Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Day at the Olympics, Pluses and Minuses


Author of a new book on the Olympics, MARK PERRYMAN, spends a day at London 2012

Over the past few days I’ve lost count of the number of politicians decrying critics of the Olympics. Labour’s newly appointed ‘Olympic Legacy Adviser’ Tony Blair has returned to one of his favourite themes, declaring war on cynicism. Boris Johnson joins the chorus of boasts that the Games proves London to be the world’s greatest city. And in the press Jonathan Freedland has been amongst those demanding that enthusiasm for the Games must trump any tendency towards critique.

What none of these, and plenty of others, appear capable of recognising is that it is perfectly possible to be both a fan of the Olympics and a critic. When I passed through the Olympic Park turnstiles  I was both looking forward to the event we had tickets to see but also entirely aware of the limitations of the Games model as insisted upon by the IOC and dutifully followed by Seb Coe and LOCOG.

After our day out here are my Olympic Park pluses.

Firstly, the Olympic Park itself is a magnificent jumble of world-class sporting facilities with plenty of open space in-between. Quite what it will look like a few years after the Olympics are over who knows but right now it is something Britain has never seen before and to be enjoyed.

Secondly,  the sport we went to watch, the Women’s Water Polo, had attracted a near-capacity crowd, and I would guess like me most had never paid to watch this sport before, let alone knew the rules. Yet we were transfixed, fast, immensely skilful, occasionally brutal. The crowd were enthusiastic, non-partisan, and clearly enjoying themselves as part of the Games.

Thirdly, inside the stadiums there are no adverts, no corporate branding at all, just the Olympian five rings and London 2012. The commercialisation stops once the sport begins, so why on earth do the IOC permit the 5 Rings to become a logo for sponsors rather than a symbol of sport in every other available space?

But there were minuses too.

First, the now notorious empty seats. The Water Polo arena was almost full, 90% I would reckon, yet for the past week the London 2012 website had the sold out sign up. A few hundred empty seats, mainly in the National Olympic Committee, VIPS and Sponsors areas plus some in the public sale areas. Clearly this should have been anticipated, and an easy-to-operate returns arrangement made. But the problem is systemic. The magnificence of the Olympic Park is prioritised over decentralisation, using much larger venues, the Water Polo arena could have easily accommodated twice the number of seats, at much reduced prices. The VIP tickets aren’t a side issue but the numbers who could have attended a home games if the vision was maximum participation is what should be key.

Second, the disconnect with East London. Fans arrive by underground and Javelin train. Straight into the Olympic Park, spend the day there, out via the Westfield Shopping centre and back on the train home. Overseas visitors are doing likewise, straight back to their hotels, very few of which are in East London. At the epicentre of three of Britain’s most multicultural boroughs, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney the Olympic Park is full of those travelling in from the Home Counties, precious few locals are there.  The Olympic Park is an expensive bubble, almost entirely divorced from the locality.

Third, the much mentioned issue of security. The process of getting in is pretty basic, not much more than what anybody would be used to at any modern sporting event of any size. So quite why thousands of trained soldiers still in their Afghanistan issue camouflage are doing here isn’t immediately obvious. Those I saw yesterday were from our elite fighting forces, the Paras and Commandos, is checking bags really what they’re best equipped to be doing?  Was it really so difficult to find those who could have done these jobs? It is a strange image for these Games to project thousands of uniformed soldiers and heavily armed policemen filling the public areas, a scene that for many is anything but reassuring.

I went away from the Olympic Park felling privileged to have been there, lucky to have applied in time to get a ticket. But at the same time regretful that a Games that so many more could have been part of wasn’t what London 2012 ever became. Its a balance neither uncritical enthusiasm nor outright opposition accomodates but after a day in the Olympic Park I was more convinced than ever before that the Olympics are both a good thing, but could be so much better too.

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Just £8, Now available direct from

You don’t need to be racist to believe in a Chinese drugs conspiracy; but it helps



A hundred years ago, a staple character in British and US fiction was the Chinese drugs trader who preyed on innocent young women, bending them to his control by limiting their access to narcotics. It was a remarkably useful myth as it  retrospectively justified the role of the West in the nineteenth century Opium Wars, when of course we fought the Chinese to compel them to accept a private British drugs trade that they were fighting to suppress.

Its chief literary product was Fu Manchu, holder of four doctorates from Western Universities, and possessor of such vile substances as an elixir of life, enabling him to live to a fabulously advanced criminal age. I recall that the Fu Manchu films were still an occasional staple of daytime television in my youth. They have largely faded away as a cultural product, and are not much missed (save perhaps in the wilder longings of the tabloid imagination).

