Reminiscences of a retired runner

Erkki Vettenniemi
University of Jyväskylä

John Bale A Life in Sport and Other Things: A Memoir 190 sidor, hft., ill. Crewe: MMU Centre for Research into Coaching 2013 ISBN 978-1-905476-80-0
John Bale
A Life in Sport and Other Things: A Memoir
190 sidor, hft., ill.
Crewe: MMU Centre for Research into Coaching 2013
ISBN 978-1-905476-80-0

In keeping with literary etiquette, I should of course refer to the author of the book under review as John Bale or (emeritus) professor Bale. For the sake of honesty, however, I insist on calling him John. We are not more than acquaintances, though; in spite of having maintained an irregular correspondence for several years, we have met only once, in a coaching conference held almost literally in John’s backyard in Crewe, England. His oeuvre, by contrast, has been a steadfast companion of mine since the 1990s – a textual stimulant without which I would hardly have started dabbling in sports studies.

Titled A Life in Sport and Other Things, John’s memoir could easily have turned into a full-fledged autobiography. We learn a lot about John’s parents and other family members, but his academic life and the evolution of his thought always take precedence over domestic matters. In his own words, he has moved ‘away from the quantitative to the qualitative, away from the descriptive to the interpretational’. That the author of The Location of Manufacturing Industry (John’s first book) has tackled Rwandese corporeality (Imagined Olympians) and co-edited an anthology on music and sport (Sporting Sounds) gives an idea of an exemplary scope of interest.

Yet the riddle of representation remains unsolved. ‘Who could accurately represent a complete human life?’ Symptomatically, before embarking on this autobiographical journey John illustrated the pitfalls of biographical writing by looking at the lives of a prominent sports scientist (Bale 2004a) and a renowned athlete-cum-scientist (Bale 2004b). Accordingly, John’s account of his own activities is as selective or incomplete as any autobiographical endeavor; he is just honest enough to acknowledge the ‘deficiencies’ at the outset.

The title seems ambiguous if not misleading. Somewhere along the way, John’s juvenile infatuation with sport gave way to a critical stance towards racing and record keeping. A self-admitted ‘running fascist’ in his youth, John developed an acute distaste for achievement-oriented sport. ‘Indeed, I might go so far as to say that … it should be abolished’, John muses towards the end of his reminiscences. Whether he is a ‘romantic conservative’ (as he describes Henning Eichberg) is for somebody else to decide. Surely he is far removed from the leftist critics of sport exemplified by Jean-Marie Brohm, the militant French sociologist whose notion of sport as a jailhouse of ‘measured time’ enjoyed popularity in the 1970s.

For Scandinavian readers, John’s notes on Denmark and, to a lesser extent, Finland and Sweden are of particular interest. After having acknowledged a number of Nordic colleagues and their impact on him, John pauses to reflect on his friendship with the late Nils Kayser Nielsen. The pages dedicated to the Danish historian who died shortly before the memoir came out serve as an evocative eulogy. Incidentally, the last essay co-authored by the two of them is an ambitious study of nineteenth-century Scandinavian history which would deserve to be tested and perhaps developed even further (Bale, Nielsen 2012).

Since I refused to compose a traditional, respectable review of ‘professor Bale’s’ memoir, I will wrap up my impressions by anticipating a strictly academic assessment of his contribution to sports studies.

For this Finnish reader, John’s Danish sojourn in the early twenty-first century is a slightly painful reminder of a lost opportunity. If only the Jyväskylä University had dared to engage him as a visiting professor for more than a year in the 1990s! Today, the sports section of the Aarhus University’s Department of Public Health is an internationally recognized center of excellence, while their Finnish colleagues, to put it kindly, still strive for a similar status. (Obviously I’m not suggesting that John single-handedly elevated Aarhus to an academic equivalent of the Champions League – let the Danes distribute the honor by themselves.) A set of essays titled Strangers in Sport and co-edited by John is just about the only concrete proof of his stay in Finland.

In Stockholm, sensitive observers might still feel John’s presence in or around the imposing Olympic Stadium. Vacationing in Sweden in the early 1960s, John managed to enter a track meet held in the same arena in which the ‘Flying Finn’ Hannes Kolehmainen and ‘Gunder the Wonder’ Hägg had made athletics history. ‘Now I was going to run in their footsteps.’ Needless to say, John’s description of the 800-meter race is but a poor reflection of an embodied experience on a cinder track which no longer exists. It was, by own admission, a treat in which ‘the place takes over from the performance’.

Soon thereafter John renounced ‘serious running’ altogether (he had run the half mile in less than two minutes). Three decades later, in his fifties, he emerged as a founding father of humanistic sports studies with landmark books such as Kenyan Running and Landscapes of Sport. No reader of his oeuvre can avoid doing a double-take when confronted by a jogger or ignore the cultural underpinnings of the ‘sportscape’ that has surrounded us in the course of a few generations. That said, John considers the Rwandese monograph mentioned above as his most original piece of scholarship, and few knowledgeable people, I guess, would disagree with that statement.

Since I refused to compose a traditional, respectable review of ‘professor Bale’s’ memoir, I will wrap up my impressions by anticipating a strictly academic assessment of his contribution to sports studies. Judging by the advanced state of historiography in this relatively new field of study (Delheye 2014), I remain confident that a book-length appreciation is already being prepared by a competent colleague. I also trust that its author will rectify a rare negligence I encountered in John’s reminiscences. Discussing the genesis and reception of Running Cultures, his 2004 tour de force which defies facile classification, John refers to a ‘positive’ review in an unnamed journal by an unnamed author – the only review he ever located.

The sheer idea that an instant classic suffered from an almost total lack of serious attention boggles the mind. What does it tell about the academic community (apart from the trivial fact that writing reviews is a notoriously thankless job)? That my text, published in Sport History Review, appears to have been the only one of its kind is a dizzying thought, to say the least, and I wouldn’t complain if it proved to be the peak of my so-called scholarly career.


  • Bale, John 2004a. ‘The Mysterious Professor Jokl’. In Bale, J. et al. (eds), Writing Lives in Sport: Biographies, Life-Histories and Methods. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.
  • Bale, John 2004b. Roger Bannister and the Four-Minute Mile: Sports Myth and Sports History. London: Routledge.
  • Bale, John, Nielsen, Niels Kayser 2012. ‘Associations and Democracy: Sport and Popular Mobilization in Nordic Societies c. 1850–1900’. Scandinavian Journal of History 37:1.
  • Delheye, Pascal (ed.) 2014. Making Sport History: Disciplines, Identities and the Historiography of Sport. London: Routledge.

Copyright © Erkki Vettenniemi 2014

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