Monthly Archives: August 2012

All You Need Is a Pair of Running Shoes


David Renton, Lives; Running

Zero Books, 124pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781780992358

reviewed by Steve Platt

One of the defining images of the 2012 Olympics is of Mo Farah crossing the finishing line in the 10,000 metres final for his second gold medal. Arms spread wide, head pushed high and eyes popping in a mix of effort, excitement and sheer astonishment at the nature of his achievement, his face is stretched with a grin broad enough to swallow the whole stadium.

It calls to mind an earlier iconic moment for British athletics at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Sebastian, now Lord Coe and chairman of Locog, the London Games organising committee, struck a similar pose then in taking gold in the 1500 metres. Except that where Farah seems to radiate pure joy in his success, Coe’s face in the old clippings is contorted in a grimace that appears to communicate only pain. Where Farah goes on consciously to prostrate himself momentarily in gratitude on the track, Coe’s legs buckle beneath him as if he’s been cut down from a crucifixion.

David Renton doesn’t have a lot of time for Seb Coe. Within minutes of Farah’s victory, he has written on his blog and Facebook page: ‘If we are going to have a greatest British runner ever – wouldn’t you want it to be a Muslim who came here as a refugee, who was educated at a comprehensive and then an FE college, who lived with his partner for years before marrying her, and who worked in pizza restaurants before he was a professional athlete – rather than lifelong Tory Seb Coe?’

He puts Coe’s ‘death mask’ grimace at Moscow down to fear. Fear of failure; and fear, deep down, of somehow forfeiting the love of his father, ‘who made a point of chastising him publicly on his defeat’ by his great middle distance rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres a few days earlier. ‘“You ran like an idiot,” Peter Coe told him. Peter then kept up a commentary of insults which continued until the press conference afterwards.’ Where Steve Ovett ‘saw sport as a pleasure, as a second priority in his life’, according to Renton, Coe ran as if his life was solely determined by it.

Recalling the Coe-Ovett showdown in the run up to the London Games, the BBC broadcaster Barry Davies wrote that while ‘the British media had painted Coe as the good guy and Ovett as, shall we say, the not-so-good guy … the characters that were painted were not absolutely right. Coe was the more driven, in my view; Ovett did his own thing to a great extent.’ Davies put the media bias in favour of Coe down to Ovett’s reluctance to give interviews. David Renton ascribes it to the fact that Coe was the establishment figure, Ovett the rebel. It was the rebel who attracted Renton’s sympathies when, aged just seven, his early interest in athletics was fired by and focused upon the contest between the two British runners.

Renton went on to be a good schoolboy middle distance runner himself. He broke the two-minute barrier for 800 metres, setting a new school record, at the age of 15, and beat almost everyone he raced against at distances between 400 and 1500 metres until a combination of injuries, inadequate coaching and, although he doesn’t admit it explicitly, a lack of the necessary single-mindedness led him out of the sport for eight years. By the time he returned to running in his late twenties, he was no quicker than your average fun runner; today he describes himself as running ‘slowly and without style, just like a dad dancing’.

Lives; Running intertwines an account of Renton’s running and personal history with one of the great Coe-Ovett rivalry and another drawing upon his father’s school papers and diary, written during his time at Oxford. Public school educated, like his son, Renton senior was an Oxford rowing blue. In the single sculls he beat the future Olympian Tony Fox, whose fourth-place performance at Helsinki in 1952 was the best by a British sculler from 1924 until 2012, when Northern Ireland’s Alan Campbell won bronze.

After Oxford’s defeat in consecutive boat races, though, he gave up the sport. He tells the teenage David later, ‘You do know that you are better at schoolwork than you are at running?’ and declares that he was happy to have quit rowing when he did. ‘If I hadn’t, I would never have passed my degree.’ It’s not what David wanted to hear, given that he ran in part ‘to maintain a bond with my father. I knew that he had wanted a son who would follow him [in business and in conducting the family affairs] … He complained to his friends that I wanted to level down people … By running, and at a high standard, I hoped to gain at least a temporary forgiveness from my father for my many other failings.’