Of all the various arguments behind the suggestion that Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old winner of the women’s 400 metre individual medley, is a drugs cheat, the most compelling is that she has reduced her time for the 100m freestyle in a year by 7 seconds.

US coach John Leonard says this is an impossible rate of improvement and compares Ye Shiwen to Michael Phelps, Leonard rejected comparisons to Michael Phelps, who broke the 200m butterfly world record when he was just 15, saying the American got “consistently faster every year on a normal improvement curve”.

These are Shiwen’s best times for the 100 metre freestyle at ages 14, 15, and 16: 2010 4:33.79 / 2011 4:35.15 / 2012 4:28.43

You will notice that Shiwen’s 2012 time is quite a bit faster than her 2011 time, but barely faster than her 2010 time, i.e. like quite a lot of professional sports people her progress has not been continuous, but punctuated, with (presumably) a growth spurt coming at just the right time.

These are Phelp’s best times for the 200 metres butterfly at ages 14, 15, and 16: 1999 1:55.42 / 2000 1:56.50 / 2001 1:54.58

You’ll see exactly the same pattern of a fast time, followed by a year’s regress, followed by a world best performance.

You’ll also see that in 2011 when he broke the world record, Phelps was about 1.6% faster than he had raced as a 15 year old, and about 0.9% faster than he had been 2 years before. In Shiwen’s case the improvements were 2.5% and 0.5% – i.e. her progress is a little bit faster than Phelps’ if you compare them over 1 year but slower than him if you compare them over two.

I don’t see any significant difference between their improvement rates at all.

“You can’t turn around and call it racism to say the Chinese have a doping history,” Leonard said. “That is just history. That’s fact.”

It is “fact” in the same way that Fu Manchu is “fact”: almost all the doping history at the top level of Chinese swimming relates to athletes caught in the mid-1990s and not since.

Nor is US elite sport exactly drug free – at the climax of the athletics, in the men’s 100 metres, American eyes are expected to turn to Justin Gatlin, winner of the US Olympic trials, and banned in 2006 for 8 years (reduced to 4 on appeal) after a positive drugs test.

I would urge you to cheer the Jamaicans on the track and Ye Shiwen in the pool. That’s unless you really do believe that China was and is still a society of drugs bosses, led no doubt by some moustachioed evil overlord…

Lives; Running in the New Statesman


From the New Statesman, 30 July – 11 August 2012:

Lives; Running, David Renton, Zero Books, £9.99

“The runner”, writes David Renton, “succeeds or falls by his or her own effort not through the efforts of others.” Renton is a barrister who runs in his spare time. His book is a record of a lifetime of running that began when he was at school. Interleaved with his account of a racing career which peaked when he was barely 15 are Renton’s reflections on the defining athletic rivalry of his childhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s: that between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.”

The Counter Olympics Network demonstration


July 28

They were handing out Olympic-themed packets of Krave cereal at Mile End tube station (a product so well-enriched with sugar that it is known as “Crack4Children”). The first steward to arrive had settled with other anti-corporate veterans in a branded coffee house beneath the Green bridge, and was waiting for our briefing to begin. “You’ve never seen so many police vans in your life,” she told me. But the vans, it turned out, were all driving the other way.

In the weeks building up to the demonstration, I’ve met more different police officers than I have in the previous two decades put together: from the PC in charge of the traffic cones (“we will be laying the cones at two meter intervals. They will be made from orange plastic…”) to the working-class mum (who on finishing her escort of our five-mile anti-Olympic torch relay insisted on posing with us for photographs, “we’ve even got Critical Mass on the New Scotland Yard wall…”). I’ve met more senior officers who’ve been promoted rapidly for their role in the policing of dissenters (i.e. us) and I’ve encountered – more than once – the mute tension that culminated in Friday’s police riot.

On Saturday, the police waited at the edges. The vans were behind, they were in front, they were kept moving, they were kept out of sight.

In their absence, the demonstration was happy; relaxed, self-aware, conscious of the gap between what we want to do and the numbers we have on our side, but relieved, and capable of more.

The route followed from Mile End Park to Wennington Green. There was a lengthy pause outside the missile site at Bow Quarter.

And the crowd intervened successfully to prevent the one attempted arrest: a demonstrator equipped with nail-scissors who was foolish enough to try to clip a piece of the white ribbon which the police were using to mark off our route.

