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The Olympic Games as a Research Subject

Olympic Tennis, Centre Court, #rio2016 Credit: Andy Miah

Olympic Tennis, Centre Court, #rio2016 Credit: Andy Miah

Our latest Guest Blog is by Professor Andy Miah from University of Salford, Manchester.

Fencing - Credit - Andy Miah

Fencing – Credit – Andy Miah

Depending on when you start counting, Olympic research has been around now for either a century, or a good 40 years. Emerging out of a range of disciplines, Olympic researchers can now be found in schools of architecture, sport science, leisure and tourism, cultural studies, sociology, politics, journalism, economics, and many more.

There is even work in philosophy, which draws on the idea of Olympism, a foundational concept in the modern revival of the Olympic Games. Indeed, philosophers have dedicated considerable time to analyzing the ideas that operate around the Olympic Games, such as amateurism, fair play, and the nature of game playing.

The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, conceived three pillars of the Olympic movement, notably sport, culture and education.

Athletes' welcome at Rio 2016 Olympic Village - Credit - Andy Miah

Athletes’ welcome at Rio 2016 Olympic Village – Credit – Andy Miah

The International Olympic Committee is organized through a number of commissions, of which education is one, and it runs a research funding programme for senior and PhD students, investing into all kinds of research, from analyses of the Olympic programme, to investigations into how to deal with the doping dilemma.

This may be seen as a golden age of Olympic research, as the recently appointed IOC President Thomas Bach seems more inclined to involve academics within its ecosystem, but even outside of this, Olympic research is thriving. It finds itself also in business schools, where event and festival management are big topics. The International Society of Olympic Historians even held a press conference in the Main Press Centre of the Games, and various academic events have happened during the Olympics. One of the more regular events is the International Sport Business Symposium, which took place on 16th August.

Of course, the Olympic Games is also a big news issue, generating headlines around corruption, scandal, exclusion, and general controversy. The Rio 2016 Olympic Games is a case in point, with allegations of corruption to IOC officials, bad behavior by athletes generating debate about western media bias, and wider discussions about the social impact of the Games on a nation that is already in considerable economic and political turmoil.

Rio De Janiero, the Olympic Rings alongside a favela. Credit - Andy Miah

Rio De Janiero, the Olympic Rings alongside a favela. Credit – Andy Miah

Even the Subway Trains have quirky Olympic Motifs. Credit: Andy Miah

Even the Subway Trains have quirky Olympic Motifs. Credit: Andy Miah

My own Games time experience is always a mixture of objectives. Rio is my 10th Olympic Games, which started in Sydney, and has extended through all Winter, Summer, and now Youth Olympic Games.  While at the Games, I continue my own empirical work into media change and innovation, while also interviewing for the media on various topics, and writing on areas of interest, related to my research.


Together, these experiences allow me to understand a wide range of what the Games entails, a perspective that only an accredited academic can really achieve. Nobody in the organizing committee has the space in their agenda to really develop such an overarching observer perspective, and this is why it is so important for arts and humanities academics to be at the Games. If you are outside of the Olympic bubble, it is hard to move around and get access to all the components of the Olympic Games, but there is also something lost by spending time just inside this circle. Researching the Olympic Games provides access to a remarkable range of complex social, political, cultural, and economic issues, which is what has always fascinated me about it.

Rio 2016 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony - Credit - Andy Miah

Rio 2016 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony – Credit – Andy Miah

In the public imagination, the games are centrally about the pinnacle of human physical achievement. Personal endeavour played out through world record breaking performances of the athletes whose stories are among the most compelling biographies that history has to offer. Yet, being an Olympic researcher also means falling in between the cracks of research assessment and evaluation, which is why it’s also wise to combine it with a broader interest in how the Games are situated in society. Indeed, this facet is what makes Olympic research so crucial.


Nicola Adams wins Gold in Boxing #Rio2016 - Credit Andy Miah -

Nicola Adams wins Gold in Boxing #Rio2016 – Credit Andy Miah –

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Design and the Rio 2016 Olympics

Rio Landscape Credits: © Alex Ferro/Rio 2016

Rio Landscape
Credits: © Alex Ferro/Rio 2016

As we all prepare to be enthralled by the latest events at the Paralympic games, our latest Guest Blog by Frederico Duarte from Birkbeck College, London, talks about the challenges faced in “Design of the City & the Rio 2016 Olympics”. This Blog is part of a on-going series, where researchers and academics have kindly agreed to submit posts that relate their analysis to everything Olympics.

