Monthly Archives: September 2011

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Olympic education and the need to protect critique: Guest Post for @Podiumfor2012


 

Taken at the International Olympic Academy, Ancient Olympia

Last week I was asked to write a guest blog post for Podium. Podium are the official link between the London 2012 Olympic Games and higher and further education institutions – and encourage and promote the Olympic movement through education. I was asked to write about my experience/thoughts on the International Olympic Academy (where I have been for the month of September), an often under looked, but critically important part of the modern Olympic movement.

An extract from the post is below, the full article is available here.

“To those outside of the Olympic studies field, the notion of a educational institution dedicated to academic discussion about one of the world’s largest (and corporate) media events, can seem problematic.

Nevertheless, the link between education and the Olympics is not a new concept. It is embedded within the Olympic charter – the rules that the IOC use to govern the delivery of the Games – and is institutionalised internationally through national Olympic academies and their relationships with the local schools and colleges in each country.

Education is a big deal to the Olympic movement. Education is a way of ensuring that the Games have a future by introducing the Olympics to younger generations, making the symbols, sport and the ‘philosophy’ of Olympism is heard wider and often.

However, it is more important than ever to provide spaces and opportunities to ask critical questions about what exactly is being offered as part of an educational Olympic package – and who exactly benefits from the Games ongoing success?

Furthermore, there are many who do not feel nor experience the benefits that a country hosting the Games claims to offer. This is a huge problem if we are to continue to present the Olympic Games as a force for intrinsic common good.”

On being wrong.

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The results of a group work project where the olympic charter was used to fulfill identity stereotypes.

A mere 7.5 days to go until the end of the postgraduate session here at the International Olympic Academy. As we approach the home straight, a week of philosophy and ethical debate, we (the participants) are afforded the opportunity to to reflect on your experiences and our (now-’informed’) interpretations of olympism and the olympic charter. Which is great if you found yourself travelling towards a direction that approves of the benefits of olympic education and the likes.

For me, what little support I had for olympic education is on critical low levels – where at the start of my PhD I was indifferent about the olympic movement – it was something that people who liked sport enjoyed. Later, after reading the key literature about the olympic movement and the media, I was surprised by how huge an event this was and the lack of interest in studying/discussing the media in this space – so found media technology to be my focus on research (hence the topic of my paper I submitted of the IOA) – and, importantly, that you could study the Olympic Games without touching the sport *at all*. Which is good – considering the amount of hoops that you have to jump through just to be exposed to it (think the olympic tickets lottery in London for instance – I didn’t get any, which could have been problematic if I was to focus my PhD on the access to a type of sport.)

So I thought new media and technology would be my *safe space* – that is, I use the Olympic games as a lens to access/understand the fast paced changes to media technology  - as the Olympics happened every 2 years, you can use set timeframes to describe what happened then and during the event – rather than attempting to grab a moving target.

But the thing is with new media is that it exposes you to alternative ideas, narratives, the fringes of discussions to the dominant, mainstream media narratives that have made it all to easy in the past to focus on key ideas that have framed the modern olympic games since the beginning (the charter for one) and consistant focus on sport – as if it is a non-political entity, free from critical engagement. I could not help but be affected by the ‘other side’ of the olympics that I was uncovering – if I was to ignore them, then I would be actively ignoring a huge and gaping hole in my research. I mean I *could* just study how the IOC are now using twitter – but that again would support the under-criticised power of the IOC and their ability to fold subversion back into the system.

Two years of working in this space has *changed* the way I think and how I consider myself in society –  by un-picking the Olympics, something that I was previously not bothered by (or could understand the extent of the impact it has on communities, countries and internationally), has let to unpicking other things (such as education and politics) – as if I can finally find the words to express the “whys” of how I am feeling much clearer and with more social and political context. This is the path I have found myself on – and now I find it hard to just accept what I am being told. So to be told that universal Olympic education is a thing that we should be working together in achieving – all I can ask is “Why?” 

Now – this isn’t me saying “no, this is wrong.” this is me asking about the assumed status of those within the room. From what I gather, there are three things that are being assumed on our behalf when we are receiving our lectures from the visiting professors:

1) That we all think that sport is a morally good thing. That is bonds us across communities and it should be considered as something as powerful as saying it is a ‘human right’. The act of sport is a human right

2) That we see the idea of Olympic education as being a force to carry the message of sport and to help build an understanding that sport is a human right. All people of the world should hear this message and the best way to do this is through education.

3) That through participating in an olympic education program, we are are all advocates for the olympic education movement and will return to our country to spread the universal messages of Olympism. This is why we are here.

