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Running through the Past

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Yesterday, I ran the Winchester 10k. This was a bit of a milestone for me, as it was my first race since a big knee operation last year, so I approached it with some trepidation. It was all fine – I got round in 51 minutes, way below the times I used to run but a good 5 minutes better than I had done the route in training, and my knee held up. It was great to get back to the atmosphere of a road race, and to the supportive atmosphere that I have always found in the running community.

For an average runner like me, who is not trying to win anything except a personal race against the clock, 51 minutes provides plenty of time for thinking and looking, and for me yesterday I spent a lot of that time remembering other races, and thinking about the landscapes and townscapes that the races have taken me through.

Looking back, my favourite race was the Sarn Helen, a 16.5 mile hilly mixed terrain race in Lampeter, west Wales, where I went to university. It was organised by the wonderful Sarn Helen Running Club. This was the ultimate event for all of us involved with the university’s running club, and completing it was a rite of passage to take one from being just a club runner to being a runner. I tried it unsuccessfully once, breaking down with nothing left in my tank after only 13 miles, but made sure that I was properly prepared the next time. I completed it twice in all, and look back on it fondly. The route covered some ancient sites, including the Iron Age hillfort of Castell Allt-Goch, and it took its name from the Roman road that ran the length of Wales. My memories here are all about the pride of the achievement, the camaraderie of my team mates and the club runners, and the beauty of an ancient terrain.

I ran a different kind of historic route in Rhayader, where the 20 mile race goes around the flooded valleys

of the Elan Valley and the epic dams of Craig Coch and Caban Coch. Here was a story of engineering , an exhausting run through a landscape that blended untamed wilderness with Edwardian engineering. I came closer to sports history when I ran the Windsor Park half-marathon, a distance that owes its existence to the 1908 Olympic Marathon which started on the lawns of Windsor Castle. With that castle as our backdrop for the race around the park, it was impossible not to feel a sense of history.

Every race that I've run has some kind of historic resonance, from those in Victorian city parks to those at 1970s urban athletics stadiums. Running in a race provides a unique perspective, especially when roads are closed and we runners take over from the motorists. We can see things that are not always visible, and we can think about the links between town and country, nature and culture, and past and present.

Yesterday's race around the roads just north of Winchester, for example, took us under a brick-built Victorian railway bridge and a concrete 1970s A-road bridge, and past car showrooms, watercress farms, and a Norman church. We started near the modern River Park Leisure Centre, and ran past the site of a 1930s lido, now a car park. It was a race through a landscape of continuity and change in worship, work, leisure, transport, and industry.

I'll keep working on my running, and, my knee willing, I aim to do some more races. With the luxury of being a mediocre runner, and my inability to stop looking for historical resonances wherever I go, I look forward to tracing more routes through the past.

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What if…? The Hillsborough disaster and counter-factual history

Like most people, I welcomed the new report on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans dies. There have always been so many questions around the circumstances of the crush, and around the reliability of the official evidence. In the context of the late 1980s, a time of moral panic about football fans in which all of us were too often stereotyped as trouble-makers, blaming everything on the fans was too easy. The new report, with its findings of doctored evidence, health and safety failings at the stadium, and poor leadership amongst the emergency services, takes the blame away from the dead. The fact that this report came on the same day as fire killed 289 people in a Karachi factory that had no fire escapes reminds us that health and safety is not about stopping fun, it’s about saving lives.

The Hillsborough Memorial, Sheffield

For me, the Hillsborough disaster always has a personal resonance. The match was an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool had qualified by beating Brentford, the team I support, 4-0 in the quarter-final. Brentford were then a Third Division team (which translates into League 1 in the post-Premiership rebranding of the Football League), and getting into the last eight of the FA Cup was a triumph in itself. We had beaten Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers in the two previous rounds, and the away tie at Anfield was one of the biggest games in the club’s history. All of us who travelled up to Liverpool knew that we would lose, and that giant-killing dreams rarely come true. How would our solid but, let’s face it, lumbering right back Andy Feeley keep John Barnes at bay? How would our Division Three strike force of Richard Cadette and Gary Blissett penetrate a Liverpool defence that let in only 28 goals that season? After Cadette missed an early chance, we were trailing a respectable 1-0 at half-time, but the second-half deluge came – on the pitch and from heavy clouds – and Liverpool ended with a comfortable 4-0 win. The whole crowd gave the plucky Bees an ovation, and then all of the Liverpool fans burst into a chant of ‘We’re going to Wembley’. None of us there could have known that 96 of them wouldn’t make that trip, dying instead on the terraces in Sheffield. Remembering that chant, and tying it up with the pictures of the devastation at Hillsborough, still makes me shiver.

