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Sporting biography

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When it comes to milestones, few events beat the Olympics and Paralympics as symbols of achievement, dedication, prowess and even fortitude. Whether one has actually stood on the victors’ rostrum or not, having been an Olympian symbolises an individual’s character and in his or her biography the event takes on meanings that extend far beyond the realm of sporting achievements. The Games bestow honour by association; they provide, and are seen as testimony of, “added value.” It is therefore unsurprising that among biographical works, many are devoted to individuals who have had some kind of involvement with them.

Some relate the stories of men and women who might be referred to as “pure athletes”: people whose main occupation and ambition was to be a sportsperson and for whom participation in the Olympics was the crowning moment of a career. They include Dame Kelly Holmes, Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps, and Nadia Comaneci. Their main achievement, the one they are still connected to in the public’s memory, remains the Games. Yet, for others the Olympics is but one aspect albeit a very important one, of a life. So the achievement (or achievements) under the Olympic banner is used by the biographer as witness to the complexity, the richness of the texture of the life which is being narrated. It is further proof, if it were needed, of qualities that set the subject of the biography apart from the rest.

Lately, we have witnessed a proliferation of “celebrity (auto)biographies”, suggesting that the pre-requisite of having achieved something truly extra-ordinary for one’s life to be worthy of being narrated may no longer hold true. Nevertheless, most of the biographies that are written and published recount exemplary or somehow extra-ordinary lives; their purpose is often pedagogical and intended to be uplifting and edifying. One such work is Laura Hillebrand’s recently published biography of Louie Zamperini, an American Olympic athlete and war hero. Other biographies do not shy away from portraying somewhat shadier characters. This is the case of José Beyaert: Olympian, resistant, emerald-trader, smuggler and, perhaps, even hired killer, eminently told by Matt Rendell. Both types have illustrious precedents that go as far back as the Middle Ages (the brief, moral tales known as “exempla”) and to Antiquity, such as Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”.

In the modern “exemplary tales”, Olympic and Paralympics involvement is clearly a crucial factor, a defining moment which is both character-forming and character-revealing. The Canadian scholar Jon C. Scott (see below) has compared children’s fairy tales to biographies of sports heroes written for children in North America. He has argued that they both function as moral tales, examples of the rewards for virtuous behaviour in the face of adversity and are rhetorically organised around the “rags to riches” model, like the story of Cinderella.

For historians and social scientists, such works can be important for several reasons: they open the window on different, often distant social realities and they reveal both individual and societal preoccupations at particular temporal, social, and geographical junctures. For such researchers, the British Library holds numerous resources for the study of biography as a genre as well as various biographical accounts of individuals who have had some involvement with the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Annotated bibliography of resources

C Gentilini, C. and Cerri, G. History and Biography in Ancient Thought. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1988
London Reference collections shelfmark: YA.1990.b.9282.

This book deals with “historiography and biography in the light of various theories elaborated by the Greek thinkers on the structure of communication” (p. 1)

Kadar, M. (ed.) Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992
London reference collections shelfmark: YA.1993.b.6254.

An informative collection of essays on the theory and practice of biography writing

McAdams, D. P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self.
New York, N.Y.: Guilford Press, 1997
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1998.a.69

In this study, American psychologist Dan P. McAdams argues that the telling of one’s life, whether to oneself or to a wider audience, is a form of “myth-making”. This is a process used by all, not only the famous, to shape one’s identity. It is, the author argues, an ongoing process that begins in late adolescence and young adulthood “in order to provide [one’s] life with unity of purpose and in order to articulate a meaningful niche in the psychosocial world” (p. 5).

Parke, C.N. Biography: Writing Lives
London: Prentice Hall International, 1996
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1977.a.2755.

This is a compact, well-written survey and exploration of biography as a literary genre. It discusses famous examples of biography and auto-biography, and contains useful suggestions for further reading. Although the book makes no reference to sport biography, it is nonetheless a very useful introduction to the genre.