If I was going to be skeptical about this, I would say that, yes, this is the truth and I would write off what is being said on the basis that I have found myself at some missionary religious sect and my criticism/questions is the same as walking into a church and telling them that their god doesn’t exist. I’m not going to do that – because I do not believe that this space is simply a space of indoctrination.

Last week for instance, I found a friend (and an allie) in one of the visiting professors who, despite being ‘pro-olympics’ was anti-olympic education (at least in current guise). And that is a crude binary that we are working on – in many ways, I could be considered pro-olympics (those from the Vancouver Media Coop – through me working with cultural olympiad projects – certainly thought so), but I would like to think that it is more complex than that – which is why I will not write off the IOA as borderline cult phenomena. If it was, I would not be here – unless I am only here to be bullied into submission through living with, socialising with and studying with olympic peers. On the bad days, the days when I miss having my support around me, I certain feel that way. 

But I have to remember this is a controlled environment – and probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to the boarding school experience. Despite ages ranging from 22-40, and the insistance that we are called ‘participants’ – not students – and we collectively refer to the teachers as “professors” – there is definitely power relationships that I have not felt since the days of walking out of english class aged 16 and never going back. We are here to be learned something – that’s why 80 percent of the lectures are the powerpoint version of 60 mins of chalk-and-talk followed by a strict 15 minutes for questions (apparently to get us used to international conferences – ha!) – we are told what we should be thinking about topics such as multiculturalism – not being asked to discuss it. In the exercises that do involve student participation – we are separated into groups in order to find common ground about topics such as the olympic charter – an appropriate way to facilitate group discussion so the key learning outcomes are addressed in a timely fashion.

Perhaps I would expect this in an undergraduate seminar (which I’m beginning to disagree with now I am back in the classroom as a student, rather than a teacher) but as a roomful of graduate students, it boggles my mind that some of the ideas are so blindly accepted. Of course, if there is only one, now pretty unpopular, person vocalising questions (I emphasis questions, not opinion – I don’t think I have actually told anyone what I *really* think of the games since I’ve got here – only asked questions) then I can see why it is not appealing to break out from the community. 30 days is a long time to be away from home – especially when you are not only studying/debating with people, but you are living with them. If this was a conference, I would probably not sacrifice so much of myself for the subject area (both in class – and online, where I feel that the only place I can talk about it is on twitter – despite being entirely public and the easiest platform to be taken out of context.) 

But really? This is about me being wrong – being told that my attitude to the materials is incorrect, that my ‘limited’ view point on the world is restricting my understanding of the wider picture, that I simply don’t get the importance of sport in the context of global solidarity. You are right. I am wrong. I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong about neo-liberal assault on the values we hold so dear to us. Wrong about how corporations use such an idealistic philosophy to peddle exploitation on behalf of their own profit. I want to be wrong about education being nothing more than a training ground for the labour market. I want to be wrong that governments are using things the olympics to push other agendas to the global stage, something that is more important than looking after their citizens. Being wrong is ok.

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New publication: Encyclopedia of Social Networks

An entry on virtual worlds that I co-authored with my PhD supervisor Andy Miah for a Sage Reference book on social networking has now been published. At £225, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to see it in ‘the flesh’ but at least it is in there.

Reference: Jones, J. & Miah, A. (2011) Virtual Worlds, in Barnett, G. Encyclopedia of Social Networks, SAGE.

Full Article is available here (ssht)!

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Presentation at the International Olympic Academy: Harnessing the Twitter Olympics

If you’ve been following on twitter, you’ll know that I’ve been studying at the postgraduate session at the International Olympic Academy in Greece (near Ancient Olympia) since the start of September. Each week is based on a core set of themes (ancient history, sports management and sociology etc), with rotating visiting professors from differing background and related participant presentations (that were used to apply for the academy).

This week, during philosophy and ethics week, I delivered my own paper on the twitter olympics, looking at the use of new media from Vancouver to London (but touching more on protest, resistance and activism). I wrote this paper last year, but the session was cancelled due to financial problems, so I’ve been looking at this area for a while now. I am glad that I’ve *finally* presented this topic and I can begin to move on to other ideas more formally.

The full paper below (which will be formally published as part of the IOA’s conference proceedings) – as well as the slides and a audio recording of the presentation, synced along the slides.

On not being an ambassador for the “it’s a cultural thing(tm)” thing.