Those ‘failings’ included an ever-increasing disenchantment with the separation and privilege of public school: ‘Endlessly expressing the narrowness of our existence and our isolation from what 99 per cent of people considered life, I bored my contemporaries by pointing out their isolation until they had no more desire to speak to me than I had to them. My hero was another boy, Gobber, who took to a tall building and spat on his fellow pupils repeatedly.’

Where David Renton’s father converted to Catholicism as a student to provide meaning to his life, David turns to radical politics, particularly anti-racism. He sees a continuity between the two, writing that: ‘My father in his youth raged against the “bowler hat”, by which he meant a life predictable from day to day, a life structured always around the same few relationships, a life overwhelmed by the routine of work. He saw that possibility and he rebelled equivocally against it. I share with him that restlessness.’

Renton regards his running as both an expression of that restlessness and a remedy for it. ‘I run because life is short,’ he writes, ‘and there are no moral imperatives save only these: to the weak you owe solidarity, to yourself you owe change.’ Although he wanted – desperately, defiantly – to win in his youth, ultimately he had no time for what he sees as the neoliberal vision of permanent competition. So you win one race, what then? Are you expected to go on to win the next, and the next, and the next, until eventually even the best, like Mo Farah or Steve Ovett or Sebastian Coe, must finally face up to the inevitability of defeat?

There is no doubt in Renton’s mind who got the most from their athletic achievements out of Coe and Ovett and who dealt best with their failures. He even suggests that Ovett was content with defeat in the 1500 metres in 1980, having already won the 800. At any rate, Ovett was the more magnanimous, both in victory and defeat. His response to getting a bronze medal in the 1500 metres behind Coe and the second-placed Jürgen Straub of East Germany was that he ‘ran the best race I could but was beaten by two better guys’, while Coe subsequently wrote of Ovett’s success in the 800 metres that his physical manner had ‘contributed to the tattiness of the race. It lowered the standing of athletics.’

Renton saw in Ovett – and now in Mo Farah – a ‘capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity’ that he has never seen in Coe. It’s an instinctive judgement that others have shared but one that we should be wary of nonetheless. Coe’s relationship with his father, like David Renton’s with his, was complex but not cold. Of Peter Coe’s remarks after his 800 metres defeat, Seb said that he was less annoyed with his father than with press criticism of their relationship: ‘I found that insulting. People were entitled to criticise my running or Peter’s coaching, but not our relationship.’

In an obituary of Peter Coe, following his death in 2008 (when Seb was at the Olympics in Beijing), Seb Coe’s biographer David Miller recalls leaving the Moscow stadium after the 800 metres debacle in the same taxi as the Coes: ‘In the Russian driver’s misadjusted mirror, I could see Peter in the back seat with his arm around Sebastian, the same way you comfort your infant child when it comes to your bed in the middle of the night, troubled by a bad dream. There was only shared grief and love.’

David Renton concludes with some reflections on his own experiences as a father – of two young children – and why he has taken up running again after a further enforced layoff due to injury. ‘When I run I escape the commodification of life,’ he writes. ‘I dislike the way our social existence is organised, so that merely to live requires you to constantly purchase and consume … I am fed up with sports that I watch as a spectator but in which I am not allowed to participate.’

This will be one of the real tests of the London 2012 Olympic ‘legacy’: the extent to which the huge increase in interest in all kinds of athletics and sport is turned into active participation. Here, running is already off to a flying start with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and parks, towpaths and trails, every weekend. As David Renton rightly notes, ‘To run all you need is a pair of running shoes … The activity itself comes satisfyingly free.’

This review was first published on the Review 31 website.

The nearly race


Three friends ran tonight’s Woodford Green 800 metres with me.

