Tag Archives: Olympic Games

Sport and Human Rights


This summer, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with some fascinating programmes through the Free Word Centre in London’s Farringdon Road. Free  Word is a venue that brings together a number of organisations dedicated to writing, debates, free speech, and human rights, and it hosts events, films, exhibitions, and programmes on a range of themes.

My involvement started earlier this year when Free Word hired me as the historical consultant for their exhibition Politics & Olympics: Ideals and Realities, which opened in May and runs through to the last day of the Paralympics in September. I worked with the talented curatorial and development teams to bring the exhibition together, and it is going really well. It is not anti-Olympic; rather, it uses images from the history of the Games to raise questions about sport’s relationship with politics, including diplomacy, body politics, terrorism (by states and non-state organisations), human rights, and commerce.

Through this link, I have got involved with Index on Censorship, one of the organisations that is based at the Free Word Centre. On 19 June, Index will launch its special sport-themed issue, called Sport on Trial. Edited by Jo Glanville, it will contain provocative articles on a number of sporting-themes, exploring the links between sport and politics in both democracies and dictatorships. You can get a flavour of it from Mihir Bose’s article, ‘Sport v Human Rights’. Working with Stephen Escritt, one of the Politics & Olympics exhibition’s curators, I have co-written an article for it on the word ‘Olympic’.

To launch the issue, the Free Word Centre is hosting a panel discussion on Tuesday 19 June, starting at 6.30pm. I’ll be joining Jo Glanville, author and broadcaster Mihir Bose and professional footballer Clarke Carlisle, who works for the Professional Footballers Association and for Kick It Out. It promises to be an interesting event: with racism at the Euros and the many political issues being raised by London hosting the Olympic Games, the time is right for open debate.

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Sport and the City conference, University of Westminster

An idealised view of men and women on the 1908 Olympic Games diploma

On 24 April, I’ll be speaking at the University of Westminster’s Sport and the City conference. My paper will be on sport and gender at the 1908 London Olympic Games. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC and its preseident at the time of the 1908 Games, was famously reactionary when it came to gender politucs. As he wrote in 1912,

‘In our view, this feminine semi-Olympiad is impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper. It is not in keeping with my concept of the Olympic Games, in which I believe that we have tried, and must continue to try, to put the following expression into practice: the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, based on internationalism, by means of fairness, in an artistic setting, with the applause of women as a reward.’

And yet at the 1908 Olympic Games, women competed in five sports, more than at any of the previous three Olympic Games: lawn tennis, archery, ice skating, yachting, and motorboat racing. There were also demonstration events in gymnastics and diving. These Games thus form a fascinating case study in the history of gender issues at the Olympic Games. The fact that they were held in a London where the Suffragettes were demonstrating for the right to vote, and in which a quiet but influential debate over the legal status of homosexuality was going on, makes them truly fascinating.

The University of Westminster has a long history of involvement in the Olympic Games, as it is the successor to the Polytechnic, which helped to run the 1908 Games and which provided many Olympians. The conference will celebrate this, while also allowing shcolars to explore other links between sport and cities.


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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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Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering

Olympia Gardens, built on the first site of the Morpeth Olympic Games

On Sunday 15 April, I’m giving a talk on the Morpeth Olympic Games as part of the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering. The Morpeth Olympic Games started in the 1870s, and had taken on the name ‘Olympic’ by the early 1880s. They took place over two days each year in the Northumbrian town, with a programme of athletics, wrestling, and quoits, and their prize purses were the best in the north-east. They lasted until 1958, with breaks only during the two would wars. For me, they are a fascinating example of a sporting festival called the Olympic Games that had nothing to do with what the International Olympic Committee started in 1896. Unlike the Wenlock Olympian Games, they are not part of the British back story of the modern Olympic Games: their professionalism and prize money made sure of that. Yet they co-existed with the IOC’s Olympic Games for 62 years, and are a reminder that the name ‘Olympic’ has historically meant many different things.

My talk will take place at Morpeth Town Hall, starting at 6pm on Sunday 15 April. It will be followed by a rare screening of some archive film of the Morpeth Olympic Games and other scenes from local history, run by Keith Hartnell. These events are just part of a whole festival weekend.

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Sports Heritage Network conference at Lord’s cricket ground

On 19 April 2012, the Sports Heritage Network is holding its first conference. Co-organised by the University of Southampton, De Montfort University, and the World Rugby Museum, this prestigious event will be held at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. I’ve been invited to give one of the keynote talks, which will be on London’s Olympic history. Other keynote speakers include Jonathan Edwards, Olympic triple jump gold medallist and a member of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, while broadcaster John Inverdale will chair proceedings. Speakers will come from the worlds of sport, broadcasting, business, politics, and universities, and will include Sir Menzies Campbell, Guin Batten, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Liz McColgan, Henry Olonga, and Tony Collins.

For further details and booking information, visit the Lord’s website.

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The Accidental Sports Tourist

My first trip to London this year was not supposed to have anything to do with the Olympics, but it ended up as one of those walks where echoes of Olympics past and future kept on popping up.

I went with my family to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street, and then on a self-guided walk around Marylebone and then down Regent Street to Charing Cross, looking for sites related to the Holmes stories, and for the places where Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, lived and worked. It was a great trip – all of my family are fans of the Victorian sleuth, and the walk brought things to life for everyone.

And yet, in London’s third Olympic year, we kept on coming across sporting artefacts and links. These were obvious for 2012: it’s hard to move anywhere in London at the moment  without seeing advertisements for the Games, or the logo adorning delivery vans and posters on the Underground. And in Trafalgar Square, towards the end of our walk, we had a good look at the 2012 clock, counting down to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on one side and the Olympic Games on the other. Like the other visitors, I queued up to have my picture taken by the clock, a modern Olympic site in the heart of tourist London. We also walked, unintentionally, along a tiny part of the 2012 Olympic Marathon route.