The main target of the chants was Our Tory Olympian:

Seb Coe, Get Out, we know what you’re all about! Missiles, job losses, Olympics for the bosses!

Hey Ho, Sebastian Coe Get your missiles out of Bow

In Wennington Green, the speeches began with Brian Richardson, East End resident and my fellow Haldaner, who was followed by Ruth Turner of War on Want, and Chris Nineham of Stop the Olympic Missiles.

The march has made the BBC and even the Daily Mail.

“It wasn’t the largest demo I’ve ever been on, but it was lively, vocal and angry”, Gareth Edwards of Inside Left writes, “And it felt important.” I’m not sure about the anger, but I agree with him about the march’s importance.

A friend who travelled widely in post-Stalinist Russia, hoping to encourage its citizens to rebel, once confided to me his greatest surprise on exploring its cities. Expecting to be constantly surrounded by images extolling the people to believe in the virtues of the Soviet system; he found in fact a near absence of visual propaganda. Not having a plethora consumer goods to advertise, rather only one product (the state), there were of course posters glorifying the regime – but they were occasional. Traveling through Moscow or Leningrad you could walk for an hour or more without seeing anything endorsing the regime.

The organisers of the London Olympics have drawn from this story the lesson that saturation advertising is the surest way to maintain support; whether it is the posters in the railway stations insisting that the Olympics could not take place without corporate backing and listing the corporate sponsors (but not naming the main funder, whose backing outweighs that of all the other funders together by ten to on; the tax-paying working-class), or the MacDonalds ads colonising the transport links to the Olympics, or the interminable television and radio coverage forcing even loyal listeners away from the BBC.

This was the victory of yesterday’s anti-Olympic demonstration: for the 5-600 people present it broke through the isolation imposed on the Olympic disbelievers and reminded each of us that we are not alone.

UPDATE: there’s a lovely short film here which gives a sense of the scale of the demo, as well as the views of the participants.

The Toff and the Monster


Asked in 2009 why British entries always did so badly in the Eurovision Song Context, former presenter Terry Wogan answered, “There has always been that general feeling [in Britain] of distrust of Johnny Foreigner, but, of course, it is mutual. Britain has attacked nearly every country in Europe, and people don’t forget.” Perhaps with this very history in mind, bookmakers made Paris not London the favourite in July 2005 to acquire the 2012 summer Olympics. The moment at which London inched past Paris is generally said to have been Sebastian Coe’s speech to the critical meeting of the International Olympic Committee.

Now, by this stage, in Britain, Coe was best known as an unsuccessful politician in his own right. He had been a Tory MP from 1992 to 1997 and William Hague’s constant companion during the latter’s unsuccessful stint as leader of the Conservatives after the 1997 election. Very much Adam Werrity to Hague’s Liam Fox, Coe was said to spend his every morning in judo bouts with his leader, and in one unfortunate incident, the former Olympic gold medallist was left unconscious by a Hague neck lock.

The members of the International Olympic Committee almost certainly knew little of Coe’s recent past. What won them over was being addressed by a man who 25 years before had been a part of one of the greatest of recent Olympic rivalries. I have recently been writing about my own life as a runner, and as part of that endeavor I have reflected on the Coe-Ovett rivalry and on the role played by Coe in particular. Running dominated my adolescence; I was a decent county-standard runner. I would never have run but for Coe and Ovett.

Seb Coe, like Steve Ovett, grew up in a family dominated by a strong central figure. In Coe’s case it was his father Peter, a factory manager. A Channel Four documentary, shown just in time for the Los Angeles Olympics, opened with Peter Coe in a silver anorak and outsized glasses telling the story of Coe’s running career: “At 14 I really thought he was good, and at 16 I was certain that if I was patient and played it right he would be a world beater.” Peter Coe pronounced the word cer-ta-in in a slow, lumbering manner, turning two syllables into three.

When Coe was still young, his family moved from London to Stratford upon-Avon. They lived on the edge of town, and he would regularly run two miles or so into town and back again on errands for his mother, never using a bicycle, always preferring the feeling of running. Ovett tells a similar story save that in his account the errands were for his father and meant purchasing fags or cans from the corner store. Mick Ovett would even pretend to time the youthful athlete, counting out loud “three, four, five” as he left the house, and starting afresh “twenty-three, twenty-four” as he heard the sounds of his son returning home.

