Sport for a better world: Theory, method, action

20 August 2019

By developing innovative sociological approaches to studying sport, Professor Holly Thorpe gets to the complexities, nuances, and richness of human lives in sport and physical culture.

In her upcoming lecture in the University of Waikato Hamilton Public Lecture Series, happening on 3 September, she will discuss her unique approach to studying the relationships between sport and society, and offer three case studies that illustrate how she aims to create a better world through understandings of sport.

Professor Thorpe has spent over 15 years studying the rapid rise and development of informal, action sports (i.e., surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding) around the world, which has led to a working relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Together with her colleague Associate Professor Belinda Wheaton, she was awarded an IOC grant to understand trends in youth participation and consumption of the Olympic Games. This project aligned with the IOC’s agenda of including the more youth-focused action sports of surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing into the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. These additions were highly controversial, and their research into these complex processes and cultural politics ultimately led to their work informing international sport policy. From there, Professor Thorpe has had an ongoing working relationship with the IOC, informing them about trends in youth sport, broader social trends about the urbanization of populations and the effect on sport, the rapidly changing technologies, and how the IOC might respond to those trends.

The second case study is based on Professor Thorpe’s Marsden project on sport in the red zone. She undertook four case studies including Christchurch after the earthquakes and New Orleans post hurricane Katrina, and the conflict zones of Gaza and Afghanistan, to examine the use of informal sports in helping people recover and rebuild their communities. In this research Thorpe has developed methodologies to create space for the voices for young people who often aren’t heard in contexts of development. From this work, she set up a non-profit organization called Action Sports for Development and Peace, bringing together over 200 groups and organisations, using informal sports to improve their communities. The website aims to create space for the sharing of experiences and insights across diverse, and often highly isolated, communities.

Thirdly, Professor Thorpe will outline her work on girls and women in sport and physical culture. As well as signposting important changes in society that are affecting women and girls’ opportunities in sport, she will discuss her recent research on the health condition called Low Energy Availability. This is a complex health condition that is increasingly affecting female athletes and exercising women. Thorpe will highlight how this condition requires a multi-disciplinary approach, and her efforts at bringing together disciplines such as sociology, physiology, endocrinology and psychology, and different ways of knowing from the perspectives of athletes from diverse sporting and cultural backgrounds. Thorpe is a founding member of WHISPA, the High Performance Sport New Zealand interdisciplinary working group that is leading practice and policy to better understand the complexities of health conditions facing our female athletes, and how best to educate, diagnose and support athletes through to recovery.

Through these three case studies, Professor Thorpe will illustrate her unique approach to understanding the complex relationships between sport and society, and her ongoing efforts to create change through research collaborations, partnerships and relationships with the sports industry, as well as communities and individuals around the world who are equally passionate about sport.

After gaining her Bachelor of Physical Education with First Class Honours from the University of Otago in 2003, she moved to the University of Waikato where she became a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education before gaining her PhD in the Sociology of Sport in 2008.

Now an award-winning sociologist, she has been a recipient of both Fulbright and Leverhulme Fellowships spending time at leading universities in the UK and US. In 2018, Holly was awarded the Royal Society Early Career Research Excellence Award for Social Sciences, and made a Fellow of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. She is increasingly invited as a keynote speaker both in New Zealand and around the world.

Professor Thorpe’s lecture, Sport for a better world: Theory, method, action, takes place on Tuesday 3 September at 5:45pm in the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Waikato.

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