Frederico is a Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) PhD student on a Grant led by Principal Investigator Dr Luciana Martins on the AHRC Funded project on ‘Our poor, beautiful and culturally rich country’ the contemporary challenge of Brazilian design’. Here he uses his studentship to best effect, and ultimately demonstrates implications for the future development of design theory and practice in Brazil.

“When in 2009 Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games the news was met with great cheer. Seven years on, the optimistic landscape has changed. Brazil’s economy is in recession, its politics in turmoil. Olympic ideals aside, Brazilians have protested against lavish public spending on big events while investment in health, education and essential infrastructure is cut short.

However, the design of the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games is something Brazilians should be proud of. On my PhD research, which I am conducting under an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between the Victoria & Albert Museum and Birkbeck, University of London, I am investigating the challenge of Brazilian design. This means looking beyond grand projects to focus on often small design achievements that Brazilians and the rest of the world should pay attention to.

Rio 2016 Symbol                                   Rio Symbol – Credits: © Ismar Ingber/Rio2016


Rio 2016’s visual identity, which complements one of the world’s most recognised icons, the Olympic Rings, is a case in point. Developed by the local consultancy Tátil Design, known for its pioneering approach to sustainability, Rio 2016 symbol’s organic shapes aptly embrace the city’s unique natural landscape with a vivid use of colour. Its three-dimensional version is given to each medal-winning athlete instead of a flower bouquet.

      The Rio 2016 brand launch video was directed by Andrucha Waddington, one of the three authors of the August 5th Opening Ceremony © Rio 2016

The two Rio 2016 mascots were designed by Birdo (Luciana Eguti and Paulo Muppet) to playfully represent the flora and fauna of the country with the world’s richest biodiversity, highlighting Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic commitment to sustainability.

Caption: Introducing Vinicius and Tom, the Rio 2016 Mascots © Rio 2016

The renowned São Paulo-based industrial design office Chelles & Hayashi created the ingenious Olympic Torch which when lit opens up to reveal Brazil’s national colours – blue, yellow and green.

Twelve thousand Olympic torches  were produced and relayed throughout Brazil.

The Olympic Torch © Rio 2016

The Olympic Torch © Rio 2016

Over 5000 Rio 2016 medals were designed by Nelson Carneiro and produced at the Brazilian mint. Their design is innovative on a formal, sustainable and accessible level: all medals are thicker in the centre and thinner on the edges; the gold medals are 100% mercury-free and the silver and bronze medals are made with 30% recycled metal. The Paralympic medals contain metal spheres that ring differently according to their rank, allowing visually-impaired athletes to know they were given the right medal according to their place on the Olympic podium.

Making of the Olympic and Paralympic Medals © Rio 2016


The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony was conceived and coordinated by film directors Fernando Meirelles, Andrucha Waddington and Daniela Thomas, who is also a renowned set designer. The show, which costed a tenth of the London 2012 ceremony, emphasised the Olympic spirit of diversity and tolerance and Brazil’s inventiveness in the face of scarcity. Despite a few eyebrows raised over the portrayal of national stereotypes, the ceremony was also a true showcase of Brazilian modern design: from Santos Dumont’s 14-bis airplane to the landscaping of Roberto Burle Marx, the tile panels of Athos Bulcão to the curves of Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture – drawn on stage by supermodel Gisele Bündchen. And that is certainly a cause for celebration.

The closing ceremony on August 21st included a special homage to Carmen Miranda and Roberto Burle-Marx yet it was the poetic tribute to the millions of craftsmen and craftswomen, the potters and lacemakers of Brazil, that will stay as one of the most endearing memories of the Olympic celebration.

Bobbin lacemaker in a tribute to craft during the Rio 2016 Olympics closing ceremony © Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

Bobbin lacemaker in a tribute to craft during the Rio 2016 Olympics closing ceremony © Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

I’m now halfway through my three-month research trip in Brazil, where I am conducting interviews with design professionals, students and academics to better understand the complexity and specificity of Brazilian contemporary design. If you know of someone I should talk to, do get in touch.