Chamberlayne, P., Bornat, J. and Wengraf, T. (eds.) The Turn to Biographical Methods in Social Science: Comparative Issues and Examples.
London: Routledge, 2000
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2009.a.8143
DS shelfmark: m04/30114

This volume is part of the Routledge series “Social Research Today”, whose aim is to offer concise and up to date introductions to significant methodological topics in the social sciences. The volume opens with a useful introductory essay on “the biographical turn” in the social sciences, which situates it within the larger intellectual and historical framework. In the editors’ words, the collection aims “to place developments in biographical methods within a history of social theory, and […] to provide working examples of processes of interpretation, laying bare the methodological premises of particular protocols” (p. 2). This collection is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the place of biography in social research.

Kohler Riessman, C. Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences.
London: Sage, 2008
London open access collections shelfmark: SPIS300.72.
DS shelfmark: m08/.15581.

Professor Riessman has been working for decades on narrative research. This volume is an updated and expanded version of a previous, much smaller, fundamental work. It is a “how to” book, aimed at the novice intending to carry out narrative research project but with useful observations for the seasoned researcher too. All biography is narrative and this is only one of the reasons this volume should be of use to both biographers and students of biography. Among other things, it has the advantage ob being clearly written and full of examples.

Merril, B. Using Biographical Methods in Social Research
London : Sage, 2009
London open access collections shelfmark: SPIS300.72. London Reference collections shelfmark:YD.2009.a.4316

This is a valuable aid for all those who wish to conduct social research using biographical methods. The volume is well structured: it offers both theoretical and practical insights, as well as personal experiences by the authors of conducting this type of research. In the process, the connection between biographical methods and social research, and the importance of the former for the latter, become apparent; interestingly, psychological issues are also considered. The overall style is accessible and user-friendly.

Miller, R.L. Biographical Research Methods. (four vols)
London: Sage, 2005
London open access collections shelfmark: SPIS 722 vols. 1-4.
London reference collections shelfmark:YC2009.a.9795.

This is a recent and comprehensive reference work which should be consulted by anyone involved with or interested in biographical studies or practice. The four volumes are divided into four parts that deal with the following themes: time and biographical research; the construction of biographical meaning; contexts, disputes; and concerns in biographical research. Each of them comprises further subsections, which include: “the place of history”, “narrative and biography”, “the significance and role of the family”, “methodological debates”, and “ethics”. A minority of the essays contained in the collection are in languages other than English (French and German). Overall, this is a very useful collection firmly grounded in sociology and narrative research.

Edmonson, J. Jesse Owens: A Biography.
Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 2007
London reference collections shelfmark:YC.2008.a.1091.

This very readable volume is only one of the available biographies of the African-American athlete who became famous during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It is particularly interesting because, being aimed at young, American readers, it can be considered an example of the type of biography discussed by Jon C. Stott (see below) which exemplifies the sports version of the “rags to riches” fairy-tale, used to reinforce the myth of the American dream.

Phillips, D. The Life Stories of Fifty Olympic Gold Medallists
Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 2000
London reference collections shelfmark:YA.2001.a.26093..

This little book contains brief biographies of fifty Olympic medallists. Its aim is somewhat “comparative”: it juxtaposes the lives and achievements of fifty men and women who achieved Olympic gold. The novelty of the approach, as suggested by the title, is that as well as what preceded the gold, the author is interested in what followed it; the lives that these athletes lived after, out of the spotlight. It is an interesting approach because, by telling what normally remains untold, it dispels, to some extent, the myths surrounding Olympic achievements. In a way, this collection is also a reflection on the unintended consequences of fame and the pressures athletes face.

Hillebrand, L. Unbroken: An Extraordinary True Story of Courage and Survival.
London: Fourth Estate, 2011
London reference collections shelfmark:YC.2011.a.4266.

