‘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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Eric J. Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2016: “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” by Sir Richard J. Evans – reflections from a Hobsbawm Scholar

This post was contributed by Antonio E Weiss, a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and a 2014 recipient of a Hobsbawm Schoalrship.

Sir Richard Evans’ lecture on “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on the nature and legacy of a towering figure of modern history in general, and Birkbeck College in particuar.

Evans opened with a 23 year-old Eric Hobsbawm on the verge of tears in 1940 as he packed his books in preparation for serving on the front-line in the war effort. Hobsbawm had a voracious appetite for a wide variety of literature – Balzac, Melville – and eclectic musical tastes, spanEric Hobsbawmning jazz and classical. As part of his latest work, Evans has had access to Hobsbawm’s diaries, providing a fascinating window into Hobsbawm’s life. It is Hobsbawm’s keen and wide interest in culture, of all forms and varieties, but with a particularly European focus, which helps to explain his emergence as such a special and influential figure of the twentieth century.

As a hugely grateful recipient of the generous Hobsbawm Scholarship Fund (to fund trips to Scottish and Irish archives as part of my PhD research on the history of the British state’s use of management consultancy firms in the twentieth century), Evans’ words on the unique contribution of Hobsbawm to historical scholarship made me reflect on the great privilege it is so receive support from the Fund. As Evans identified, The Age of Revolution (published in 1962 and the first of Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books on the “long nineteenth century”) was distinctive for two, critical, reasons. First, in an era when the focus of British historian was on nationalism and nation-states, Hobsbawm took a transnational approach, spanning his inquiry across countries. And second, highly influenced by the Annales School, Hobsbawm’s elevation of the importance of economic and social history, was in marked distinction to the focus on political and diplomatic history at the time, favoured by figures such as A.J.P. Taylor.

So much has been written and discussed about Eric Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Communist Party and his writings as a “Marxist historian” that attention has, potentially, been deflected from the enduring legacy of his contribution to history as a discipline. It is not hard to see the impact of Hobsbawm on my own research, even though the time and subject matter may initially appear far removed from Hobsbawm’s own historical concerns.

My research, on consultancy and the state, takes an emphatically transnational approach as it seeks to understand the transmission of ideas on management and managerialism from the United States to Europe in the postwar period; this is in a similarly vein to the transnational concerns Hobsbawm brought to the fore in The Age of Revolution. And to understand the relationship between consultancy and the state requires an appreciation of the economic and social trends and forces at play as Hobsbawm achieved in his work; not the mere machinations of political elites.

Evans, in responding to a question from a full floor, responded that Hobsbawm’s legacy was hard to pin down because it was so diffuse and general. It is precisely this diffusion which is so impressive – it can be seen in the multidisciplinary nature of current historical research, in the recognition of the importance of more than just policy and diplomacy in historical inquiry, and in the shift to the scientific and analytical method, away from narrative history. Hobsbawm’s legacy as a “Marxist historian” is huge, but it is his influence on history as a discipline which I feel even more keenly.

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London’s history: The ups and downs of an unrivalled metropolis

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, a PhD candidate in History at Birkbeck. His research focuses on the port of London from 1889-1939.

London and the NationLondon inspires love or hate. No-one is indifferent towards the capital, and that’s as true today as it has always been. London has suffered disasters and celebrated triumphs through the ages, but its status as the UK’s largest city has been constant. The capital is unique and the dominance it exerts upon the nation’s affairs is unmatched by the role of other capital cities in other countries.

Having been born, bred and employed in London, I was keen to learn more about the capital’s history at the London and the Nation conference at Birkbeck. The event, organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre, was also an opportunity to test some early research undertaken as part of my PhD studies at Birkbeck.

Professor Jerry White, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, opened the event on 10 July by highlighting how London has always been different from the rest of the UK, and he traced the roots of anxieties about the capital’s dominance and “adamantine metropolitan hubris” to the eighteenth century. White continued by emphasising how London’s fortunes have fluctuated in the twentieth century. The interwar period witnessed the “age-old lure of London.” Population growth, suburban expansion, industrial development and rearmament saw the capital expand hugely. In 1939, 20 per cent of the UK’s population lived in the capital

But restrictions were to follow with limitations on office growth and decentralisation, all leading to inner city problems in the 1970s. Michael Ward, Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also referred to decline in his presentation, showing how London’s population bottomed out in the 1980s at 6.6 million. Surprisingly, the capital’s population has only just surpassed its previous 1939 peak of 8.6 million.