Before I come on to how we all got on, I should explain the setting. We were at the Aston fields track, just a few stops east of Stratford on the central line. Most of the competitors in the races, which clearly were far busier than the organisers expected, were under 18, and the talk around the edges of the event was of a sudden Olympic boom in competition. There seemed to be literally dozens of thirteen year olds capable of sprinting the 100 metres in particular in under 13 seconds. I do so hope that they will still be taking part in athletics in a year or two’s time.

The track was busy, some of the races had to be put back to organise the extra numbers, and as it is late in the summer, we found ourselves running at first under floodlights and later against a vivid backdrop of a sky that was at first red in great, garish streaks, and then (after the sun set) a net of black and rapidly-fading electric blue.

Anyway, as to how we each ran:

Sam is the youngest of us (not much over 30) and the least experienced runner, having never run the distance before. He trains actively with weights in the gym, and exercises on a rowing machine in concentrated bursts of 2 minutes at a time. He attacked the field, running the first lap in 58 seconds (as fast, by comparison, as the women’s Olympic final), and, if he tailed off afterwards, still he just about held on to finish in around 2 minutes 15. He ran with his whole body, unreservedly, and ran brilliantly and won the race easily. I was delighted for him.

John is the most experienced runner of our group: a sub 2:45 marathoner who runs daily. His physique is the opposite of Sam’s; John has fantastic stamina but less fast-twitch muscle. He ran in laps of 70 and 75 seconds and has a vision one day of finishing a 400 metres in under 60 seconds – which I think he could manage, next summer.

Alexis used to run with me when we were both at school, and has maintained his running intermittently but continuously since. He can run 6 miles without difficulty (I can’t). But he smokes and has had sore hamstrings for a while. He ran in laps of 70 and 80 seconds, and was overtaken by John at about 300 metres from the line. We warmed down together afterwards and he told me he felt he had more in the tank, and with a proper summer training he thinks he could break 2:10. He, like John, was content with this race.

I was the slowest of our small group, and the slowest indeed in our  entire race of eight. Throughout the day, my calf felt stiff (although, unusually, I managed to finish without damaging it); I had a cold. And my mood was hardly cheered by the quick downpour that broke less than 2 minutes before we began the race. I had decided beforehand not to run in spikes, for fear of injuring myself before the first lap had ended, and now I regret that decision, as it seemed to represent a deliberate stepping back from the pure end-of-year race I’d hoped for.

As a result my legs seemed light, tired and weak. I had planned a first lap in 1 minute 20, with a very negative split (and a 1 minute 10 second lap), and while my second lap was marginally faster, it wasn’t remotely as good as I’d hope it would be. I tried to accelerate and there was nothing there. I finished in 2 minutes 39, not just last, but crucially eight seconds outside the target I had set myself of 2:30.

My friends encouraged me to be cheerful afterwards. Look, they pointed out, if I had tried to run that distance a year ago, I would have been around 30 seconds slower (and that’s true).

I know the deeper causes of my lethargy – I have been injured off and on throughout the summer, and haven’t done the track sessions I would need to get some speed into my legs. I was injured for much of the past two weeks and you can’t just “turn on” the sort of times I wanted without getting your body prepared for it in advance.

But while I enjoyed the race, and I am grateful to everyone else for running with me, I finished the session dissatisfied and wishing the summer would avail of one last chance to run properly fast

When athletes spoke their minds (2)


Thanks again to Jules Boycoff, for sparking off my interest the complex, ambiguous figure of Steve Prefontaine, a name unknown to me as recently as a month ago.

After reading Prefontaine’s attacks on the stupidity of the US athletics federation and of the patriotism behind which it sheltered, I recently started watching “Fire on the Track”, a documentary which tells Prefontaine’s story from his emergence as a track athlete through to the 5,000 metres at the 1972 Olympics, at which Prefontaine attacked and attacked, trying quite suicidally to break the sprint finish of the eventual winner Lasse Virén.

One thing I enjoy about the film is its focus on college athletics in Oregon. In sport the regional, rather than the national, is so often the level where there is the most intimate relationship between a star performer and her audience. (Think CLR James, Learie Constantine and Nelson). “Pre” starred on an Oregon stage which had witnessed international stars and world record holders; people took to him in vast numbers. They did so in part because of his determination to run from the front, a signature theme which gave him charisma as a runner.