As a historian, I’ve never spent too much time worrying about counterfactual approaches to the past, the ‘what if…’ school of history. Hillsborough, though, always takes me there. Rarely can one football match have had such massive implications. If Brentford had beaten Liverpool, there would have been no Hillsborough – it’s that simple. The semi-final would have been between Brentford and Nottingham Forest, and would have been played at a different neutral ground somewhere south of Nottingham – Villa Park, White Hart Lane, Highbury, and Stamford Bridge had all been used for such matches. While no ground was perfect at that time, the specific safety failures at Hillsborough would have been avoided. Without the disaster, there would have been no Taylor Report, and no move to all-seater stadiums. While the radical redrawing of the game’s economics could well have happened anyway, the financial climate that surrounded Taylor was certainly a key factor in the 1992 Premier League splinter group and the dominance of Sky. Most importantly, though, 96 lives would not have been needlessly lost. It’s the human cost of the tragedy, carried by survivors and families, that matters. My desire to re-write these horrors by imagining an alternative world in which Brentford beat Liverpool is irrelevant in the face of this.

However, as we have seen, creating a counterfactual version of history is exactly what happened as part of the official response to Hillsborough. Some politicians lied; police officers were told to re-write their reports to shift blame on to the fans; and The Sun carried its infamous story ‘The Truth’, for which it has now finally apologised. The new report has shown how a fake narrative held sway for 23 years. As historians, we need to understand the context out of which that fabrication grew, and support the bereaved in their quest for justice and closure.

 

 

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Olympic history on BBC Radio 4′s Word of Mouth

Victorian circus master Pablo Fanque

On Tuesday 17 April, I’ll appear on BBC Radio 4′s language programme Word of Mouth. The show, presented by Chris Ledgard, is exploring the legal and linguistic issues surrounding the word ‘Olympic’, and I offer some thoughts on the word’s history. Before the International Olympic Committee was created in 1894, many different events were called Olympic or variants of it, like Olimpick and Olympian. These included sports festivals, like the Liverpool Olympic Festivals of the 1860s, the Morpeth Olympic Games that ran from the 1880s until 1958, and the Wenlock Olympian Games, as well as circus and music hall acts. My favourite, from 1815, is My Gyngell’s travelling variety show, which featured ‘Hydraulicks, Hydrostatics, Deceptions, Musical Glasses, Sagacious Birds, Astonishing Dogs, Olympic Exercises, and the Equilibrium Wire’. Or how about Pablo Fanque’s ‘unrivalled Equestrian Troupe’ who, in the 1850s, toured Britain with their ‘Wonderful and Extraordinary Feats, introducing New and Novel Features in the Olympian Games and Scenes of the Circle’.

The key thing is that all of these events were called Olympic or its variants: there was no monopoly on the word, as there is now, and its is up to historians to stress this historical diversity. We even have IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin on our side: “The term [Olympic] is in the public domain,” he wrote in 1910.  “If you are not afraid of looking ridiculous, and if your efforts are considerable enough to be compared to what goes into organising a standard Olympiad, go ahead and use it. No one has the right to prevent you from doing so.”

Word of Mouth will air at 4.00pm on Tuesday 17 April on BBC Radio 4.

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Polytechnic Magazines go on-line

Vic D’Arcy (left) of the Polytechnic Harriers winning the 4 x 100 metres relay for Great Britain at the 1912 Olympic Games

The University of Westminster has just launched a wonderful new resource for historians, and any historian of sport in London, or of the links between sport and education, should check it out immediately.

It’s a digitised run of the Polytechnic Magazine from 1879 to 1960. The Regent Street Polytechnic ran a range of sports clubs, including the famous Polytechnic Harriers athletics club which, among other things, organised the 1908 London Olympic Marathon and provided numerous Olympians, including sprinters Willie Applegarth and Vic D’Arcy (Stockholm 1912), Jack London (Amsterdam 1928), and McDonald Bailey (Helsinki 1952), and middle distance runner Albert Hill (Antwerp 1920). The Polytechnic Magazine carried stories and results on all of the institution’s sports clubs, for both men and women, and it provides many fascinating insights on the sporting life of London and it suburbs. You can browse copies and search by theme to get full pdfs of magazines and articles.

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Memorials and Minute Books

The RFU's commemorative plaque on the wall of the Texas Embassy, Cockspur Street

It was fitting that last week, in the run up to the Rugby Union World Cup final in New Zealand, I found myself thinking about the sport’s early days.

On Wednesday, I was at the University of Westminster’s fantastic archive for some biographical research I’m doing on members of the Polytechnic Harriers – I’ll blog about that in the future. On my way back to Waterloo, I walked past a plaque on the wall of the Texas Embassy, a restaurant near Trafalgar Square. The plaque – easily missed on this busy road – commemorates the founding meeting of the Rugby Football Union, which took place at the Pall Mall Restaurant in January 1871.

The restaurant is long gone, demolished in the 1920s, but the site is still important. It was here that representatives of 21 football clubs who wanted to play their football in the Rugby School style met to form their own association. These clubs, including Guy’s Hospital, Blackheath, Civil Service, Mohicans, and the Wimbledon Hornets, had fallen out with the Football Association, formed in 1863, over their preference for the Rugby game. At the Pall Mall Restaurant, they established a new collective body, which they called the Rugby Football Union, and they started work on a set of laws for all clubs wishing to play the Rugby way. The plaque thus commemorates the birth of a governing body, one which helped to make the Rugby code popular throughout Britain and the Empire. It is far more meaningful as a marker of origins than the fairy tale statue of William Webb Ellis at Rugby School itself.

