Modern sport isn’t simply a contest between teams or individuals. It has also increasingly become a space that corporate power seeks to hegemonise and exploit to its own end. This summer the London Olympics are preceded by Euro 2012. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the European governing body for football, UEFA, follow a near identical agenda (as does football’s global governing body, FIFA). It is a strategy that has commodified sport, based its organisation on a corporate model and monetises the love of doing and watching sport.
Take two examples from Euro 2012.
Firstly the so-called ‘Fan Zones’, introduced at World Cup 2006 and a feature of World Cups and European Championships ever since. These huge privatised spaces are all about control and commerce . Whatever country you are in the space is more or less the same. Only fast food, soft drinks and beer provided by the authorised sponsors are allowed. The chances of sampling some local Ukrainian fare next to nothing. Every available space is occupied by the sponsors’ branding. The big screens are the biggest advertising platform of all. Of course this is what some fans seek, a secure and safe environment to watch the matches in large numbers of those following the same country. And those who shun these spaces don’t have any kind of explicitly political agenda, rather they prefer to have a look around, do the tourist trail, or even better get beyond it, try the local eating places, the pubs and cafes, take a game in there, with best of all a commentary we can barely, if at all, understand. Unpoliticised it may be but this do-it-yourself fandom is the antithesis of the corporatisation of sport.
Secondly the PA system in the stadium. In a classic, if subtle manoeuvre of control of a semi-public space this is pumped up to such a volume you can’t hear yourself think let alone shout, cheer or jeer. Complete with dancing girls in the two competing teams’ colours and an announcer allocated to each nation’s end. For more than an hour ahead of kick off we are drowned out by these over-amplified antics, imploring us to cheer, something no group of England fans who have made it out here needs to be told to do. Though when we do, all you can hear is the announcer plus backing track. Despite all this, the passionate defiance of the fans cannot be extinguished and so far the PA isn’t used once the game begins, though once a goal is scored the volume control goes into overdrive to broadcast the least necessary PA announcement imaginable ‘GOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAL!’.
Sport matters because it is a space where these kinds of contests are played out, with an ever-changing pattern of shifts and balances. The disorganised resistance that the corporatisation of Euro 2012 provokes is emblematic of a broader discontent at the direction the London Olympics is heading in. Not much of this takes any kind of formal political shape, the bipartisan parliamentary consensus that London 2012 is unquestionably a good thing in part accounts for this, a similar consensus existed between Boris and Ken in the recent London Mayoral election too. And beyond Parliament there are only a few fragments of an outside left that shows much interest in the politics of sport.
Apart from the corporate model pursued by Euro 2012 and reproduced on a larger global stage by an Olympic Games or World Cup other models do exist within the mainstream of sport. Chris Brasher’s original model of a mass participation London marathon has of course also been commercialised over the years. The same goes for the Great North Run too, sponsored by BUPA for goodness sake. But the imaginative mix of elite competition with recreational running plus the fact these races are free to watch significantly dilutes the overpowering presence of the sponsors retaining their character as people’s events. The running boom of the early to mid 1980s is long past yet almost every decent sized town can still boast at least an annual fun run or 10k, larger towns and cities half marathons with entries numbering in their thousands. These are races that exist largely outside the control of commercial interests, a civic rather than a business culture dominates their form and organisation.
In sport generally, the culture of events such as the London marathon and the Great North Run remains commonplace. Athletes, even at the elite level in most sports, have next to no interest in financial reward for their physical effort. Below the management level of governing bodies sport, competitive and recreational, is run by those who love what they do, not seek to be paid much, if anything at all. It is mostly voluntary labour which coach, officiate, keep the infrastructure of clubs and associations functioning. And as for fans, we are many different constituencies but at the core of fandom is the search for authenticity, that is why we pay good money for the live experience, put up with the expense and sometimes the hardships that getting there necessitates.
Testament to how London 2012 has purposefully chosen to ignore this counter-model is the Olympic Marathon. Every year the East End successfully hosts a decent chunk of the London Marathon route, but in the single minded desire to showcase the Central London landmarks which are already well-known to the world the route was moved to the centre. For those who would want to watch one of the very few free Olympic events this was also very bad news.Instead of a 26.2 mile A to B route to support the race along the whole length from the pavements, a four mile-circuit lapped six times will slash the space for the potential crowd who would have watched in enormous numbers by more than 75%. What might have been one of the most well-supported events of the Games has been reduced by a huge margin and for no reason other than to ensure that corporate control is maintained and the global image of a London Games as represented by Big Ben, the Mall, and Buckingham Palace is maintained.
If the London Marathon model had been developed other events could have been added to the Olympic programme of a similar, free-to-watch type. Why not a Tour of Britain Olympic cycling multi-stage event to support from the nation’s road and hillsides,, a Round Britain Yachting race to follow from the coast or quayside, a canoe marathon cheered on from the riverbank?
All would be unticketed, free to watch, public spaces and crowds impossible to control to the sponsors’ ends. If such crowds can be accommodated for the Diamond Jubilee why not for the Olympics? If its good enough for the Queen, why not for the rest of us.
None of this necessarily undermines the budgetary ambitions of the Olympics either. These are events which would require virtually no expensive new build facilities. The crowds, if the Olympic Torch Relay are any indicator, would have been enormous. Live crowds are surely more likely to be disposed to purchase an Olympics programme or a T-shirt than those watching it all on TV. And as for the inspirational qualities of the Olympics to take up sport, there is next to no evidence watching sport from the comfort of your own sofa does any such thing. The emotional attachment of being there, being part of it at least stands some kind of chance to ignite this much fabled legacy of participation.
Of course any such reimagining is too late for London 2012. But as the self-congratulatory hoopla takes over for what will undoubtedly be a euphoric two weeks and a bit, a critique from the Left could be hugely popular. Transforming this once-in-a-lifetime event into something better, costs less to put on and is mostly free to watch. Who’s going to vote against that?
Mark Perryman is the author of Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How they Can Be available from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/