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Monday, 5 December 2011

Sporting Mythology - a request for help

One of the more interesting projects with which I was involved in recent years was a BBC radio programme called Black Men Can't Swim.  The general premise was an investigation by the actor and comedian Matt Blaize into why so few black people swim in the UK.  More specifically, the programme tracked Matt's attempts to learn to swim himself.

Matt, like many black people, had grown up with a strong conviction that learning to swim was more difficult for him than for his white peers.  And this conviction was given support by an obvious lack of black swimming role models, and by the fact that he had failed to learn himself.

My role, along with sport scientist Matt Bridge from the University of Birmingham, was to talk about the evidence.  We both concluded that whatever physical differences might exist between blacks and whites, they were far less than commonly supposed.  And, most importantly, none of these differences warranted the conclusion that black men can't swim.

There are, of course, a cluster of 'X can't Y' myths about sports performance.  'White men can't jump' is such a cliche in basketball that they even made a film based on the subject.  Women can't throw?  Asians can't play football?

Each of these ideas serve two purposes: they justify the exclusion of some groups from some sports; and they act as a barrier to potential players (and who knows, champions?) from entering and enjoying the sport.  And they are all basically questionable.

I'll return to these ideas in a later post.  For now, I'll just point out that they are just one type of myth that is associated with sport.  Others include:

historical myths - such as the idea that the game of Rugby started at Rugby School when a pupil picked up the ball and ran.

training myths - 'no pain, no gain'.

political and economic myths - the claim that hosting the Olympic Games makes financial sense.

And then there are myths about talent development, fitness, the mental side of sport, champions, coaches, and the benefits of sport.

Sport seems to attract myths with remarkable ease.  Some of these myths are outright nonsense.  Some are merely dubious.  And some, if I am honest, are really just matters of opinion.

This is where the 'request for help' of the title comes in.  I am planning a writing project based on the myths of sport, and I am very keen to receive ideas.  As I mention above, the myths can be to do with the history of sport, its performance or its outcomes.  If you know a commonly held but suspicious belief about sport (or a specific sport), I'd love to hear from you.

Please write your ideas in the comment box of this blog, or write to me at

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