Academic Opinion: A new Games for new thinking on disability and gender?

Posted by pt91 at Aug 01, 2014 12:45 PM |
The Department of Sociology's John Williams reports on his time at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow

Please note: The views expressed below are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

Most mega sporting events such as the Olympic or Commonwealth Games are still largely defined, for most people, by one set of sporting practices which are the core of these occasions: track and field athletics. These sports events host the largest crowds and often the top performers. Thankfully, too, the Commonwealth Games have not yet followed what some historians have called the ‘Californification’ policy of the Olympics. This is a trend for new ‘sports’ to have been invented mainly for TV  – beach volleyball and mountain biking among them, etc. – in order to appeal to new young consumers, TV markets and lifestyle choices.

Indeed, the Commonwealth Games still champions rather more traditional sports, such as squash, a world-wide participation sport but one which is rejected by the IOC, supposedly because of its narrow range of elite playing countries. More realistically, it is not favoured by the Olympics because of its relative lack of appeal to sponsors and television viewers. Few young people apparently want to look or dress like squash players – case closed.

Here, in Glasgow in 2014, squash has blossomed with truly world class performers involved. And it has even been controversial, with England beaten to gold in the team competition when a dubious line call favoured the brilliant Malaysians Wee Kiong Tan and Wei Shem Goh in the men’s doubles. When the arena big screen seemed to confirm the error, sections of the crowd actually booed – yes, booing at the ‘friendly’ Games! But there was no changing the officials’ minds and Andy Ellis and Chris Adcock went down 21-19 in what turned out to be the pivotal rubber. Who said squash was dull?

Glasgow’s Hampden Park, the site for track and field, has been  completely reconfigured for the Games, with the track reportedly laid on short stilts for extra flexibility. The old stadium still shows its age on the outside: the impressive new frontage can’t completely hide its rather ugly red-brick football persona, in a bowl that historians claim unofficially used to hold crowds approaching 200,000. But this was in an era when most people walked to and from the arena and expected little in terms of civilised facilities.

Today, something closer to 80,000 will watch athletics in two split sessions, and even getting this reduced number of 40,000 at a time   into the venue, through the security checks and inside for an athletics session, is a major logistical challenge. Another difference from the past is that a venue which has hosted its fair share of historical national antagonism, racism, sectarianism and violence in the past – think England v Scotland and Celtic v Rangers, for example - will today produce only love for the competitors.

The stories are true: despite initial fears, the English and Scots do seem to be strongly supporting each other’s athletes when not in direct competition.  This partly reflects the constituencies of the crowds, of course, but what does all this sporting fraternalism say for wider questions around the upcoming Scottish independence referendum? It is difficult to say, though the Scots we have spoken to here believe the success and good humour of the Games will more likely stiffen the ‘Yes’ vote rather than solidify ties of union.

The very large numbers of English fans present may well be part of the legacy of the London Olympics: certainly, plenty of conversations in Glasgow this week have started with fond memories of the impact and experience of 2012 – and a determination to try to keep that spirit of national celebration and unity alive.

By this stage of a major Games – day 6 (Tuesday) it says on the daily programme, which is disappointedly produced in advance so it has no updated information on what has happened so far – those fans who are in it for the long haul have already begun to develop local knowledge and a rhythm for watching their chosen events.

We now know where everything is going on; that the Glasgow summer weather will usually produce everything in one day; how to avoid the worst of the endless queues; which of the city’s subway, low, or overground trains we will need to catch; how early or late one can leave a venue to get away without major congestion; and what Games security will or will not sanction. A man from Malawi was denied entry to the netball today for carrying a small knife in his wallet. It may be cultural, but some things are simply not allowed in any sporting context.

Hampden Park may have an air of old hat about it, but inside its facilities are generally up to scratch – wide concourses, reasonable leg room, decent toilets and excellent viewing areas in premier spots for people with severe disabilities. Today it also offers an incredible range of food - there is even a self-service deli located inside - though there is less choice of South Asian food than one might hope or expect in a city like this one.

Never have so many sports fans gathered so early for so relatively little. For the chore of morning qualifying even elite athletes might expect, at best, a few thousand fans at some meets. Here, by 10.30am on Tuesday morning the stadium is packed. We have come to see, among others, long jump Olympic champion Greg Rutherford. The crowd is thrilled to see the Englishman fly to 8.05 metres on his first jump - but then is equally downcast when it realises this leap is already well over the qualifying standard. Greg has appeared for just eight seconds morning work and is soon track-suited up for selfies and autographs before leaving for home. You will need to see the final to see more of him – though none of his opponents seem likely to get much closer than we do.

