Leeds Postgraduate Conference Report

Sporting Bodies: an Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference

Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds

May 23rd & 24th  2013

The conference opened with a brief address and welcome from Professor Matthew Treherne, the director of the LHRI, and Simon Sandison, one of the conference organisers. Each, in turn, outlined the value of discursive and open-minded discussion across the significant of theoretical approaches, historical periods, and disciplines that were represented at the fourth event in this series, and the first to be aimed specifically at postgraduate and early career researchers. The University of York’s Dr. Laura Crombie gave the opening paper in a panel entitled ‘Sporting Communities: Historical Perspectives’. In it she considered the devotional soldiers that were the crossbow guilds of late medieval Flanders, who not only resolved disputes on the battlefield but also competed in huge peacetime national tournaments which, she argued, contributed as much, if not more, to maintaining the peace as the frequent civil wars of the time. Anne Holdorph’s paper, ‘A good game of ping-pong is a kind of prayer and a foul game of football is a kind of sin”: Sports, games and religion in Jewish youth clubs, 1870-1939’, explored the value that physical education, and specifically one that was perceived to be essentially British, had to the youth clubs of the established Jewry in England at the turn-of the-century as they sought to set themselves as a community distinct from an immigrant Jewish community. She analysed approaches to discipline, ethics and the twin pillars of physical and mental development – seen as inextricable right through this time period – and set them as vital for the re-creational mode of recreation. The panel was closed by Nikhilesh Bhattacharya from the University of Jadavpur. His paper, ‘Tanned diabolical jugglers: Forgotten heroes of Indian hockey’, sought to reclaim the all-conquering Indian hockey team who, between 1928 and 1964 won gold medals in all Olympic games that were staged with the exception of one, in which they won silver. Using contemporary newspapers as his primary source he uncovered the status of many of the players as Anglo-Indians, a status as much legal as ethnic that led to accusations, possibly spurious, of racial privileging but whose real grounding lay in the socio-economic advantages of their leagal status (namely, secure jobs that allowed the time to play an amateur sport). In a variety of ways, all of these papers established themes of community, amateurism, control, and social development that would run right through the rest of the panels.

The second panel began with a paper from Simon Sandison, ‘The NFL’s brain bank: Injury, disability and American football’s ruined bodies’ revealed a historical recklessness towards mental injury that began right at the inception of American football at the beginning of the twentieth century and endured to sit uneasily alongside a valorisation of physical injury, a problem that remains inadequately unaddressed even in the modern game. He used historical sources, literary representations, and contemporary scientific research to trace a progression of bodily exceptionalism that, even in injury, ignores and casts aside any perceived mental deficiency, even those that are corporeal in origin. Next in this abridged panel, ‘Untrustworthy bodies: Disability, illness, and exaggeration’ was Sita Balani whose paper took Martina Navratalova as its basis to analyse a form of sporting celebrity that can challenge ethnonationalistic boundaries, as well as sexual difference and massive illness. ‘‘My personal 9/11’: Martina Navratilova’s terrorist cells’ used the titular quotation to argue how Navratolova at once incorporated herself into a nationalistic movement of grief and solidity and set herself necessarily, individualistically apart from it, as Czech, lesbian, and cancer victim.

The first day concluded with the keynote address from Professor Tony Collins, the current director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, which spoke eloquently and expansively to all of the conference’s papers. His paper, ‘Governing bodies: Sport and the body in history’ effectively traced the social, cultural and economic development of sport and its organisers for controlling the bodies of its competitors. Beginning with the development of team sports and the onset of amateurism, he exposed the social privileged that allowed for its proponents to so vehemently espouse it and look down on training and adult physical development – namely an educational foundation of a public-school system that valued muscular Christianity and saw physical education as central to its teaching ethos. Professor Collins went on to establish attitudes to bodily perfection as moralistic in nature, rather than representing an intellectual purity, and reveal how they related to the repression of non-normative sexual values, namely through stringent sex-testing in the mid-century Olympic games brought about by the gender binary that competitive sport depends on. He concluded that we can still this kind of intense moralising today, arguing that drug testing – as well as mass corporatisation – means that athletic bodies still belong completely to governing bodies and in thrall to their demands.

Friday’s first panel, ‘Who gets to play and who doesn’t? The inclusive/exclusive nature of sport’ was opened by David Hewitt’s ‘The place of sport in Spain’s regeneracionismo movement’. He framed attitudes towards national decline reflecting it as illness or injury, but education, particularly one that is physical as well as mental, offering an important route to regeneration and cure. Fascinatingly, he cited, as with Anne Holdorph’s paper the previous day, a valorisation of team sports and an English-style approach to team sports that combats individualism, unlike non-competitive gymnastic displays associated with totalitarian regimes. Davide Sterchele spoke next from a sociological perspective and, counter to many of the historical themes being explored, argued in favour of ‘desportisation’: a mode of play that breaks social boundaries without encouraging the tribalism of team games.  ‘From games and play to sport, and back: Blurring social boundaries through physical activity’ argued that formal structures act as boundaries, and a plurality of attention and a multisport environment allows for a real community focus and cited the annual Italian festival ‘Mondiali Antirazzisti’ and the pseudosport of freerunning as valuable examples. Concluding the panel, and speaking via video link from Honk Kong, was architect and football coach Benjamin Costello. In his paper, Football places: an investigation into the relationship between architecture and football’, he intertwined communal, political, and architectural approaches to the way in which stadia and other multipurpose sporting facilities both control and stimulate sporting engagement. He explored the paradox of stadium redevelopment forgetting about the fabric of the community that contains it and allowed it to exist while also becoming an internationally recognisable icon and a locally enabling cultural device.

The closing panel of the conference saw three exciting approaches to the way in which sport controls gender and the female body. The first paper ‘If ‘women athletes’ could be men: testing sex in 1930s sport’, given by Clare Tebbutt, took the cases of two prominent athletes, Zdenek Koubek and Mark Weston, who both underwent sex change operations after competing in the Olympic games as women and used them to challenge sport’s sexual binaries. She argued that, in many ways, these two operations allowed for the accusatory rhetoric – which demanded sex testing of many women athletes, particularly those displaying the secondary sexual signifier of muscles – to develop and intensify, as the governing body exerted control over women whose interest in sport already set them apart as unfeminine. Judy Threlfall’s paper, ‘Women’s Cricket and the ‘Clothing Problem’ in Interwar Britain’, assessed the developing attitudes towards athletic dress as it moved away from being developed exclusively for the masculine gaze, aided, in part, by the turn in 1920s fashion to feminine androgyny. While fashion (and shopping) became used as a mode of controlling who was able to access the sport, it also allowed for the declaration of female athleticism, unfettered by restrictive clothing. The conference was closed by Marine Bellégo who analysed the Victorian turn to physical learning through literature. Her paper, ‘Bicycles and Body Techniques at the Fin-de-siècle: Cycling Handbooks and the Victorian Separate Spheres’ exposed a kind of opposition to Threlfall’s paper, arguing (albeit some thirty years earlier) that while women could embrace cycling, they had to maintain femininity throughout, to the point at which the alteration of the machinery – the creation of the open frame bicycle – was more important than allowing for female attire to change.

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