‘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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