It’s the Taking Part

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With participation one of the main legacy claims of the London 2012 Games. Mark Perryman examines the credentials of the running boom as a better model to achieve this.

The Olympic Motto  “ The most important thing is not the winning but the taking part” represents many of the finest ideals not only of Olympism but any model of sport as democratic, participative and accessible. It is the kind of sentiment that in lots of ways describes the dynamic of the late 1970s running boom.

In the USA jogging took off following US athlete Frank Shorter’s victory in the Munich 1972 Olympic Marathon. Shorter’s success, together with Jim Fixx’s best-selling The Complete Book of Running, helped popularise what in effect was a social movement of sport. Fun runs, charity runs, road races, all became part of a glorious explosion of physical activity just for the sake of keeping fit and having a good time. Participation was the aim, not winning. Fixx’s book further boosted jogging’s dynamic growth by setting out the case for regular exercise as the most effective antidote to the threat of heart trouble. The social movement was transforming itself into a fitness revolution.

As with so many cultural phenomenon, what first began in the USA took off in the UK a few years later. Radio One DJ Jimmy Saville fronted a Sunday night BBC TV programme that aimed to persuade viewers of the virtues of long distance running. Bedecked in gold jewellery and puffing an occasional cigar, the middle-aged Saville was the opposite of what many would imagine a road runner to look like. But he regularly ran marathons to raise money for good causes, linking the very obvious joy he took from running to the benefits it could bring to others. Saville virtually invented the idea of the charity marathon runner and countless thousands followed his lead.

The enduring appeal of the Marathon, as well as the half-marathon or fun-runs that take place in towns and cities across the country, is that anyone can take part, provided they have a minimum of stamina and commitment. Thus the Olympic Creed, first read out during the 1908 Games and a vital part of the ceremonial traditions at Games ever since, acquires some popular meaning. When it comes to a marathon, everyone wins, merely by starting and finishing.

Now well into its second week the Olympic Torch Relay on the surface would seem to represent all of these kind of good sentiments as sport for all. Criss-crossing the country, coming to a city, town, or village near you. Isn’t this what ‘taking part’ should be all about? Instead it reveals the flimsy populism combined with chronic lack of ambition that London 2012 has come to symbolise. The Relay has of course proved popular, almost any event with this scale of publicity and coverage would surely attract inquisitive crowds. And the passion is entirely genuine. But how is that energy being connected to participation. Beyond waving a flag, cheering from the kerbside, providing a backdrop to the sponsors’ branding and celebrity torchbearers what opportunities are there to take part?

A Torch Relay for all would have started off with popular participation as its organising principle. Each 10k leg the roads and pathways closed for the torchbearer to be followed by fun runners and active walkers London Marathon or Great North Run style. This could have been the biggest venture ever in participative sport, yet none of this gets a look-in because it might deflect, literally overrun even, the sponsors message instead.  Villages towns, localities within a city  each given their stretch of the route to run or walk down. All this would have amounted to involving far more than the really quite limited numbers in the London 2012 version of the Torch Relay and directly connected to initiatives that provide the vital access to participation in sport the Olympics at its best can provide.

The irony of the Olympics is that not only does its structure forcefully limit the possibility to participate but also its model of what constitutes meaningful sport is as likely to discourage participation as encourage it. The challenge should be to propose a Games that breaks with these factors that so limit its capacity while increasing costs to no discernible impact on the supposed benefits.

Mark Perryman is the author of the forthcoming book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Available at a 15% pre-publication discount from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

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