My favourite line in the film is Prefontaine’s refusal to run on the professional track circuit: “I run best when I am running free”.

Many of the people in his audience were themselves amateur runners, encouraged into the sport by the local emergence of the Nike “joggers'” shoe, pioneered by Pre’s own coach Bill Bowerman.

Pre to his great credit seems to have been engaged in a constant love-hate generational battle with Bowerman, pre-empting the bigger conflict with the entire US athletics establishment which is the context to Pre’s attacks on “the old red, white and blue and all that bull”.

Yet the limits to Pre’s radicalism are also apparent both in his conflict with Bowerman and with US athletics. He was never William Kunstler, Pre fought with Bowerman, but his objective was to control the relationship with his coach, not to end it.

When I watch the footage of Prefontaine’s defeat at the 1972 Olympics, I see his legs moving faster and faster over the last 600 metres, so that he “ought” to be quicker than Virén, but (like Ovett in the 1500 metres final 8 years later) he never is. I will him on, but he never wins.

The image at the top of this post is the first of five sections of “Fire on the Track”, all of which have been posted on Youtube.

The second half of the film gives a sense of how Prefontaine responded to defeat, which was to go back to his Oregon base, deepening his relationship with athletics fans. During this period, he was clearly desperately poor.  Hence the edge of his attacks on US athletics.

He also took a job with Nike, become its public face, and driving its expansion towards becoming the behemoth we all know. In this part of his life, he was unforgivably the perfect fit, his spats with the Olympic authorities giving Nike the vague radical veneer that it was able to claim again later from Joschka Fischer in 1985, Magic Johnson, etc.

This is one of the unacknowledged moments in running history: the point at which millions of people were caught up in a sporting boom which was based on around a device which made people dramatically more likely to be injured, and ultimately slowed them down as they ran.

You won’t find out about Nike’s malign history in Fire on the Track, but it is a major theme of two books which I’ve discussed before on this blog, Running with the Kenyans and Running Wild.

I forgive him arbitrarily, but essentially on the basis that the shoes in which he was running were as light as they could be made. I doubt anyone properly explained to him the physical basis of Nike’s success.

Ultimately, what I admire is Pre’s running: every running career has a touch of Prefontaine’s about it; but few make it onto the screen. It is the typicality that I enjoy, the sense of watching a screen like a mirror reflecting my own and my friend’s lives (a bit faster, better photographed) staring back at me.

Remembering all the heroes of the 1968 Olympics


A guest post by Jim Jepps of Big Smoke

We quite rightly remember the athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith who gave the black power salute on winning their bronze and gold medals respectively for the 200m at the ‘68 Mexico City Olympics. Their powerful stand against racism still resonates today but in ’68 and the context of Jim Crow, Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King and segregation it was a sharp challenge to a world of injustice.

However, we don’t always remember the other protests around the Mexico Games that were just as important and had equally dire consequences for those willing to put themselves on the line. Ostracised and victimised for standing up for what was right Carlos and Smith both suffered for their stand. They were not alone.

Just before the Games began the 44 people were killed in local protests and at the opening ceremony in Mexico City students flew a dove-shaped kite in opposition to the massacre, so the political atmosphere at the Games was febrile from the start.

Peter Norman, the Australian athlete, who won silver in the famous 200m race wore a patch in solidarity with Carlos and Smith. He made clear it was his opposition to racial segregation and his religious faith that led him to do so.

Speaking years after the event he had no regrets and that, despite the personal cost, he had helped create a historic legacy. That legacy was not forgotten as Carlos and Smith acted as pall bearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006:

“I’m a firm believer that in a victory ceremony for the Olympics, there’s three guys that stand up there, each one’s been given about a square metre of God’s earth to stand on, and what any one of the three choose to do with his little square metre at that stage is entirely up to him.

“If it hadn’t been for that demonstration on that day, it would have just been another silver medal that Australia picked up along the line. No one would ever have heard of Peter Norman.”

