM' section, which would precede the doves and celebrate the UK's cycling culture.  Bob Haro, who had worked in the BMX scenes in E.T., was helping to set up an extraordinary BMX and flatlander section, and others were pulling large metal 'fire bikes', with gas cannisters in their baskets.  In between all these would weave a 'peloton' dressed in the Olympic colours. 

The BMXers hung around looking cool, the firebikers perfected their towing, the peloton practised their pace lines.  And we got used to flapping our wings.  In July we moved to the Stadium, getting used to the 'M25' which ran around it, timing our lines going up the hill in front of the Tor, and, once we had perfected, our routine, practising all the things that go to make up such a large show - the lighting, the process of getting there (from over a mile away at Eton Manor, where our flock was cooped up for hours with hundreds of other performers), the TV sight lines.  We also got our wings bit by bit.  First the jerkin, then the frame, then the lights.  Finally the feathers and tail.  We also got used to riding around on very ropey hybrid bikes.

It was surprisingly emotional, perhaps for some of the reasons outlined above, as well as the need for secrecy (something that wasn't stressed, but we all took onboard), but also when we sat at the start of one of the rehearsals, and noticed that there were no other bikes: Danny Boyle came up to explain that the show had to be cut to ensure that everyone could get home on time. He refused to let go any of the volunteers, but only cut the paid performers (the BMXers, the peloton, and the firebikes were paid for insurance reasons).  Only our section remained.  So, on the night, we rode in part for the peloton and the other bikers.  And, just before opening night, a section of clips was released from the dress rehearsals.  It included, it seems without being authorised, clips of us cycling around.  After months of telling no-one what we were up to, many found it surprising.  Our self-generated Google Group and that evening's rehearsal was for a while in quite a flap.  But one comment by one of the doves got us back on track: 'Let's make the athletes, Danny, Ben, Bob, Paul, Sara, Solomon and all the stage management/costume/make-up/technical people etc, plus our families and friends VERY proud. Let us welcome the athletes and the flame for the Olympics in London and make sure everyone in the whole world forgets to breath for those few seconds because of their sheer amazement. LET'S GO AND DO IT! Bring it on!'

Then, it was Opening Night. The atmosphere was different, slightly tense, slightly serious, until we saw the Industrial Revolution segment play out (we had brought in a projector and laptop and used the wifi to watch a stream of the show as we waited around) and the performers came back to Eton Manor, elated, and high-fiving us as they went.  Our call came, and we marched two-by-two to collect our bikes and wings from underneath the stadium. Coming towards us were thousands of other performers, all 'coo cooing' and cheering, having the time of their lives.  On the left were the athletes making their long way into the stadium.  We tuned our earpieces into the floor manager's channel, got our wings, and lined up outside.  Six Billion pieces of paper, representing every man, woman and child on earth were dropped into the stadium and fluttered down towards us, like a snowstorm; Bowie came on over the radio, Team GB marched on, and then the Arctic Monkeys began to play.  We turned on our lights, began to flap, and waited for the signal.  Then, we rolled off, at 9 mph to do our circuit.

For me, it was just like the many other rehearsals.  The music was so loud in my earpiece, I couldn't hear the crowd.  I just kept focussed on the wheel in front, and did my best to bring up the rear (I was the last dove) and keep in position.  Everything was blue, white and black. Then, as we stopped, flapped in time, I could look around.  Thousands of athletes were grinning, taking photographs.  And our aerial performer was flying up towards the Tor end of the stadium (his beak painted yellow, rather than orange, on our suggestion, in honour of Bradley Wiggins, whom I suspect Boyle had wanted on the bike).  Our call came, we cycled through the 'vom' (vomitorium, architecture fans).  A nice moment: the walls were lined with the crew - costume, sound, lighting, TV - all clapping and cheering.  Somehow we - all of us - had pulled it off.





08 August 2012

Coming over all emotional

What a marvellous experience London 2012 is being! Not only have the Games themselves – the athletes and the fans – been wonderful, but so far none of our worst fears have come true: traffic dislocation – the Tube is working fine; gridlock – it never happened. Everyone I know is glued to the TV or else actually attending events, ticketed and un-ticketed. I’m off to see the open water swimming in Hyde Park on Thursday and I’ve got my flag packed and everything.

Several of my colleagues have participated in the opening ceremony and I have prevailed upon one of them – Matthew Shaw of the Americas Section – to tell us about his experiences as one of the cycling doves. Here’s an earlier post of his on the Americas web page, just to give you a taster. Matthew had a few pictures taken of himself, one of which revealed that the designers had taken the trouble to paint a beak on his face (didn’t spot that at the time). Hilarious – and quirky; in fact just what I hoped the London Games would bring to the Olympic experience. See the doves in training on the BBC website

Lots of other colleagues have trooped off to the Olympic Park to see the opening ceremony and events like the athletics and the swimming. All have come back enthusing about the organisation of the events, the beauty of the Olympic Park flower gardens and the helpfulness of the volunteers. They have also deluged me with pictures some of which (like this one) will be adorning this blog.



So the much talked about feel good factor really is tangible. On the Thursday before the Games started, the Olympic torch made its way to King’s Cross, close to the Library, and seeing it arrive, heralded by a stirring of excited voices in the watching crowd and a ripple of expectation which seemed to flow down the street and made you catch your breath, was an amazing feeling; even the most cynical observer must have been moved by it. It definitely felt as if the huge crowd of onlookers was sharing something out of the ordinary, as if the emotion and the feeling of connectedness were flowing from some sort of collective consciousness (sorry to go all Jungian on you but that’s the only way I can describe it).

Much has been said, by the athletes themselves, and by other commentators, at home and abroad, about British sport fans and their huge contribution to athletic performance and to the sense of occasion. One of my most deeply felt joys (yes I know I don’t get out much) was seeing Millwall win a match at the old Den which they looked almost certain, at one point, to lose, and again there was this sense of connectedness, this feeling that the emotion of a crowd had changed things. It’s quite an amazing thing to be caught up in.

There have been quite a few studies undertaken about this phenomenon and about the phenomenon of fandom generally, though most of the research has focussed on football crowds from a variety of perspectives good and bad. This Olympics has been distinguished by the enthusiasm of these benign crowds, these people with a desire to share in the experience and to benefit from it in subtle and not so subtle ways. People want to drink at this fountain of well-being.


Daniel L Wann [et al]
Sport fans: the psychology and social impact of spectators
New York; London: Routledge, 2001
London reference collections shelfmark: YC 2003.a.15081

Stephen Mumford
Watching sport: aesthetics, ethics and emotion
London: Routledge, 2012
London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS 796.01