The historic links were perhaps less obvious. For me, they were echoes and resonances rather than bold and branded statements like the 2012 clock, and they chimed perfectly with the approach to city walking advocated by Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory: “Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself.”

There was Conan Doyle himself, the man whose life and fiction we were trailing, who was a big supporter of the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He reported on them for the Daily Mail, and while his alleged appearance on the track next to the Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri has been disproved by Peter Lovesey, he was certainly one of the journalists responsible for creating the myths of that great race. Then, on Regent Street, we walked past the University of Westminster’s elegant building and its memorial plaque to Quintin Hogg. Hogg was a Victorian promoter of muscular Christianty, and the Regent Street Polytechnic which he founded, the predecessor of the current University of Westminster, had sport and exercice at its heart. The Polytechnic’s sports clubs were to provide countless Olympians. Hogg himself practiced what he preached, playing football for the Wanderers, Old Etoinians, and Scotland.

Sports tourism is about so much more than commercial stadium tours, impressive and interesting as they can be. It can also be accidental, when, like Sinclair and in the spirit of the flaneuer, we walk the city and notice incidental features that can tell us alternative and half-hidden stories about the city’s past.


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Olympic History lecture at for FIFA Master students at De Montfort University

On Wednesday 15 December, I’m taking part in a special event for FIFA Master students at De Montfort University, Leicester. I’m giving a talk on London’s previous Olympic Games, those of 1908 and 1948, and making comparisons and contrasts with the 2012 Olympic Games through such themes as venues, sports, and legacies. Other speakers at the event, which is designed to give the students a multi-angled view of the 2012 Olympic Games, will be Dennis Oswald, Head of the IOC’s Coordination Committee for the 2012 Olympics, and Jonathan Edwards, British Olympian and member of the Executive Board of LOCOG.

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8,000 runners, 1,000 towns, and a lot of history

John Mark lights the flame in the Empire Stadium at the end of the 1948 Olympic torch relay

The big Olympic story in the UK this week has been the unveiling of the torch relay route for 2012. The organisers have promised that it will pass within 10 miles of 95% of the country’s population, and that more than 1,000 towns and cities will witness the spectacle on their streets. The announcement has led to a flurry of tweets and press releases as individuals, community groups, and local authorities have expressed their delight at being included or their regret at being passed over. I’m in the former group, as my home city of Winchester is on the route. ‘Excited to hear that Winchester is on the 2012 Olympic torch relay!’, local sports activists @WinchesterFit have tweeted: ‘But what will the city’s Olympic legacy be?’

Legacy is one thing: history is another. 2012 will be the third Olympic torch relay to go through the UK, and each one has its own story and context.

A German postage stamp from 1936

The first was not in 1908, when London held its first Olympic Games, but in 1948. The torch relay was created by the organisers of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as a way of stressing Nazi Germany’s love of classical antiquity. A flame was lit in Olympia from the rays of the sun, and then a relay team of runners carried it from Greece to Berlin. Leni Riefenstahl included spectacular footage of it in her film Olympia, and the idea caught on. So when London hosted the first post-Berlin Olympic Games in 1948, the planners had to deal with this interesting legacy. They decided to keep the torch relay, and to hold it as a celebration of peace.

Easier said than done: the original route had to be changed because of the Greek Civil War. The final route went through Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France again, and then from Dover to Wembley via Canterbury, Guildford, and Windsor. A second relay then took the flame from Wembley to Torquay for the sailing events. This, then, was a relay of reconciliation after the war – seen most obviously in the inclusion of Italy. It was a symbolic act which served to reclaim the Olympic Games from any lingering vestiges of what the Nazis had done to them. It also served to promote the Games, with huge crowds turning out to watch the relay go by.

Britain’s second Olympic torch relay was less comfortable. For 2008, the organisers of the Beijing Olympic Games decided to send the torch around the world, and not just on a direct line from Greece to China. This presented opponents of China’s government – human rights campaigners, pro-Tibet activists and others – with the chance to protest in ways that would not have been possible if the relay had been a purely Chinese affair. In Britain, the torch made a brief but notorious appearance in a 30 mile relay from Wembley Stadium (home of the 1948 Olympic Games) to the O2 Arena in east London, close to the 2012 Olympic Park. For most of us, the abiding memories are not of hope and reconciliation, but of a series of often uncomfortable runners surrounded by blue track-suited Chinese security men running past protesters. Here was a torch relay that was supposed to be a propaganda coup for a dictatorship, but ended up creating far more publicity for the dissidents and opponents of that regime. Beijing’s official website, incidentally, still refers to the relay as a ‘four-month-long Journey of Harmony’. I’m not sure if many Londoners remember it that way.

And so to 2012. This will be the most inclusive torch relay yet, involving 8,000 runners, many of whom are being nominated for their inspirational stories and community roles. It will take in Northern Ireland even though no Olympic sports will happen there, as well as England, Scotland, and Wales. This is the torch relay of the era of devolution and equal opportunities.

Each of these torch relays tells a story. Just as the torches are designed anew for every Olympic Games, so the meanings that the planners attach to the relay itself change over time. The stories are not always heart-warming, as witness the propaganda aims of two dictatorships in this history, but they are certainly worth studying.

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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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The British Olympics at the University of Winchester

On Friday 4 November 2011, I’m giving a talk at the University of Winchester on The British Olympics. It is part of the University’s 12 for 12 Project, a series of Olympic-themed events which was launched in October by former Olympic swimmer Kathy Read and is being co-ordinated by Richard Cheetham, Lecturer in Sports Coaching at Winchester. The talk is part of the Enrichment Week for Sport students, and will also be open to History students.

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