Ovett’s mother owned and ran a café, Mrs Coe was an actress who wound down her own career to raise a family. Coe’s twin sister was a ballet dancer in her teens, and it is said that she shared his ability to walk or run as if on air. Coe’s mother told the documentary that her son was a nervous child and he flourished only in the absence of competition. Elsewhere, it is recorded that Coe finished disappointingly in his first two efforts at the England Schools championships.

In Sheffield, the Coes lived in Hallamshire, surrounded by doctors and university lecturers. The young Seb Coe was asthmatic and suffered from eczema and hay fever. Unlike Ovett, he failed his 11-plus. This would barely have caused a stir in the Ovett household, but in the Coe family it was seen as a shameful episode, a defect likely to bring down the status of the whole family. Peter Coe told the future athlete he could either accept then and there he was a failure, as the examination had suggested, or he could work to prove the test wrong. In his mother’s words, “He didn’t achieve very much. He achieved when it didn’t matter, but when it came to the tests, like the 11-plus, nerves got to him so much.” Her accent, like her husband’s or indeed her son’s, shows few signs of any Sheffield influence.

The father’s desire for the family to retain its middle class status chimed with the son’s need to retain his father’s love. He worked harder than he had thought possible. “All the top performances come”, Peter Coe believed, “when it’s hurting.” Coe addressed his father by his first name. In his book The Winning Mind, he refers at several points to the views of his “coach”. A different parent might have allowed his son to address him directly as “father”. “I drove us both hard”, Peter Coe said. “Patience was not my virtue. I expected him to be ready on the dot for training! But he was a splendid fellow, he knew better how to live with me than anyone in the family. He learned obedience, yet by the time he grew up his father wasn’t God, he knew that I had feet of clay. We worked on the programme and he never badgered me or questioned the programme.” Over the next two years, Coe would shed his early physical weakness and develop into a decent schoolboy athlete. When Coe was barely 13 his father drew up a projection of progress up to the 1980 Olympics with an optimum 1,500 metres time of 3.30, three minutes faster than the then world record.

In the build-up to Moscow, the papers would sell Coe to the British public as “the toff” in contrast to Ovett, “the monster”. As a student, Coe talked up aspects of his life which seemed to emphasise his middle-class character, such as his admiration of the American novelists Steinbeck, Hemmingway and Bellow, his love of jazz (in 1980…), and his desire to follow his father by working in industry.

After his Gold at the 1980 Olympics, Coe spent many hours negotiating the first advertising contract for an amateur athlete, for which special dispensation was required from the running authorities. He earned a footballer’s salary by becoming the public face of Instant Horlicks. When Coe won Gold in the 1500 metres in the 1980 Olympics, his success and above all his victory over his compatriot Ovett was portrayed as a great triumph of the English middle classes. In the words of the Daily Mail, “He lifted the soul, he ennobled his art, he dignified his country.”

More was at stake, however, than just the surface distinction between the market trader’s boy and the manager’s son. For as Ovett said repeatedly, in terms of background there was more that they had in common than that which separated them. The early lives of each were dominated by a single strong parent. Both came originally from Southern England, Coe, the younger athlete, was just twelve months younger than Ovett. Both were students, even if the media insisted on taking Coe’s Sport Science more seriously than Ovett’s Art. Most people in Britain were waged employees, both Peter Coe and Mick Ovett were set apar (if, admittedly, in subtly different ways) from the working-class majority.

As well as class, the runners differed in their approach on the track and beyond. When they ran, Ovett was generally seen as a “kicker” who relied on his finishing pace, while Coe was a “bunny”, who depended on a very fast first half of the race to wear his opponents into submission. But neither style was innate, Coe’s self invention between 1976 and 1978 as a frontrunner came about for specific reasons. As a schoolboy athlete, Coe was seen as a 1500 and 3000 metre runner. Coe turned to the 800 metres late, in 1976, with his father’s blessing, after he reduced his best 800 metre time by three seconds in a single race. It became clear, without anyone planning it, that the distance suited him perfectly.

Coe’s difficulty in choosing the shorter distance is that while it suited him well, British athletics already provided a world-class rival, Ovett. Moreover this rival appeared to possess an unparalleled asset, his finish. Coe became a front-runner, in short, to defeat his rival’s best weapon. Coe’s adopted tactic of running the first lap of the 800 metres in under 50 seconds brought him both success and failure. It was the key to his first world record, over 800 metres at Oslo in July 1979, during which Coe’s 200-metre splits were timed as 24.0, 26.0, 24.8 and 27.0. The extraordinary period of the race was the third 200 metres, during which Coe powered away from a field which including Mike Boit, by now a World Cup silver medallist. The Oslo time was in turn the key to Coe’s two further world records in the next six weeks, in the mile and the 1500 metres.