England’s William Sharman impresses in qualifying with ease for the 110 metres hurdles final – he would take silver later, having led into the last strides of the final. Sharman has a degree in economics and a masters in banking, from Leicester and Loughborough, respectively, and he is also a trained pianist. And some people say that black boys in England lack good role models?  This guy can do just about anything. Impressive, too, was Adam Gemili on Monday night, another England silver in the 100 metres, and a smile that can light up a dark street: the man has a big future.

But even these guys might have to give it up to Kenya’s superstar David Rudisha, in terms, at least, of his athletic ability. Rushida glided like a comfortable saloon this morning, pitted against some underpowered old jalopies in the 800 meters qualifying. England’s Somali-born Mukhtar Mohammed has bucket-loads of talent at this distance, but even he must perhaps wonder sometimes now about that potential football career he gave up: like Adam Gemili he was chased by scouts and had prospects at Sheffield Wednesday. Instead, Mohammed has ended up in the same athletics era as this cruising, middle-distance limousine. He will need plenty of luck.

The integration of some para events into the main Games programme has, arguably, been one of the real equality successes in major sport over the past few years. It helps, of course, when the racing is as thrilling as the chariot-like contests in the men’s T54 1,500 metres wheelchair event and when the sport has also thrown up its own celebrity lead in the shape of Dave ‘Wolfman’ Weir, England and Great Britain’s multiple Olympic gold medal winner.

There is a strong argument, of course, that the more developed countries have had a real advantage here in terms of existing services and funding for disabled people, coaching and equipment, and it is true that the British, Australians and others have been dominating wheelchair athletics for some time. But in Glasgow there are also real signs of new challengers emerging, especially from Commonwealth countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Mauritius, where money has started to be invested in disability sport. And age seems no barrier here, with athletes from all these countries competing competently and competitively well into their 40s.

The T54 qualifying was indeed predictably dramatic, with Weir dominant and powerful, but Obeng of Ghana also challenging the Australians all the way for the qualifying places before coming a tumbling cropper on the final bend. He eventually righted himself before rolling slowly over the line - to loud cheers.

But none of the emerging wheelchair athletes could quite match the performance of Florence Kiplagat from Kenya, mother of two, who did everything but win Tuesday evening’s 10,000 metres in a thrilling final won in the final stride by compatriot Joyce Chepirui, with another Kenyan Emily Chebet picking up the bronze. Jamaicans and Kenyans dominated the athletics medals all night.

There has been some disquiet expressed recently in Kenya about how the big money available in grand prix athletics has damaged conventional family life in that country, causing husbands and wives to split up and seek damages or recompense in highly publicised court cases. This impact has clearly caused some painful reflection in such a family-centred culture.

Coverage of athletics over the past two decades has certainly brought women out of the domestic sphere and moved them centre stage in world sport, thus challenging conventional ideas about sport and gender.  And this is not just in developing countries such as Kenya.  Just as in London 2012, what is really striking here in Glasgow is how the stadiums in 2014 have been packed with women and girls, as well as the usual male sports addicts. Having morning and afternoon sessions help and many women seem to be connecting here with new sports they previously knew very little about.

The British and international stars of these Games will undoubtedly be women as well as men – swimmer Jazz Carlin of Wales, for example, or Eilidh Childs, the talented Scottish 400 metres hurdler.  Indeed, the sports press in Scotland has been in thrall for the last couple of days, not to news of football or rugby or male athletes, but with glowing accounts of the gold medal winning Commonwealth Games performance of a partially-sighted young Scottish sprinter Libby Clegg, aided by her young black British guide Mikhail Huggins.

This effect is likely to be short term and it will wear off when football comes back to swamp everything else, of course. But perhaps these ‘second-level’ mega-sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games will mean not just new confidence and greater inclusivity for smaller nations such as Scotland - whatever that might mean constitutionally - but also new ideas about sport itself, ones which encompass ethnic difference, people with disabilities and women at its very heart.

What an extraordinary and powerful legacy this might be for British sport of both London 2012 and these engaging Games in Glasgow 2014.

John Williams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology

The views expressed above are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

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