At Leicester’s De Montfort University on 30 March the International Centre for Sports History and Culture hosted a joint conference with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) on the theme of ‘Sport and Biography 1993-2013: Challenges, Approaches and New Developments’ . The ODNB’s research editor Mark Curthoys opened procedings with a very full and illuminating account of how and why sport has enjoyed such a high profile within what is probably the most successful of all Britain’s supposed Millenium projects. Leading sports historian and ICSHC stalwart Richard Holt complemented the first speaker in also going back to the origins of the project in 1993, and reflecting upon his role in establishing which of the sports-related individuals recognised by Lesley Stephen’s late Victorian initiative, the multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography, a century later warranted retention in either an amended form or as a wholly fresh entry. Dick Holt reflected upon the informal categories of sportsmen (no women) in the original DNB, observing how the prominence of leading huntsmen reflected the continued centrality of the traditional landed classes to public life.
Conference organiser, the ICSHC’s Jean Williams, drew on the lives of East Midlands women Olympians to illustrate how, notwithstanding impressive athletic achievements, they returned to near anonymity, devoid of formal biographical record: her involvement with the ODNB has enabled a significant number of sportswomen to be rescued from Thompson’s ‘condescension of posterity’. Tony Collins, head of the ICSHC, offered an entertaining but nevertheless insightful commentary upon the all too familiar failings of sporting autobiographies, identifying the ghost writer as a key determinant in the success, credibility, and verisimitude of what often these days proves to be a succession of memoirs – a creative ghost writer can prove remarkably successful in forging ‘the truth’, to the point where the ‘author’ eventually translates fiction into proven personal experience. The third of the ICSHC’s chairs to speak, Dil Porter, used the Edwardian amateur footballer the Rev. Kenneth Hunt as an avenue into reflecting upon the problems of describing the sporting achievements of a subject unrecorded on film. He suggested that creating a persuasive portrait of skill and natural talent was a formidable challenge for the biographer, highlighting David Kynaston’s genuinely evocative description of Bobby Abel’s batting as a rare achievement. I rounded off the day by talking about the research network, and the perceived crisis in biography discussed so fully at the last symposium in Nottiungham [hear the podcasts], before complementing Mark Curthoys remarks by highlighting how too often in the past the sporting preoccupations of figures in public life have been ignored by their biographers; in fact to gain a truly rounded view of the individual one must acknowledge the centrality of sport to his or her’s day-to-day life – my examples ranged from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s obsession with tennis to Clement Attlee’s passion for cricket [paper available on request: firstname.lastname@example.org].
The conference acknowledged two decades of close collaboration between British sports historians and the editorial staff of the ODNB, with all three editors [Colin Matthews, Brian Harrison, and Lawrence Goldman] recognising the need to record – and to keep on recording online – how vital the lives of a myriad of sportsmen and sportswomen have been to British life from medieval times through to the present day. That acknowledgement reflected how the history of sport has grown over the past thirty years from an adjunct of social and cultural history to a widely recognised and respected branch of academic history, not least thanks to the efforts of the ICSH conference contributors and their colleagues (of the latter in particular the doyen of football history Tony Mason, who through illness was unable to deliver his lecture, but who hopefully will soon be fighting fit again).