The world’s greatest port

My presentation showed how the port of London was in a crisis at the turn of the twentieth century. Its standing as the world’s greatest port was in jeopardy as the waters of the Thames were too shallow for the draught of the new, large steamships. Rival dock could not invest in dredging and dock facilities because of ferocious competition. Following a Royal Commission to investigate these problems, the capital’s dock companies were nationalised in a £23m takeover and the Port of London Authority was born in 1909. By 1927, the PLA – a public trust – had spent £12m on improvements in the port of London, including dredging a 50-mile channel in the Thames and building the George V dock, complete with electric cranes and refrigeration facilities.

The transition from a chaotic port to a coordinated one was largely inspired by, and achieved, because it followed similar transformations in other ports, notably Liverpool and Glasgow. Legislative action and multi-million pound civil engineering projects began on the Mersey and the Clyde in the 1850s and were used as a blueprint to grant the port of London a new lease of life in the early twentieth century.

London’s dynamic past – a familiar tale?

Guy Collender

Guy Collender

I kept on making parallels throughout the conference as I learned more about London’s dynamic past. I realised that the challenges and opportunities facing London today, although different in detail, bear an uncanny resemblance to previous eras. Let me elaborate.

In 1913, the port of London was the heart of imperial and international trade (it lost this crown to New York during World War I). In 2015, London is booming, its population is at an all-time high and the capital is increasingly referred to as a city-state. Before WWI, major infrastructure projects were underway to dredge the Thames and expand the docks. Today, London is investing in infrastructure to accommodate its growing population. A prime example is Crossrail – Europe’s largest construction project. It is due to open in 2018.

However, as history has shown, this is no time for complacency. The breakdown of international cooperation and the outbreak of WWI undermined world trade and ships were diverted from the port of London. The capital’s port never regained its status as the world’s greatest port. Similarly, storm clouds are on the horizon today. Problems in the Eurozone and the question mark about the UK’s future in the European Union are creating uncertainty – a bad situation for the global economy and London’s financial sector. Let’s hope there is no catastrophe around the corner, and let’s hope policy-makers reflect upon London’s history when they take decisions affecting its future.

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A walk into London’s past

This post was contributed by Graham Fifoot, who is currently enrolled on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies

Great-Fire-of-LondonAt one o’clock on Thursday the fourth of June 2015, an important crowd gathering took place at St. Paul’s Cross within the churchyard precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the very place where victory was announced over the Armada, where books were burnt by Cardinal Wolsey, where four Gunpowder plotters were seen publicly punished, as well as where the book-trade took off in a big way – we were to meet Professor Vanessa Harding who was fully prepared to be our expert guide for London’s nearby streets and pathways.

I think many questions were circulating amongst us all in anticipation: Can we possibly envisage an old London as experienced by past Londoners? How do past maps of London compare to our more contemporary and familiar ideas?

Fully equipped with our Wenceslas Holler maps of London (a London just after the Great Fire), we began by walking beyond Paternoster Row, along Cheapside to discuss the seventeenth century frontage offering a tantalizing glimpse of where the old street had once been.

We were to continue along the old ‘Goose Lane’ (that no longer exists) towards Bow Lane, to stop in the Bow Churchyard and discover the bronze ground studs for indicating the boundary of the churchyard. As we walked further along London’s streets, we could visibly see implemented (or about to be implemented) changes to road layout, boundaries as well as past marks of property ownership. Along Fenchurch Street, we viewed the Drapers and Vintners companies with their coat of arms, and found how the old stream of Walbrook had now become a named street.

Then, passing along Wittington Ave and the Leadenhall Market to St Helen’s Church – we were able to view the extent to which the Great Fire had had an impact, as well as stop by the Shard to pass judgment on the continuing redevelopment of our contemporary London (probably to the horror of Professor Vanessa Harding!).

On continuing to the Guildhall Yard (also hit by the Great Fire) we were able to view where the Roman amphitheatre may have stood before progressing further to Little Britain and Aldersgate Street.

In fact, what originally stood as a one and a half hour appointment with Vanessa, quickly became (by overwhelming crowd demand and opinion) a fantastic two and a half hour overview of the surrounding streets of London.

By the end of this walk on a most glorious summers day, our assembly realised they had experienced something special. Now the old maps of London began to make more sense and the London of John Stow and Strype more imaginable thanks to the company of Birkbeck’s own expert, Professor Vanessa Harding…

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