‘Amateurism’ to ‘Elitism’: An Exploration of ‘The Games’ with David Goldblatt

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

olympia-1535219_1920For all of its successes, Rio 2016 came to embody many of the problematic and, at times, controversial aspects of the Olympic Games. From its roots in antiquity as an aristocratic pastime, to its re-emergence in Athens in 1896 as a ‘display of manly virtue’, the Olympics has always been at the nexus of political, social and ideological currents, as each era sees itself reflected  in the class, race, gender and sexuality of its athletic ideals. Its role in modernity has seen it both transcend and yield to international diplomacy and, successfully or not, has attempted to appeal to a ‘Universal Humanism’ above the fray of nation-state politics. It is this complex legacy that provides the context for award winning sports author David Goldblatt’s seminar ‘The Games: A Global History of The Olympics’, a lucid and sober assessment of the world’s preeminent sporting event.

The first in a series of seminars hosted by Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre, Goldblatt spoke to an audience of eager students, academics and industry professionals on the topics covered in his most recent work ‘The Games: A Global History of The Olympics’. The public seminar series, hosted by Birkbeck, invites the leading academics, social, political and economic commentators, and sport industry professionals, to discuss the latest developments in their work and share them with the Birkbeck community, industry and the public.

Whose values?

With many of the shortcomings of Rio 2016 prevalent in press coverage of the event, the purpose and significance of the Olympics has never been under more scrutiny. Indeed, increased crime, poorly paid cleaning staff, and a multitude of other failed initiatives has created a kind of existential crisis around which set of values the Olympics are meant to represent; what kind of torch is being passed along? Is it the individualism of elite sports, the lucrative urban regeneration projects for the host or a broader and inclusive culture built on health and equality? Through a carefully curated study of the historic role played by the Olympics, David Goldblatt asked his audience to navigate a history as complex as it is iconic.

Starting with a consideration of how the modern games came about, inaugurated in 1896 after a near 2000 year absence and sporadic revivals, Goldblatt explored how the ‘amateurism’ clauses of the early games ensured only the privileged elite could participate. Whilst the fight for racial and gender equality at the games would be fought throughout the 20th Century, the working classes were carefully excluded by clauses barring anyone who had accepted wages for manual labour from competing. With a diverse audience of different genders, races, nationalities and ages, the audience shared a variety of perspectives in an open discussion that reflected on both the inclusive and exclusive nature of the event.

Trickle-down inspiration?

relay-race-655353_1920Britain’s success at Rio may well have caught the world by surprise, but Goldblatt discussed with the audience whether a medal tally really equates to success. Indeed, whilst elite British athletes hit new heights, breaking records and elevating their esteem, what can be said of the public’s access to sporting facilities? Is Britain’s sporting strategy merely an emulation of trickle-down economics? Should funding be directed solely to those that will achieve?

Much of the current narrative around Olympic success, particularly in Britain, is the notion that successful athletes will ‘inspire’ the next generation of gold medal winners. Indeed, to those of us interested in athletics but not blessed with superhuman capabilities, the notion that we’ll be inspired by elite individuals can seem like an empty platitude, particularly when local services face cuts and playing fields are converted into luxury apartments. But, crucially, we must ask whether this is the responsibility of the Olympics. Certainly, if it wants to be the international event it aspires to, representing a coming together of nations and peoples, then a holistic sporting culture should be the objective. Or, alternatively, are the Olympics our glimpse into the capabilities of elite athletes? Should we watch with awe comfortably from our sofas? Has the Olympics had its ‘Premier League’ moment?

Whilst an interrogation of what Olympic values really are and whether they represent the possibility of a ‘Universal Humanism’ will likely continue, Goldblatt invited his audience to consider broader questions about what sport represents, where it’s been and where it’s heading, connecting ‘The Games’ with the great political and social questions of our time.

You can learn more about the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre at their website and see upcoming events here. Next week (24th October) will be ‘Not Only Lewandowski: The State of Polish Football and Business Around it Four Years After Euro 2012’ and tickets are available here.

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Stella’s Starting Study Vlog

This post was contributed by Stella Asante (student ambassador) and Gemma Bauman (student engagement officer). Here, Stella gives an insight into starting at Birkbeck. 

Walking into your first class can be nerve racking! Gathering your books, taking a seat and looking around wondering who to talk to and what your lecturers will be like. This feeling of uncertainty is perfectly normal – it’s the feeling of a challenge; a new adventure.

But, what do you need to know to be a little more comfortable with this feeling?

Final year Linguistics and Japanese student, Stella Asante, shares her tips on Freshers at Birkbeck, covering:

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Conceiving Histories: Being Human 2016

A Birkbeck and Wellcome funded project, Conceiving Histories, is taking part in the Being Human Festival in November 2016, holding a free public event 23rd November 6-8pm in Senate House (book a place here). For more information on the festival, see our news article.

Here, Dr Isabel Davis describes the project which the event runs as part of.