This very recent work tells the story of Italian-American Louie Zamperini: Olympic runner and American war hero. This is a readable, well documented biography that blends the events in Zamperini’s live into a coherent narrative or, to quote McAdams (see above), a “myth”. Indeed, Zamperini’s life is told mythically; his athletic career, early on in the narrative, serves to support, and bear witness of, the man’s exemplary life

Rendell, M. Olympic Gangster: The Legend of José Beyaert – Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw.
Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2009
London reference collections shelfmark:YK.2009.a.36666.

Like Zamperini, Beyaert lived many lives. He too was an Olympian and continued to be involved in cycling after he received a gold medal in 1946. Like Zamperini, Bayaert took part in the war effort, albeit in an unofficial capacity as a member of the resistance. Similarly to Zamperini’s, Bayaert’s biography presents a complex character; in his case too, the Olympics are proof and testimony of an extraordinary life, one that the biographer believes ought to be taken out of oblivion. In this case, however, the narrated life is not devoid of darker sides, making this biography somewhat different from the typical biography of an Olympian.

Edmonson, J. Jesse Owens: A Biography.
Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 2007
London reference collections shelfmark:YC.2008.a.1091.

This very readable volume is only one of the available biographies of the African-American athlete who became famous during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It is particularly interesting because, being aimed at young, American readers, it can be considered an example of the type of biography discussed by Jon C. Stott (see below) which exemplifies the sports version of the “rags to riches” fairy-tale, used to reinforce the myth of the American dream.

Smith, T. Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.
Lending collections shelfmark:m08/.35078.

For Tommie Smith the Olympic podium became a stage on which to enact multiple personas: excellent athlete, proud member of the African-American community, and non-violent soldier in the struggle for civil liberties in the USA. In the collective memory, it was the latter for which Smith is still widely remembered and celebrated. The silent gesture of the title refers to the raising of the clenched fist and the bowing of the head whilst the American anthem was playing, which caused outrage and much debate in America at the time (as well as embarrassment for the Olympic Committee). This story tells of heroism on multiple levels and clearly highlights the magnifying, amplifying power of the Olympics as a mega-event. It is also interesting because, although not the only biography of Tommie Smith, it is the only autobiography; and because it was co-written with a ghost-writer, it highlights problems of authorial stance and of the mediated voice in biographical accounts.

Zeiler, L. Hearts of Gold: Stories of Courage, Dedication and Triumph from Canadian Olympians.
Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004.
London reference collections shelfmark: YD.2005.a.1917.

A collection of Olympic biographies from a specific country: Canada. Sports and Country, the role of the Olympian as flag bearer and non-violent “soldier” for the national community are all plain to see in this collection.

Stott, J.C. “Biographies of sports heroes and the American Dream”, in Children’s Literature in Education (1979)10(4), pp, 174-185.
Lending collections shelfmark: 3172.991000

In this article the author examines the relationships between children’s fairy tales, the North American dream, the role of sports in North American Society and the “uses and misuses” of biographies of sports people written for young children. The author’s thesis is that such biographies are structured around the “American Dream”, itself a version of the “rags to riches” fairy tale. The author questions the pedagogical value of such biographies, especially in view of what gets left out of them.

Bale, J., Christensen, M.K., and Pfister, G. (eds.) Writing Lives in Sport: Biographies, Life-Histories and Methods.
Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2004
London reference collections shelfmark: AC.1022 [vol.78.3].

This volume is a collection of “stories about sports-persons” (p. 9). It is particularly recent because it includes sports stars, as well as sports people who are not as famous and individuals involved in PE. In the collection, a distinction is made between the “biography” – normally dealing with a well known person – and the “life-history”, which deals with the unknown, or relatively unknown physical educator or sports scientist, where anonymity is often a required element. Although this collection of essays does not to be a methodological guide, methodology is raised repeatedly by the contributors. It should therefore be of particular interest to those involved in the academic world of sports studies, although the volume is accessible to the non specialist. Topics such as the distinction between life and career in sports biography are addressed, as are issues such embodiment and authorial stance.

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