I’ve not been having such a great time at Olympic school. This week should have really been my week – the topic of this week’s lectures are on the social, political and economic factors of the modern Olympic Games – and it is *technically* where my PhD topic should fit on the program. It is day 4. On the first day, I asked too many questions. On the second, I asked too many questions and when I got asked to stop asking questions (or shusht! the technical term), I was approached in such a way that suggested a telling off, a request to stop asking questions that were not relevant or logical to the discussion. So yesterday I sat out of the learning so not to disrupt the group’s overall experience. I felt I had to. Anyway, the easiest way to understand what happened is to equate it to being a ‘cultural thing’ – my expectations didn’t match the professors expectations didn’t match the other student’s expectations. And if that was true, it means it is probably down to me being Scottish. 

It didn’t make make be feel too great. In fact, it totally sucked. I’m taken back to secondary school and my schizophrenic report card – where I would receive referrals and detentions in the same weeks are winning an award for academic excellence at the school’s prize giving. It is my contradiction, I live with the fuck ups – of which there have been many – and there will be many more, I’m sure. 

I’m not going to talk about me (yet), I’m going to talk the reactions that I received from the rest of the group. The group. I’ve referred to the rest of the participants at the academy as ‘the group’ already. The group is an interesting concept – as if we all move together, as one – believing roughly the same ideas and having a similar general overview of the world. Brought together, internationally, to because of our love and/or research into the Olympic Games. We share the values of tolerance, respect and solidarity that are the foundations of the Olympic movement – and we reflect this in how we behave and act towards each other, regardless of our cultural backgrounds. This is easy to prescribe with words, but as a group (a singular entity) it is much harder in practice. Of course it is – to not address the complexities in how individual’s form bonds that transcend institutionalised practice and concepts is madness. At least for me. Is that me failing to be tolerant? 

If I was to be rationalise the dynamics of the group (something I’ve been encouraged to do this week when talking about other circumstances related to the Olympic Games and its indirect effects that it has on society, politics and culture – human emotion is a *bad* thing and not a factor in research) then I would consider it as followed. Each of us has been selected and nominated to attend through national committees within our country. Each of us, directly or indirectly, is encouraged to represent our country – some have tracksuits with our country emblem on them (including me!), some are athletes (so are down with the competitive national sport element), some have brought their own materials that identify their nation state in a way that can be translated easily to other participants through the process of cultural evening – an example of this would be for me to represent Scotland with a picture of a kilt (“lol – he has no pants”) and convincing others that a haggis was a real animal (#haggislols) – all cultural devices that are easy to understand because they are dominant ideas that have been translated globally. Together, we are brought together as a group, specifically known as the 18th IOA postgraduate seminar participants/alumni, identified by our bright blue lanyard and our red baseball caps – the only thing that we can say that we have in common is our attendance here in Greece, everything else (the tolerance, respect and solidarity) was decided before we got here, before we were all born. 

We are encouraged to learn about other cultures through spending time with each other. This is slightly different than building relationships based on trust, this is building relationships based on shared experiences. There are some experiences which equate to making sure that the experience that you have at the IOA is the experience that you are suppose to have. Play sports, hang out by the pool, visit the beach, run naked at the ancient Olympia stadium. It is what you are expected to do together as part of a collective group experience.

If the idea fills you with dread, it could be seen as a problem in a context of a group rather than simply wanting to opt out of the activity. For instance, friends that know you well enough can read when you are upset, worried, angry, happy, calm and don’t require as much signal as people you’ve only just met. This takes time and personal understanding of a person to get to this stage of subtly. As we are living closely together here, it is expected to form bonds as quick as you can, with many different people – so national and cultural stereotypes can play a big part in accelerating relationships because there are lightweight enough to understand across a group, not as much work as getting to know somebody individually. Much like who you sit with at the first day of school has a major influence in how you behave, who you get to know through interacting, bonding and learning from your peers. The coincidence of knowing each other is through a shared locale – not necessary through shared interest, complementary personalities etc that we tend to find when we least expect it (this has been accelerated because of the Internet of course!)

What I am truly missing here is the opportunity to be myself. Not a PhD student, not a representation of the UK, not part of the 18th IOA PG seminar group, not somebody who seems to be working all the time, not a person who is allergic to mosquitos so therefore doesn’t want to go swimming, not a person who asks questions in class that are not relevant to discussions – all devices that I can use to publicly identify myself within the group, but it’s not really me. It is a performance of me. A performance of me that gives me something to say and a way to behave within a group – but as I’ve had limited space to really get to know people beyond their own performance, it is not a performance at all. I’d rather not have to perform at all. This is not possible, of course, but I have to keep myself safe when I know that most interactions are going to be with more than one person with not enough context to spread around.

