Originally planned as a conference to be held at the University of Bristol, Telling the Story of Sport was one of the first conferences to be cancelled because of the spread of Covid-19. The restrictions placed on international travel paradoxically enabled the organisers to open up the event; by going digital, we really were able to narrate sport in a global context to a global audience. With some trepidation, and after crash courses in a whole range of video-conferencing platforms, the two-day conference was converted into a series of monthly workshops, each with a different theme.
The workshops’ purpose remained that of the conference: to look beyond textual, filmic, pictorial representations of sport purely as source material for sports history and to interrogate the cultural practices that lie behind these diverse narrative practices. These workshops therefore set out to create a series of fora in which scholars could contextualise their research and develop a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of sporting narrative practices across a range of national cultures and scholarly disciplines ranging from Modern Languages to Media Studies via film, history, literature creative practice, and so on.
The sports press has long been the primary resource of many sports historians. Our first workshop, ‘Exploring the role of sports journalism’, featured papers that explored the culture of sports writing. John Hughes presented the seminal work of German exile Willy Meisl in post-war Britain, Ruadhán Cooke discussed the tradition of the suiveur in the Tour de France, and Peter Watson looked at the Colombian press’ construction of the idea of nation during the 1962 football World Cup.
Representing the athletic body was a theme running through several papers across all workshops. ‘Athletic bodies and identities’ in October looked explicitly at the theme in relation to a variety of media and cultural contexts. In his paper, Thomas Campbell drew upon an early boxing periodical to reflect on depictions of race in nineteenth-century England. Race was also discussed in Yann Descamps’ presentation of the representation of basketball in one videogame series. Tanguy Philippe contrasted the depiction of wrestlers in two recent US and Indian films while Jaclyn Meloche explored the politics of bodies in Canadian ice hockey.
‘Sports, memory and identity’ in November featured contributions from Philip Dine on rootedness and relatedness in French sports writing, and an exploration of rural life and nostalgia in two French films (one on rugby and one on football) by Jonathan Ervine, as well as a discussion of a Barry Hines’ script for a football film that was never made, presented by David Forrest.
December’s workshop had a French feel and focused on how gender is conceived, constructed and performed in sporting narratives. Martin Hurcombe thus explored nineteenth-century French masculine, bourgeois identity and its relationship to birth of cycling as a sport. Austin Hancock examined how the French press covered the boxing career of Eugène Criqui following his facial disfigurement during the First World War while Roxanna Curto’s study of Suzanne Lenglen focused on the international tennis star’s representation of her gender.
Tennis also featured in January’s workshop, ‘Creating sporting legacies: processes and identification’. Here John Harris studied the evolving image of Andy Murray in the UK and Scottish media while Yankho Likaku reflected upon the legacy of the football World Cup for South Africa.
‘Space and Place in Sporting Narratives’ was the topic of our February workshop, which was not recorded. Here the focus was on contemporary Russia: Anni Lappela’s explored the function of football in contemporary Russian prose while Seán Crosson read the film Going Vertical (which celebrates the USSR’s 1972 Olympic victory over the USA in basketball) through a contemporary geo-political frame.
Our final workshop recording in March 2021, nearly a year to the day of the planned original conference, was titled ‘Routine unpredictability: narrating everyday football stories in British novels’. The panellists offered a final reminder of the wealth of material that remains to be explored in relation to the cultural history of sport. Dilwyn Porter explored the relationship between Bryan Johnson’s experimental prose (for which he is mostly remembered) with his football coverage in the national press. Literary experimentation and its relationship to the representation of sport was also the theme of Alan McDougall’s study of David Peace’s novel Red or Dead. It was followed by a challenging global sports history quiz which, if it failed to showcase our extensive knowledge of the subject at the end of the workshop series, at least reflected the enjoyment and team-spirit that developed amongst the delegates and speakers over the long months of the pandemic.
Martin Hurcombe, Professor of French Studies, University of Bristol