Norman’s stand signalled the end of his international athletics career and despite qualifying 13 times for the ’72 Munich Olympics the Australian authorities refused to send him. They even refused to invite him to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the only Australian Olympian they excluded from the ceremonies (he eventually attended as a guest of the Americans).

However, the good news is that the Australian Parliament is set to apologise to Norman in a ground-breaking if long overdue debate:

“That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;”

“Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute;”

“Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and Belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.”

The fourth Olympian who suffered after a political protest in ’68 is someone we discuss even less today. She was Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská, whose stand is a perfect parallel with that of Carlos and Smith.

In the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR and the overturning of its new, independent government, she took the brave step of refusing to acknowledge the USSR anthem when it was played during the medal ceremonies, turning her head away and down.

It sounds such a small thing, but Věra Čáslavská knew that despite her astonishing Olympic achievements (she still holds the record number of medals for gymnastics to this day) the repercussions of what she was doing could be very grave, even fatal.

Like Norman she was rewarded for her protest by being disbarred from international competition – but her support for the Prague Spring saw her barred from travelling, working or attending sporting events at all. It was only with the fall of the Eastern Bloc decades later that Čáslavská was properly honoured by her country.

Perhaps we relate to Carlos and Smith’s protest against racism because still feels alive today, while the tyrannies of the East Bloc are fading into history that her dramatic stand feels so forgotten. But Čáslavská, Norman, Smith and Carlos all deserve their place in the hall of fame for Olympian heroes who were willing to stand up against injustice no matter what the personal consequences might be.

Running Wild; running fast


Boff Whalley will be best-know to most readers of this blog as the guitarist from Chumbawamba; he is also a  talented fell runner. In 1990, his small local running club Pudsey & Bramley were British fell-running champions, and one  of the times he mentions in the book is his 1 hour 38 personal best for the Ben Nevis race, which involves running a dozen miles ascending and descending the tallest mountain in Britain (although he’s too modest to add this detail, Whalley’s time brought him home 16th of the 385 runners who took part that day…).

Whalley came into politics through being active in the Anti-Nazi League in Burnley, and there are pages dedicated to Alf Tupper, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, Alan Sillitoe, being a parent, and the strange slowing-down of both elite (at least in Britain) and non-elite running (in 20 years, the average finishing time in an American marathon has dropped from 3 hours 32 minutes to 4 hours 20 minutes).

For me at least, reading Run Wild was therefore rather like looking into a special kind of distorting mirror. I could see a life not so different my own, save that Whalley runs further than I do, more “wildly” than I do (more on this shortly), in different parts of England, and is a decade older. But, these differences aside, I felt that I was finding again and again ideas in his writing, which I have attempted to convey – albeit less perfectly – in my own.

The greatest familiarity was in the tone of the book which brings together personal memoir and running history. The historian in me would complain that the story drifts everywhere and follows no chronological narrative at all, but the runner in me recognises that this style reflects the dream-like condition of a book written in an author’s head while running. It reflects, in other words, the consciousness of a runner, the sense that you can pick up a train of thought you left hanging the last time you passed a particular stone or nettle patch, the knowledge that running is a continuous activity, interrupted only by the non-running episodes that everyone else considers your “life”.

The book contains certain villains – including Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon, who despite the sympathetic treatment he gets in Without Limits, where he is played by Donald Sutherland, did millions of runners a disservice by inventing and popularising Nike “jogging” shoes  with an enlarged heel, changing our collective running style, and causing literally tens of millions of unnecessary running injuries.

But the greatest villain is the institution of the marathon – which diminishes running by telling vast numbers of people that they are not real runners unless they have raced the same distance, on the same routes, wearing the same clothes – to which Whalley counterposes the free spirit of fell running (the “running Wild” of the book’s title).

