‘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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From the Abercrombie Plan to Abercrombie & Fitch: A cultural history of East London in an evening of films

This post was contributed by Andrew Whittaker, a local Forest Gate resident.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest in a series of workshops called “East London In Flux” organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, University of London. This was an evening of films, ranging from the postwar Abercrombie Plan to young people’ views on the Olympics, Westfield (hence the title) and their local area. The films from the 1940s were fascinating and I was surprised at how industrial London was, with rows of cranes at Tower Bridge to unload cargo ships into the warehouses lining the Thames. This was particular true in East London and the second film about West Ham described how washing hung out to dry was often made dirty again by the smoke coming either from the large factories in Stratford or the ships coming into harbour in the docks.

It was also interesting to see the changing culture of architecture over the last seventy years, from the centralised, technical-rational certainties of the 1940s through to the more fluid realities of the current day. In the first film, it was ironic to hear Abercrombie talk of his plans clearing away the ‘bad and ugly things’ of the past, when the modernist architecture of the 1960s is often regarded in a similar way. This was brought home in the Fundamental film ‘Watts the point’, which featured the demolition of a tower block in 2003 and the reactions of former tenants and local people. While such events are often viewed as a triumphant clearing away of the bad and ugly reminders of the sixties, the film captured the most complex feelings evoked in the ex-residents who had spent a significant proportion of their lives there.

One of the recurring themes of the evening was the changing nature of architecture and public involvement. We heard that there were extensive surveys done to gauge public reactions to the Abercrombie Plan in the 1940s, which was quite well-meaning and probably quite genuine. But this was public involvement done on the planners’ terms – they decided what questions to ask the public, which probably followed their own dilemmas and concerns, not those of the public.

This contrasted with the later films about young peoples’ views, which were more interesting and engaging. My two favourites were films about the ‘architecture crew’, a group of local young (13-19 years) who were interested in architecture and it’s contribution to their everyday environment. In the first film, they travelled to St Paul’s to learn more about London’s architectural past and in the second, they discussed how they had researched the history of Newham as a port and industrial area in the lead up to the Olympics. In both films, the passion, enthusiasm and curiosity of the young people came over as they learnt about the history of their city and developed a sense of ownership of the area where they lived. The films documented how they had found a voice and had been influential in major changes such as the Olympics and had obviously had a lot of fun on the way!

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Post-War and Post-Olympics: East London, Architecture and Regeneration, Across the Generations

This post was contributed by Dr Leslie Topp, Senior Lecturer in the History of Architecture in Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art and Screen Media.

What is regeneration? What builds community? And who defines and steers these processes? Architects, planners, politicians, the public? The cold post-Olympic winter, with the built and planned legacy of those games forming around us, seemed a good time to bring local people together to discuss these questions. The day workshop, which was held at the historic House Mill in Bromley-by-Bow on 23 February 2013, was a collaboration between Fundamental Architectural Inclusion, an architecture centre based in Newham, and Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art and Screen Media. Funding was generously provided by the Association of Art Historians Initiatives Fund.

The 10 participants were drawn from the first and second years of Birkbeck’s innovative Certificate in HE in Understanding Visual Arts, which is run out of the Rosetta Art Centre in Newham, and the group of young people which Fundamental works with in initiatives like the Architecture Crew and the Legacy Youth Panel, who are regularly consulted on regeneration plans around the Olympics and its legacy.  All local to East London (Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Waltham Forest), the workshop participants had experienced the current wave of regeneration first hand, and knew too the experience of living in the neighbourhoods and estates built in the post-war years.  They were also (the Birkbeck students) well versed in cultural history, and (the Fundamental participants) in architecture and planning, and the combination of life experience, knowledge and confidence in discussion made for a stimulating and compelling day.

We watched two films, both dealing with ambitious utopian plans for the rebuilding of large sections of Newham. One was made in 2008 by the Architecture Crew, a group of young people 13-19 years old, who Fundamental was working with. The other was made in 1948, by the then West Ham Borough’s Architecture and Planning Office, about the plans for rebuilding West Ham after the extensive destruction caused by the 1940-41 air raids.  One of the most striking differences between them, which emerged strongly through the subsequent discussions, was that while the first offered a ‘bottom up’ perspective, and was a critical enquiry by some of the people who’d be most strongly affected by the regeneration, the second was a piece of ‘top down’ propaganda, representing an ‘experts know best’ position. A lively debate broke out about the extent to which things had or had not changed in this respect since the post-war era. Some argued that while lip service is paid to community consultation, the ‘community’ has very little actual impact on the plans that are carried out. Nick Edwards, the director of Fundamental, and the young people who came along to the workshop, gave a nuanced sense of the particular ways in which people could have an impact on plans (though it was clear that to do this involved a considerable sustained effort over a long period of time.)