The front-runner’s mantle, however, brought defeat in competition over 800 metres in the 1978 European Championships, and at the Olympics two years later. Determined not to repeat his Bronze from Prague, Coe knew not to run a first lap in less than 50 seconds. Having worked out how not to run, he forgot the simpler task of how best to race. He ran passively in the 800 metres at Moscow, leaving the way open for Ovett to claim the Olympic gold, before coming back in the 1500 metres.

The defining image of Coe is the expression on his face as he breaks the finishing line at the end of his Gold-winning 1500 metres at Moscow. Coe stands straight, with arms to each side, his upper body in a crucifixion pose. His head is pulled backwards, and the muscles at the front of his neck are tight. Every muscle in his face is pulled up, away from his neck. His mouth widens in a grimace. Even his brows are arched. I studied that image at the time and have looked it again many times since. I saw no pleasure in it then and can find none when I look at it today. It is not a look of ecstasy, it shares nothing with the much simpler images of Ovett after his Gold at Moscow: a clenched fist, the search for a particular face in the crowd, a smile. Indeed, in all the images of Ovett racing I can see only familiar emotions: fatigue, elation, desire, the anger of defeat, the joy of success. Coe’s grimace was one of those rare occasions when he allowed his deepest emotions to rise to the surface. What it shows is that he ran not in hope but in fear.

Despite his preference for left-field US fiction, Coe’s politics, as he told anyone who would listen, were the same ones that Mrs Thatcher was (in 1980) still cautious about testing on the country. Coe told one interviewer:

“I’m a great believer in personal liberty, and I do believe in the interplay of market forces. If anybody is good enough and in demand whatever field they are in, then you will find people are prepared to pay. And if somebody can make a living out of what they are good at, I don’t really see what grounds anybody can say no.”

On the running track, in his espousal of permanent competition, and in his strange combination of joylessness and fear, Coe’s success was a sign of the coming Thatcherite counter-revolution.

(This piece was originally published in the winter 2011 newsletter of the London Socialist Historians Group; it is in fact an extract from my book Lives; Running).

Rotten Borough Heather Bonfield: unelected consultant tries to ban anti-Olympic protest demonstration


By the time this post goes up, the big Counter Olympics Network will hopefully have left Mile End park and will be ambling peacefully in the direction of Wennington Green (via Bow Road, Fairfields Road, Roman Road, etc).

The organisers do have the permission of the police and Transport for London for their route. It is simply not clear whether we have been able to get the agreement of Tower Hamlets council for speeches after the demonstration, despite the fact that every demo in Britain in the last 20 years has ended with speeches of one sort or their another. Rather the council’s good idea has been that demonstrators should get to Wennington Green, enter it, and then “disperse” (whatever that means).

What makes this more troubling is that the demonstrators are told by the local councillor (Bill Turner) and by the local MP (Rushanara Ali) that we have their support. Indeed the Mayor, the senior elected person with responsibility for the council has so distanced himself from his own officers, as to convey a message to the organisers, via councillor Rania Khan, that the event should go ahead as planned.

For those interested in this story, as a case-study of how local democracy does – or doesn’t work – here are the key dates:

On 11 June 2012, CON  first wrote to Heather Bonfield the interim head of Culture at Tower Hamlets informing her of our intention to hold an event starting at Mile End Park marching through roads controlled by your authority and ending at Victoria Park.  She wrote back on 22 June as follows:

“Thank you for your email.  My apologies for not coming back to you
sooner. I have to advise you that the Council does not grant you
permission to use either park and if you make a formal application –
which we require – it will not be approved.”

“During the Olympic period our major parks, especially Victoria Park,
will be extremely busy and we will not permit any additional use.”

“We have advised the Police that we are refusing your request.” (emphasis added)

Officers of the council were present at a meeting with CON, the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London on 9 July where this matter was revisited. Michael Rowan, Head of Tower Hamlets Parks, was asked whether it remained the council’s position that it would not allow an event ending at Victoria Park, and answered that the council had changed its position and would allow an event provided that it ended at Wennington Green rather than Victoria Park.

On 10 July Michael Rowan again informed CON that speeches and other events would be allowed provided only that there was no indication from the police that they would be unsafe. He wrote: “The one issue that concerns us here is the use of Wennington Green for speeches etc as when I approached the meeting I had assumed it was to be used as a dispersal site. I have asked my colleague who is sending the paperwork to comment on the health and safety implications of use of that particular site with the number of people potentially surging forward to see or hear what is going on. So long as the police are content that there is no health and safety issue then that is fine” (emphasis added).