So, to simply say that it is a cultural thing that causes the similarities and differences in approach is problematic. We could make it a cultural thing – we could make it an excuse for the reasons behind dissent individual behaviour in a group setting – but this group is situated in a context of a Western ideal. The Olympics, born in Europe, steeped in the notion of empire, power, development, growth in GDP, neoliberalism, sport as a human right, capitalist rhetoric – if any culture was going to reflect the Olympic games through stereotypes alone, I’m sure Great Britain would be close to the top of the list. Culturally, I should be the embodiment of such principles. In reality – I am struggling with the notion of alternatives and rethinking about such ideology that we take for granted and allow to haunt our necessarily lives I can’t embody my ‘alternative vision’ neither – nor force my way of thinking onto the rest of the group because I don’t even know if there is a correct and complete answer to be forced. Instead, I ask questions in order to reveal something more about ideas presented some confidently as being a correct one. And such questioning creates tensions – tensions so apparent that they are equated to inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour. Where appropriate and acceptable is not dictated by some higher being or institution, but by each other. 

But saying that, today is day 4. And day 4 was ok. It was the first lecture we’ve had that was not a lecture. It was a conversation. And I’m glad I decided to make myself go. We were asked to write down what we though where the three most pivotal games in history and to share them (and our reasons for choosing them) with the class. I picked 1968, 1972 and 1984. Some were looking for the right answer, so therefore a measure of being the ‘best’ games – when really, the exercise had no correct response at all. The professor argued that all of the games were capable of being pivotal, due to the nature of their global response – and our selections and reasons were all a reflection on how we thought about the world. This wasn’t a ‘cultural thing’ at all, this was just better, more engaging teaching – and a chance to break down some of those stereotypes that we’ve let ourselves inflict on each other. I’ve been looking for more chances to support the Olympics/megaevents as a context to see the world, or a catalyst for doing something else – and this is the first time I’ve found it at the academy. Amongst the indoctrination and the desire for the easy, most accessible group answer, there is small pockets were the dominant ideas (and excuses for difference) don’t necessarily prevail. 

On not drinking the kool-aid… (or resisting olympic research)

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The above passage is an extract from Helen Lenskyj’s excellent book “Resisting the Olympic Industry” which I finished a few months ago. Please read it – and I’ll elaborate why I’ve chosen to share it below.

Lenskyj (2008) is a rare – but prominent critical voice of the Olympics. Both activist and academic, she can be seen talking (amongst others) about the Vancouver Games on the Five Ring Circus documentary (available for free here) and has wrote several books about the notion of the Olympic industry (not movement), its politics, activism and social movements of resistance that arise against olympic bids, candidature cities and the host cities. 

This particular paragraph stood out for me when I first read it back in June. It was contained within the introductionary section, that detailed the political and personal reasons for writing the book – the relationship between activism and academia and the numberous issues with the media and  academic research conducted in the field of ‘Olympic studies.’ I return to this paragraph – because although I couldn’t/didn’t want to image it ever happening to me (despite attending some pretty dodgy conferences) – I couldn’t believe today that I quite blantently had everyone of my questions sideswipped during today’s lectures on the ‘bidding process’ and the legacy for london 2012. 

The above happened during session that was presented as a ‘talking shop’ with an invitation to stop the speaker whenever we had a question or a point to make. The first question I asked was in response to the definiton of legacy presented by the DCMS in 2008. It was clear once my response was avoided – and treated as if I had made a ‘wrong’ answer – that the government/LOCOG position was the ‘correct’ and ‘factual’ answer. The second question was the use of “we” when describing the need for government endorced ‘social change’ – I asked who the ‘we’ were – and the response was ‘we, the people of the world’ – which after a skeptic ‘hmm’ got reduced to ‘the people in power’ – and then a diatribe about the role of UK academics in the legacy discussion – that pulled me back into the fold as being part of the ‘we’. The third point – and the point that caused me to walk out of the lecture was when, after being shown a picture of the crowd after London won the games on the 6th July 2005 – the declaration that the 7th of July 2005 was a great day for sports decisions. Dare I mention 7/7? Was that too political. Yes, I did, because it was an international audience and it was an important social context not to miss out – which wasn’t considered appropriate for this talking shop and was met with a ‘shush.’ 

Lovely.

Anyway. I’m really starting to feel like I’m part of the club now. 

Lenskyj, H. (2008) Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda. SUNY Press: New York.