Another topic that kept cropping up was mobility. On the one hand, as one participant pointed out, East London has always been a place people move on from when they had the means to do so. Others wondered though whether that may now change – with the regeneration around the Olympics, East London had the potential now to be a place where people would want to stay, or come back to. But the new transport infrastructure, and the increased opportunities to move around, (including Birkbeck’s own courses, such as the Cert HE Understanding Visual Arts, that bring students out to East London and into Bloomsbury) mean that East London is now more connected than ever to the world beyond it. The parts of East London that had been very separate from each other, with some people never venturing much beyond their immediate neighbourhoods, had become more interconnected as well. The homogeneity and static, inward looking quality of the post-war estates (seen as the height of modernity in the 1948 film) were being directly challenged by the latest wave of regeneration.

An extra unexpected treat at lunchtime – enthusiastically taken up by all the workshop participants, despite the cold – was a tour around the Grade One listed 18th century House Mill. History in East London doesn’t begin with the Blitz!

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Use your language, use your English

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Although I was not able to participate in this summer’s ‘Use your language, Use your English’ summer school, I was still interested to hear about Jamie Allen’s work as Head of English Translation at the International Olympic Committee (IoC), based in Lausanne, Switzerland. This is surely the dream job of many a modern foreign languages graduate. (Jamie’s admission that he has been at the IoC for 25 years confirmed this suspicion).

Jamie gave an interesting account of how translation at the IoC, and at the Games themselves, work. The IoC relies on a small pool of permanently employed translators and no interpreters. Instead, they rely on freelance support around key events.

The organising committees for the individual Games require a larger team. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has 75 translators and interpreters under contract, covering 11 languages. A further 28 languages are covered by volunteers. Each Games will have its own Languages Services Committee as part of the overall organising committee, and much work goes on between Games to ensure that the knowledge gained by each committee is passed on, so that each team does not have to start from scratch.

Although his team has little to do with the actual delivery of the Games, Jamie was quick to reassure us that they have plenty to be working on – they are currently doing work around six Olympic Games: 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and two Youth Olympic Games.

The official languages of the IoC are French and English, so much of Jamie’s team’s work involves ensuring that all official documents are available in both languages. It was interesting to hear that when Jamie arrived at the IoC French was the more used of the two languages. Now, the number of speakers of English as their native, or first foreign language has greatly increased and a larger proportion of Jamie’s work involves proof-reading and revising texts written in English (often by non-native speakers), rather than translating into English from French or another language.

Jamie gave some interesting examples that demonstrate the vast variety within the types of documents that he works on. One day it might be a speech that the president of the IoC will deliver to a UN Committee, and the next minutes of a meeting about the maximum permitted size of manufacturers’ logos on swimwear!

Having come across a lot of ‘howlers’ over the years, Jamie and his team have created a style-guide, which aims to simplify writing in English for their colleagues.  Having corrected dates from 1rd January and 3th April, umpteen times, they decided to officially move to a number-month convention (i.e. 3 April).

During the questions and answers one attendee was concerned about the use of volunteer translators and interpreters at the Games. Jamie reassured us that the individual Games organising committees do invest a significant amount in professional translation/interpretation services, but that volunteers are on hand to assist with matters such as showing guests to the correct seats and giving directions to and within the venues. It is a way of allowing people to become involved in the Games – as with the volunteers who are performing in the opening and closing ceremonies and carrying out various other tasks at the Games.

Many of the questions inevitably focussed on qualifications, experience and tips for getting a job in translation. Unfortunately for all of us, the lure of skiing in the Swiss Alps and summers by Lake Geneva means that turnover at the IoC is not high and there may not be any openings there for a while!

You can read more about the rest of the ‘Use your language, use your English’ summer school in blog posts here and here.

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