I will never be a fell runner, I live in London where we genuinely don’t have mountains. And while I share Whalley’s vivid sense of the rapid destruction of wild spaces (something I feel intensely whenever I return to the rural parts of southern England where I spent long passages of my childhood), the “nature” against which I best enjoy testing myself is the limited and slowly but continuously declining strength of my own body.

There are two passages in the book which caused me the deepest pleasure. One is where Whalley describes the joy of running as a part of a team: “The camaraderie and spirit of running as a communal sport came as a surprise; here was a bunch of people of various ages and backgrounds who, on the face of it, had very little in common. The running, I discovered, was reason enough for community … There’s a place for focused, self-centred individualism in running, bit when it’s most appealing is when it runs alongside a selfless community.” I’ve recognised that same sense of community, repeatedly, in running – even in the last few weeks, in event such as the Counter Olympics Network relay, or running with my new club, the Mornington Chasers.

Finally, Whalley tells a story from history – of the Luddite “Rayner” (I will pretend to myself that this is a Yorkshire  corruption of an original Scottish surname, such as Renton), who in 1812 was charged with machine-breaking after being part of an armed attack at a mill at Rawfolds near Halifax and faced the death penalty if convicted. A paid informer claimed to have seen Rayner at Rawfold after 11.40pm. But a church warden, and other witnesses, had seen Rayner in his home town of Brighouse, four miles away, listening to the church bells sound for midnight. The magistrate Ratcliffe, notorious for his hostility to the workers, checked both times carefully, before finally accepting that no ordinary person would be capable of running that 4 mile distance in less than 20 minutes.

Neither Rayner himself, nor any of the many other witnesses from the town, volunteered the information that the Luddite was Brighouse’s champion cross-country runner.

Challenging myself


Ten weeks ago, I wrote that my target for this summer was to run half a mile in under 2 minutes 30 seconds. Now, as we’re reaching the end of the racing season, the goal remains tantalisingly distant. I’ve managed 10k in 51:31, 5 miles in just over 38 minutes, and (most pleasingly) a full mile in 5 minutes 52. Using an age-graded calculator, this seems to be the equivalent of about 2:38 for the 800m.

But I still seem to be suffering from a soleus injury, as I have most of the summer, and if anything it seems to be getting more rather than less sore. If I run again like I did last Saturday, I’d be finishing in a time like 3:15 or so: very much slower than I’d like to be.

So, to give my summer a final focus (and in sheer bloody-minded refusal to listen to my painful calf), I’ve decided to sign up for a late-season track race.  The Woodford Green & Essex Ladies evening meet take place next Tuesday, 21 August, and includes an 800 metres.

It appears to be raced in four different standards – including (from previous years’ results) a healthy sprinkling of youngsters aged under 14 who will be running faster than me.

Any readers of this blog are very welcome to join me there.

You know in advance how slow I’ll be.

The Good, The Bad and the Orbit


With the Olympics over MARK PERRYMAN reflects on the ups, downs and thereabouts

Having written a book entitled ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us’ I might have been expected to be crying into my energy drink for the past joyful few weeks for having such a woeful lack of judgement. Not a bit of it.

On Saturday I was at the Men’s Hockey Bronze Medal Match. The organisation of the men’s and women’s hockey tournaments in lots of ways represents exactly what has been wrong with London 2012; not the scale of ambition, the lack of it. Every hockey match of a World Cup style group and knockout stages tournament played in the single stadium. Centralisation suits only those with easy access to the Olympic Park, most games take place during the working day too, further narrowing those who could take part. The stadium? Temporary stands, so no unwanted legacy issues, but the capacity was only 15,000. The alternative I have suggested was to base the hockey in a region well-served with sizeable football stadia. Reconfigure the stands, lay the astroturf over the grass, double, triple or even quadruple the capacity, run all the matches at the evening and weekends. Increase the numbers attending, reduce the ticket prices. A home Games for the many, not just the lucky, like me, few.