There was then a lengthy to-and-fro about the details of the event, with CON being asked to send an event plan, which we did, and there were various email and phone exchanges in which there was no suggestion that the council was against the event.

Then, quite out of the blue, on 17 and 20 July, Michael Rowan emailed CON, copying in Ms Bonfield (the original decision-maker of 22 June, but who had then been on leave and played no part in any public exchanges between 22 June and 17 July) to say that they would not allow anyone from CON to enter Wennington Green save for the sole purpose of dispersal.

On 23 July, CON threatened Tower Hamlets with Judicial Review, with the result that at 5pm on 25 July, Tower Hamlets wrote to us backing down, but sending us a list of conditions for the event, none of which had been put to us before, including a prohibition on “marquees” but not on “gazebos” (and what exactly is the difference?), and a ban on sound traveling outside the park (given the limited strength of our amplifiers that will present no difficulty), and a newly dreamed-of rule that there should be no more than 1 hour of speeches and no other activities (ie an absolute ban on a speech delivered in the form of a poem, or as a sketch).

We responded, accepting some but not all of their conditions, at 10am on Friday, and have heard nothing since.

The best explanation for the council’s official hostility to the event appears to be that Heather Bonfield has objected to the event and on her return from leave brow-beat more junior council officers into accepting her decision – despite the support it had from every publicly elected politician with any relationship to the area. There was less hostility in early July, when she was away. On her return, she was able to foist her decision onto her more junior colleagues.

Heather Bonfield, the author of the charming correspondence I quoted above, is not even an employee of Tower Hamlets council, but is a self-employed consultant trading under the originally-titled name “Heather Bonfield Consultancy Limited”.

As to how much she is paid: according to her own company records at Companies House, in 2006-7, the turnover of her business was around £75,000; but the documents she has filed at Companies House in 2011 and 2012 are not so gauche as to reveal her present income.

Express journalist and long-time watcher of the council, Ted Jeory, reports she is is being paid £800 per day, and around £200,000 p/a altogether. But, given the paucity of the information she has filed, I cannot confirm that. What I do note is that if Jeory is right that means she is trousering more than her own Chief Executive, who is paid on a salary scale from £165,000 to “just”  £194,000 per year.

There is something troubling about the idea that someone who is not even employed by Tower Hamlets has the authority to countermand the elected councillor, the elected MP and the elected Mayor.

Without speculating at all as to the politics or ethics of this arrangement: the demonstration – and the speeches – go ahead.

Solidarity with detained Critical Mass cyclists


Very brief accounts are starting to come out of yesterday’s Critical Mass, which after years of being left along by the police was brutally attacked last night. Here is one eye-witness:

“On the other side of the bridge a couple of police vans had blocked the road again. Suddenly, van after van came screeching down the road. The vans kept on coming. My friend heard a policeman say to his radio ‘this is game over’. We turned and fled. I have never seen so many police in my life. I have never cycled so fast in my life. It was terrifying. It was a mini-police state in that corner of east London. I’m still grappling with what happened, it seems so surreal.”

The above video appears to show a male police officer, wholly out of control, being resisted (to some extent) by a woman police officer as he attempts to pepper-spray a wheelchair user.

What’s not in doubt is that 20 cyclists were held overnight in a bus, without being charged, interviewed, or released; and are still detained.

All of this makes today’s demonstration more important than ever.

A Home Games but for whom?


With the start of London 2012 upon us author of a new book on the Olympics Mark Perryman questions who will, and won’t, get the tickets

Just one click away and the Olympic tickets are mine. I’ve plumped for the Bronze Medal men’s hockey match, which leaves me treacherously hoping Team GB will be battling it out for third place rather than going for Gold. And an early round of the water polo too. The latter quite an Olympian bargain, £20 each for two adults and our three year old has a pay-your-age ticket, just £3 for him.

So what could there possibly be to complain about? Plenty. Take Wednesday afternoon’s opening game of the Olympic Women’s football tournament, GB vs New Zealand , played in a half-empty Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.  Its an example of the spectacular mismanagement of the Olympic programme to virtually ensure this is a Games for the few not the many. Never mind Team GB playing in Wales where almost every football fan will be used to shouting for Wales, never England and not often GB either. These divisions run deep in our fan culture and a smart new Union Jack kit is not going to transform this overnight. Both the women’s and men’s football teams are effectively England plus a handful of other home nation’s useful additions to the squad.