The next day, I used a document from the early days of the RFU in my sports history class at the University of Southampton. Trojans, Southampton’s foremost Rugby Union club, have preserved the minute book from their foundation in 1874, and have put extracts from it their website. My students and I explored this evocative manuscript for the light it could shed on the sport. For a start, the word ‘Rugby’ was not used anywhere in the  minutes from their first meeting at the Antelope Hotel. The founding members knew what they meant by ‘football’, and didn’t need to write it down. Next, the text captures the Victorian middle class concern for rules and protocols, with their clear instructions on subscriptions, election methods (complete with the black balling of undesirables), committee structures and quorums. Most intriguing, though, was the new club’s Bye Law 7: “That no Bye Law or Law of the game shall be altered, rescinded or adding to [sic], without the consent of at least two-thirds of those present at a General Meeting.” Here is a club reserving the right to change the laws of the game, albeit through proper constitutional channels.

The Pall Mall plaque tells the story of a bureaucratic birth. The Trojans’ minute book adds to the story by giving us a feel for how clubs emerged from the grassroots in towns and cities across the country, and how the game was still fluid in its early years. Taken together, these two artefacts remind us that no sport is ever born fully-formed. Evolution and experimentation carry on, even after the creation of a governing body.

 

 

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MA History talk at the University of Winchester

Last night I gave a research seminar at the University of Winchester for the students and staff involved with their Masters courses in History. The talk, called “Olimpick, Olympic and Olympian”, explored the alternative British histories of the Olympic Games. It was well attended and there were some great questions. Thanks to Dr Chris Aldous of the University of Winchester for organising it.

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When did we last win the World Cup?

"What have we won this time?"

For England, the Rugby Union World Cup ended last weekend with a poor quarter-final performance against France. The team’s exit took me back to one of my favourite questions in sports history: ‘When did we last win the World Cup?’ This is a question that I regularly ask my students, because it is a great way to get them thinking about the subjectivities involved in even the most basic historical questions.

First off, there’s the ‘we’. Who does it refer to? When I, an Englishman, ask the question in a class made up mainly of English students in an English university, the shared assumption is that I’m talking about England, so the answers that I get back are always about English national teams – I’m told about the rugby union World Cup victory over Australia in 2003, and the football World Cup defeat of West Germany in 1966. When I ask if anyone doesn’t share this assumed English identity, then all sorts of other versions of ‘we’ come out. There was the German student who grinned at me and asked ‘Where shall I begin?’, the half-Welsh/half-French student who said ‘I think I’ll let my French half decide’, and the Scottish student who said ‘Never’ – Scotland’s excellent record in the Elephant Polo World Cup has clearly passed many people by.

Then, of course, we need to think about what we mean by ‘the’; which World Cup are we talking about? Most people think of football and rugby first. When I ask them to be more specific, they break it down into the men’s versions of both sports, and realise that they are thinking of rugby union, not rugby league. Once we overcome these preconceptions, then people start to recognise a much wider range of triumphs that they can draw on. The hat-trick of World Cups won by the England women’s cricket team in 1973, 1993, and 2009, the brace of World Cups won by the Great Britain men’s Rugby League team in 1954 and 1972, and the England women’s Rugby Union World Cup triumph over the USA in 1994, all deserve as much right to be celebrated as the more obvious wins of 1966 and 2003.

‘When did we last win the World Cup?’ A simple question? There is no such thing in sports history. The answers I get are deeply subjective, based on unexamined assumptions about sport, gender, and identity. Whenever we think about the past, we need to reflect on how the language of our questions shapes our expectations about what the answer will be.

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BBC local radio interviews

The BBC's Southampton studio

After the excitement of the book launch on Wednesday, I spent Thursday morning at the BBC’s Southampton studios giving interviews to four local radio stations. My book The British Olympics tells the story of a variety of Olympic events that took place all over the country, so there is a lot of local interest. First off was Radio Gloucester, who wanted to know all about the Cotswold Olimpicks, while Radio Oxford concentrated on the connections between Stoke Mandeville Hospital and the Paralympics. For Radio Sussex and Surrey, I looked at Sandhurst and Bisley as Olympic sites, and at the notorious Mr Nurse of Brighton, who was disqualified three times from the 1866 National Olympian Games when his professional status was foiund out – once in the swimming and twice in the athletics. Finally, Alina Jenkins of Radio Solent interviewed me about Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, where the sailing and motorboat racing at the 1908 Olympic Games took place.

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Guildford Book Festival

Guildford Book Festival, 20 October 2011

Im giving a talk on my new book, The British Olympics: Britain”s Olympic heritage 1612-2012, at the Guildford Book Festival. It will take place in the Team Room at the University of Surrey”s Sports Park, starting at 6.00 pm on Thursday 20 October. The talk will be followed by questions, and by a book-signing.

To book your place, please visit the Festival”s website: http://www.guildfordbookfestival.co.uk/44-martin-polley

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