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Sport and politics at London's Olympic Games

1908 Olympics marathon event between Windsor and White City Stadium
1908 Olympics marathon event between Windsor and White City Stadium

The remarkable history of the Olympics is revealed in a new lecture series at Queen Mary, University of London.

"The modern Olympics offer athletes an unprecedented chance to attain international fame, and host nations a unique platform to showcase themselves to the world," said series organiser, Professor Miri Rubin, of the Department of History at the University in east London.

In 2012, the politicians will appreciate the Games even more, but that's because they now see sport as something for them and their projects to piggyback on.
Dr David Runciman

"Our public lectures - which in 2010 include guest speakers specialising in cultural history, classics and political science - will illuminate key moments in the long history of the Olympic Games and attempt to convey the often dramatic economical, political, and cultural landscape behind them."

The opening public lecture on Tuesday (9 February) compares the first Games held in Ancient Greece to the forthcoming global spectacles of London 2012 and Rio 2016.

The second, on 23 February, discusses the impact of the three modern Olympics held in London since 1908 on British politics.

This lecture will be given by Dr David Runciman, senior lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Cambridge.

Sport and politics

Ahead of his lecture he told BBC London: "People tend to associate politics with particular Olympic games because of international conflict or violence or boycotts (Berlin 1936, Munich 1972, Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984 etc).

"The London games of 1908 and 1948 don't feature in these lists, and the hope is that London 2012 won't either (it would take a boycott or a terrorist incident to elevate it).

"However, all Olympic games are inherently political and the three London Olympics are no exception. I plan to use the three London Olympics to illustrate the changing relationship between sport and politics over the last 100 years. To summarise: in 1908, sport was seen as an extension of politics; in 1948 it was seen as an escape from politics; now it sometimes feels like politics is an extension of sport."

Dr Runciman says the 1908 games were highly political even in the absence of any actual politicians - the games had little or no government support.

"Still these games were a microcosm of political anxieties and rivalries, with fights over professionalism, the role of crowds, the influence of newspapers, and international conflict hovering in the background.

"No one then would have thought that sport was a way of avoiding politics, though some people hoped it might be a way of avoiding war," he says.

Massive popularity

Dr Runciman says that by 1948, after a period when many people's worst political fears had been realised, the games were thought of something for crowds to enjoy, and for politics to be kept out of.

1948 Olympics
1948 Olympics

"They had become a kind of antidote to politics, and politicians appreciated them for that reason. In 2012, the politicians will appreciate the games even more, but that's because they now see sport as something for them and their projects to piggyback on.

"Sport's massive popularity means it is now in the lead, and setting the agenda, and the politicians simply want to join the ride.

"I'll also be telling stories about the three games to fit in with these themes: about the role of the Daily Mail in 1908; about the disputes between the British and the Americans in the same year; about the Olympic art competitions in 1948 (the last time Olympic medals were ever awarded for poetry, painting etc, dropped soon after because the art was so embarrassingly bad); and about what might happen in 2012."

The lecture series then looks at the Berlin Games of 1936 - an athletic showcase of growing Nazi power and propaganda - before concluding with a lecture on Munich 1972, staged with the aim of reflecting a new, democratic Germany to the world, but overshadowed by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

2012 events

"As one of London's top educational institutions in a prime location so close to the Olympic Park, Queen Mary has an exciting opportunity to shape the character and legacy of the event," says Professor Miri Rubin.

"The lecture series mark only the start of a programme of Olympic-themed events to be staged at the College in the run-up to the London 2012 Games," she adds.

Queen Mary scholars are also producing a series of films, performances and seminars in 2011 and 2012, outlining the links between sport and health; religious traditions and physical discipline, the cohesive role of sport in communities, and much more.

The Queen Mary Olympics Lectures 2010

'Back to the Future; Flying Down to Rio via London and Ancient Olympia'

Date: Tuesday 9 February 2010, 6.30pm

Professor Paul Cartledge, A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture, University of Cambridge

Venue: Mason Lecture Theatre, Francis Bancroft Building, Mile End.


'The Politics of the London Olympic Games: 1908, 1948, 2012'

Date: Tuesday 23 February 2010, 6.30pm

Dr David Runciman, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Cambridge

Venue: Skeel Lecture Theatre, People's Palace, Mile End.


'German Bodies and the Olympics of 1936'

Date: Tuesday 9 March 2010, 6.30pm

Professor Marion Kant, Senior Lecturer in Theatre Arts, University of Pennsylvania

Venue: Skeel Lecture Theatre, People's Palace, Mile End.


'The 1972 Munich Olympics; Overcoming the German Past'

Date: Tuesday 20 April 2010, 6.30pm

Professor Christopher Young, Head of Department of German and Dutch, University of Cambridge

Venue: Skeel Lecture Theatre, People's Palace, Mile End.




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