So the location wasn’t ideal. But what about the kick off time? Why on earth choose 4pm, effectively meaning anyone going has to take if not a whole day off work at least the afternoon. Adding to the cost and the inconvenience. And the price. For well-paid LOCOG executives £20 may seem reasonable for the lowest priced ticket, but its not so cheap for a branch of football that has little or no record of attracting the kind of crowd to fill the Millennium, 75,000. For goodness sake the men’s Welsh team have struggled to fill it on more than one occasion.

Its a fairly reliable law of marketing, halve the price, double the crowd. An evening or weekend kick off, £10 a ticket and perhaps facing the reality of the squad selection, in an English football stadium and Wednesday afternoon might well have been a capacity crowd, giving tens of thousands more the chance to be part of the 2012 Olympics.

In 2005 the North West of England successfully hosted the Women’s European Football Championship. Blackpool, Blackburn, Warrington and Manchester all hosted games. The Olympic football tournaments, men and women’s, are both effectively mini World Cups with group stages and knock out rounds.  The challenge is to sell tickets not just for the Team GB games, which generally have been popular, but the other countries’ games too, which haven’t. It is that combination that more than anything would turn the Olympics into a festival of sporting internationalism rather than just a matter of how many Golds Team GB can win. Basing the football tournaments each in a region, with their own opening and closing ceremony, free-to-watch warm up games, all of this could have helped contributed to the sense of the Olympics being a National Event rather than something happening in London that these Games still project.

And my Hockey tickets? This is a 16-team tournament all played in the one, 15,000 capacity, stadium within the Olympic Park. This means a squeezed programme involving matches kicking off at 08.30 in the morning. The Water Polo tournament is also all squeezed into the single Olympic Park pool meaning some games don’t finish until 22.45. Crazy, and all the consequence of the Olympic model of centralisation. As with the football tournaments these group and knock out stage contests could have been hosted in a city or region, providing many more early evening and weekend games, the local host  putting on their own opening and medal ceremonies. An Olympics that in large part belonged to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Swansea, The North-West, North-East, Yorkshire, East and West Midlands. With a vast increase in the number of tickets and massive reduction in prices too, wouldn’t this be a better model for the Olympics

Before, the kind of programming madness LOCOG has committed might have been justified by the TV schedules, to reduce the risk of clashes. But not any more, with the famous red button I’ve lost count of how many Olympic Channels the BBC are promising , 24 I think was the latest figure. So the bulk of the programme could surely have been shifted to weekday evening and weekends to maximise accessibility. A Games for the many to go and watch. Instead except for the lucky few, amongst whom I  now number myself, it will be a case of watching a ‘home’ Games from the sofa and via the remote.

Of course this is a different model for the Olympics, but a year ago 22 million applied for tickets. The demand was obviously there.  A relatively small country with still the basis of a half-decent transport infrastructure could have facilitated the idea that what makes a ‘home’ games so special is providing a format to maximise the numbers taking part.

As the Games begin  for those who like me love their sport it will be a feast. But this is no reason not to imagine how much better they could have been, after all for most of us we won’t see their like on these shores again in our lifetimes. What a waste.

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be, just £8 (£6 kindle edition) from

The trial of Lord Coe


Imagine the scene: the year is 2022, and immediately following the expansion of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, a shocked Sebastian Coe is indicted for aiding and abetting ecocide. In the early days of the trial, which begins just three months later, Coe (despite his advanced years) originally appears jaunty. His opening speech reminds the court that the London Olympics organisers repeatedly declared their Games the Greenest ever. And he speaks of the invaluable work done by the London Olympics’ Sustainability Partners. “I did nothing wrong, the Olympics did nothing wrong. This is a politically-motivated trial. But the companies in the dock, if you like, but I should not be here.”

Under cross examination, Coe’s front slowly drops. Taken carefully through the record of the primary Olympic sponsors, Coe is forced to except – on a company by company basis – that they were engaged in ecological vandalism.

The first morning of the cross-examination is given over to the activities of BP, the Olympic Games’ nominated “Sustainability Partner” and “Official Carbon Offset Partner”. Long before the Games opened, Coe grudgingly accepts, he personally was well aware of the part played by BP in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster, in which around 200 million gallons of crude oil were released into the marine environment of the Gulf of Mexico, killing sea-life in untold numbers. Shown image after image of dying birds, dead fish, ruined seascapes, Coe finally pleads for the images to stop. “Yes, I knew about Deepwater. Everyone did.” “It was the worst oil pollution in the history of the world and your response was to choose BP as a sustainability partner?” Coe shakes his head, mute.

