A prestigious venue. Eminent guest speakers. A packed three-day schedule. The BSSH conference 2017 had all the right ingredients for my first foray into the world of sports history. Barely at the beginning of my own research, it was inspiring to meet so many other presenters who are at different points in their career, and the relaxed atmosphere generated by the organisers ensured that there was a steady flow of people to meet and with whom to converse.
The conference began with the Post-Graduate Symposium, featuring three papers, followed by an advisory talk on getting published by Professor Dave Day, Editor of the Sport in History journal, and summarised with a call to get Twitter (which was my first action from the conference). Thursday was well attended, beyond the expectations of some of the presenters, and the advice was solid, simple and reassuring: if you follow the guidelines, and you have something interesting enough to say in the first place, you will get it published.
Starting the conference with an impact focus demonstrated how sports history is a research area aiming to disseminate these relevant social and cultural histories in specialist publications and beyond. This is one of the aspects that drew me to sports history: sport is a social phenomenon that has touched many people throughout their lives, and the desire of these researchers to present their work to as wide an audience as possible is admirable.
The most difficult aspect of Friday and Saturday was selecting which panels to attend. With two or three panels running simultaneously, and the chosen formatting being all three presentations followed by questions, it was not easy to pick and choose papers to hear, and I’m afraid I missed some presentations that sounded fascinating from talk over tea and coffee during the breaks. With Thursday’s lessons ringing in all our ears, hopefully many of these presentations will be edited for publication soon. It did, however, mean that I learnt about many topics that I might not have chosen, including; the methodological choice between group biography and prosopography; the impact of World War II on a variety of sports in Britain, Latvia and Post-war West Germany; and a revisionist approach to horse-racing.
The keynote speech by Professor Tony Collins was, I admit, the main reason for my attendance at the conference, and it certainly stood out. Professor Collins’ work reminded us of the importance of seeing the past as a foreign country, where motives and reasoning were not graced with the hindsight of the historian, and our judgement is too often based on this knowledge unavailable to the actors in our histories. He brought in the wider socio-economic factors in the development of sport, class factors of course prominent, without a hint of a discussion on gender, that narrative as excluded here as traditionally from the history of football, although the efforts of others, including students Tony Collins is supervising, will hopefully shed more light on this in the future.
It was fascinating that both keynote speakers singled out the interplay of sport and literature, with Professor Mike Cronin tying in the popularity of Harry Potter with the boarding school idyllic childhood myth, propagated and sold worldwide by institutions such as Rugby School. Professor Cronin adopted an auto-biographical approach to the town of his youth and the sport which bears its name (Rugby), just one of the many different presentation styles used throughout the weekend. These differences are symbolic of the appeal of the BSSH conference 2017, which had an open-door policy which I hope will lead to an increased diversification in the years ahead.
Lydia Furse, PhD in the History of Women in Rugby Union, beginning October 2017, DMU.