Underneath Desires © Anna Burel 2016

Underneath Desires © Anna Burel 2016

If you type into a Google search box ‘Am I…’, ‘Am I pregnant?’ will be one of the first offered searches. The internet can supply some general answers – for example about what might make you pregnant and what pregnancy might feel like – but it can’t, finally, answer the question ‘Am I pregnant?’. Just as much as it is a pragmatic technology, Google is also a convenient and discrete fortune teller here, a place to ask imponderable things. Whether hoping for or fearing pregnancy, in the time before they can test, women and their partners exist in the same imaginative spaces our ancestors inhabited before home pregnancy testing was available: they too tried to know their futures through impossible technologies. Belief, speculation and fantasy flood into the vacuum created by the absence of objective knowledge. It’s odd to find that we don’t and can’t know; it doesn’t feel very modern.

Conceiving Histories © Anna Burel 2016

Conceiving Histories © Anna Burel 2016

Conceiving Histories is a new interdisciplinary project initiated by Isabel Davis in the English and Humanities Department. It investigates this time before pregnancy diagnosis: how was it described, negotiated and experienced in the past and how might historical knowledge about the time of pre-pregnancy be used to contribute to debates and questions about becoming a parent, or not, today?

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between academic research and contemporary art practice. Anna Burel, an artist with a long interest in questions about the female body and medicine, is looking at the primary materials gathered by the project. The aim is to use artwork as well as writing to articulate the project’s research findings but also to put different ways of working into dialogue and, in that way, to find new and creative answers to the project’s research questions.

The project works through primary case studies, from different periods of time between the Middle Ages and the late 1970s, when the first home pregnancy tests first became available. The case studies concern hidden, misdiagnosed, imagined, feigned and hysterical pregnancies, as well as the desire to know about and to diagnose early pregnancy. We will be looking, to give a few examples, at the wishful idea of angel messengers who revealed the pregnancies of the saints; the invention and practice of uroscopy, auscultation and other diagnostic tools; the pregnancy diagnostic centres in the twentieth century and the logistics of supplying them with hundreds of thousands of tropical carnivorous toads; cases of false pregnancy like those, famously, of Mary Tudor in the sixteenth century on whose reproductive chances the fortunes of the known world rested; experiments and also plans for experiments to determine the moment of conception; the peculiarity of pregnant temporalities; the possibly pregnant in scandals, trials and sensational stories in both historical and literary materials.

Conceiving Histories: At Being Human 2016

We are showcasing some of this material as part of the Being Human Festival. The themes of this year’s Being Human Festival are hope and fear and we are presenting material from two of the project’s case studies to respond to that theme. For hope, we are looking at a strange late eighteenth-century fashion for ‘The Pad’ which made women look pregnant who really weren’t. We’ll be using this to think about the possibilities for women excluded from the experience of pregnancy and pregnant fashions, the comedy – but also perhaps the humiliation – of pretence.

Our other case study is darker and explores an idea for an Experimental Conception Hospital, described in a commentary on a fraught peerage dispute in 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital presents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as Conceiving Histories does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.

The event will include art work and short talks as well as a wine reception. Everyone is welcome but you need to reserve a place here. Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.

Details: 23rd November. Senate House (show on a map). 6pm – 8pm.

Follow us on twitter @conceivinghists and facebook @conceivinghistories and visit our website

Book a place on the individual events:

Read more about Birkbeck’s involvement in the 2016 Being Human Festival

Find out more

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Goal-setting for women working in a professional environment

This post was contributed by Mark Panton, TRIGGER Administrator. Here, Mark reports from the TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) First Early Career Seminar, which focused on goal-setting for women working in a professional environment.

Trigger logoThe issue

Too often, women have to put their broader life goals in the shade in order to pursue their career. This is neither necessary, nor is it sustainable. On 15 September, TRIGGER’s First Early Career Seminar addressed some of the underlying tensions that exist which make it harder for women to pursue a clear and balanced set of goals for themselves and their work.

In an engaging and interactive workshop, board mentor Dr Andrew Atter discussed why goal-setting can be so hard together with strategies both women and men can use to formulate a balanced set of goals for themselves; then influence their environment to enable those goals to become a reality.

The relevance of goal-setting and why it is difficult

Goal-setting is particularly important in relation to gender.  Women often have to make more painful trade-offs than men. For women it may be trade-offs in their family and working lives leading to frustrations and limited options. There is some way to go and this can also be true for men where they may have too little time for their family and too much time at work leading to issues of isolation and loneliness. There is also a sense in which many people don’t have goals and are just influenced by the environment.

What makes goal-setting so difficult?

  • Feeling stuck
  • Always out of reach
  • Aspirational (versus planned)
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Life gets in the way


Participants discussed goals they had achieved despite these issues and what could be learned from those achievements. Strategies that were debated included the basic step of asking for help; finding the emotional key and the need for resonance. Standard methodologies of goal setting were considered such as the linear, value alignment and realist approaches.

The seminar finished with the use of Triads (new for some of the participants) for a role-playing exercise involving coaches, clients and observers. Even in this short role-play some interesting responses and learnings included.

“I did have more goals and aims than I thought”.

“It was easier to open-up than expected”.

“It can be difficult to talk about goals with a line manager”

The seminar demonstrated there are practical and useful techniques and “life hacks” that can make a big difference. However, much will depend on your own attitudes and behaviour, rather than waiting for the world to become a more perfect place.

Find out more

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