The prosecution moves on to BP’s involvement in the mining of the Canadian Tar Sands. “We now know that by 2012 these alone were responsible for 10% of Canada’s carbon emissions; they kept the world’s car economy going beyond peak oil; and you made BP you Carbon Offset Partner?” Again, Coe declines to answer.

In the afternoon, the prosecution moves on to the other major sponsors of the games.

Dow Chemical had produced the poison gas used at Auschwitz. Its subsidiaries were responsible for the 1984 Bhopal Oil disaster which killed around 25,000 people in India. “I had heard about Deepwater, you couldn’t miss that”, Coe answers, “but by 2012 we considered Bhopal very old news.” The poison was still responsible for birth defects and premature deaths by the time of London 2012, the prosecution counters. “I was a sports administrator”, Coe says, “I knew the length of the track, and how to build a games. Neither I, nor I suspect anyone involved in administering London, gave a first thought to Bhophal.”

“They were your sponsors. You chose them. They were part of the public face of your Games.” Coe, again, refuses to answer.

Rio Tinto, the source of the gold, silver and bronze medals, had mined them in Utah, in a factory whose pollution caused hundreds of deaths each year. Coca-Cola and MacDonalds, the prosecutor continues, were largely responsible for the epidemic of obesity overtaking North America. “You personally authorised the largest the building of the MacDonalds in the world, right in the middle of the athletes’ village.”

In his opening, Coe had referred to the activities of the Olympic Delivery Authority which held annual safety, health and environmental awards, to show that the Games was beyond serious rebuke. Coe is now shown a list of the main prize winners at these “green” awards. One winner, BAM Nuttall, was a member of the construction industry covert blacklist, Coe accepts, while other blacklisters, including Carillion and McAlpine, were also involved in building the main Olympic sites.

Under further questioning Coe accepts that the Olympics games were seen worldwide by a population of billions, that the sponsors logos were ubiquitous in television coverage. He accepts that millions of people were encouraged to believe that the companies associated with the Games were themselves ethical. “And they were right to think so. If we hadn’t believed that ourselves, we would not have allowed them to be our sponsors.”

It is put to Coe that involvement in the Olympics “green-washed” companies such as BP, it bought them time, and held off the day when their crimes would be prosecuted. “You are not asking me now are you”, he counters, “to endorse their prosecutions, or my own?”

What about Meredith Alexander, the Games’ appointed “Ethics Tsar”, who resigned six months before the Games, in protest at the involvement of these polluters: didn’t her departure cause the organisers to re-think? “No”, Coe answers, “by that point we were bound by contractual arrangements with BP and others, we discussed breaking them, but the penalty clauses would have been onerous. You may criticise us, but we didn’t draft the contracts. The Games might have lost money. That would have been unacceptable.”

The prosecutor interrupts, “But you were already losing money at a colossal rate. When you won the bid, you said their budget would be £2 billion. By the Games itself, this had gone up to £23 billion, half of which was coming from general taxation.”

“Yes, I know that”, Coe says, “We were way over budget, and I didn’t want it to get any worse. Please, I’ve had to answer all your questions, let me explain in my own words” Allowed to continue by the Court, Coe sets out for the first time, what will turn out over succeeding weeks to be the central plank of his defence: “I know it is difficult after all these years, but you have to think back to the very different world in which we were operating. It was 2012, we were looking for sponsors. We needed to raise large sums of money. The distribution of wealth was much more concentrated then than it is now. The only available companies, capable of raising the tens of millions we wanted were large companies.”

“You have pointed out the poor environmental record of BP,” Coe continues, “but every large corporation at that time was joined to the same networks. They cross-invested. There was barely a company on the London Stock Exchange that wasn’t involved in mining, oil extraction, or military-related technology. Who else could we have gone too? You can criticise the London Organisers, but in 2012 every international sporting event was being organised in exactly the same way. We were the very most typical expression – no better, no worse than anyone else – of the capitalist economy of our time.”

 [first published in Socialist Lawyer, July 2012]

Why I am marching


“I doubt I am quite what the police would expect of the typical Olympic protester. On Thursday morning, I will be gathering with friends from my local running club to cheer on a member of our team who has been picked to run with the official Olympic torch; only afterwards, on Friday, will I run with the unofficial Olympic Poverty torch, first made by activists for the Vancouver Games.”

Me on the openDemocracy website explaining why I am marching on July 28.