My biggest reason to doubt my book’s alternative has been provoked by witnessing the sheer maginificence of the Olympic Park. Britain has never seen anything like it, a mix of world-class facilities with Gold Medal winning performances across different sports taking place simultaneously. The centralisation certainly helps create the incredible atmosphere, a sense of being in a space where what is taking place all around you is historic. Which is very nice if you have a ticket, but if not then the ‘home Games’ was something consumed largely from the sofa, via the remote. The emotional attachment is still there, in reality those who see great sporing moments live are always a tiny minority, but surely the ambition should be to maximise those numbers to the absolute limit. Decentralisation by definition means sacrificing the single sense of place for a multiplicity of spaces creating a patchwork of experiences linked to the one event. Such a model would have transformed the Games, made it immeasurably more accessible and vastly increased the numbers able to take part. I remain convinced that such a People’s Games would have been a better Games. How many of those who have enjoyed the past fortnight’s sporting action via the TV would have loved to have been part of it themselves? Most, I suggest.

The free-to-watch events were without exception hugely popular.  According to most commentators this was testament to the Games’ success rather than a reason for questioning why more of the programme shouldn’t be shifted in this direction, and question the way the existing events organised to reduce the potential numbers, during the working day, raced round one circuit a number of times instead of A-B style like the London Marathon with numbers lining the route the whole way. A better Games was possible and we should not allow the euphoria to obscure that critique.

Perhaps the most unpredictable plus, unpredictable in the sense that you can never be sure of who will win the medals, has been the much increased prominence given to GB women athletes. We cannot be sure how long this rediscovered spirit of sports equality will last, sports culture is mired in masculinity but there at least exists the potential for some kind of change, for the better. This is more likely to be change of some substance if the Olympian fervour for almost all 26 of the programme’s sports, or at least those in which GB won medals, serves to decentre football in our sporting culture. 

There are huge financial interests committed of course to preserving the absolute dominance of football but such a shift towards a more plural sports culture would be no bad thing. A game mired in the misbehaviour of the super-rich, with vastly inflated estimates of their ability when it comes to most of the England players, football is going to face some sort of challenge when it seeks to reassert its status as the ‘national game.’ 2012 is already beung talked of as a ‘1966’ moment, if that proves to be the case then British sports culture will never afain accord football the status it has enjoyed for so long. But for that to happen the Olympic sports will have to also be transformed in terms of access for a much broader section of the population.

Football isn’t popular simply by accident, it is a simple game, with no expensive kit or facilities required and a professional base for those who have talent.

Our most successful Olympian on the track Mo Farah, was taking part in a sport with perhaps the most universal appeal of all, distance running. A sport that requires next to no kit, no facilities and offers for the lucky few a route out of poverty too via a professional circuit. Its universalism has sparked on occasion massive bursts of participation, the jogging boom of the late 1970s which led to the city marathons, half-marathons, 10ks and the rest.

Here lies the argument that to counterpose elite-level competitive sport with mass participation, mainly recreational, sport is divisive and futile. Elite success provides the media spotlight but routes to participation are socially conditioned and it should be the ambition of progressives to make access as diverse and equal as possible. 

The joyful crowds Olympic Park didn’t look anything like those joining in the celebrations in the surrounding boroughs of  Newham. Tower Hamlets and Hackney. This was perhaps London 2012’s greatest failing yet scarcely commented upon in all the well-deserved coverage given to a broadly diverse podium of Team GB  medal-winners. In terms of those privileged enough to have the tickets these were the Home Counties Games. The jobs created largely filled by a black urban working class, short term contracts, casual and not very well-paid either. A rather more uncomfortable picture of modern Britain than just focussing on the medal-winners but crucial to understanding how finishing third in the medals table might impact on having the third lowest levels of physical activity in all of Europe. To transform that imbalance requires an understanding that all sports are socially conditioned, by race, gender and yes, class. Sport for All is only possible if framed by such an understanding.

Yes, lets join in the celebrations, only the most one-dimensional version of progressive politics could fail to have been moved by these Games. But thats no reason to discard our critical faculties at the turnstiles either. I went to the Olympics as a fan, I remain a critic too. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. And after its all over I am still convinced that a critical sports politics should have a vital place in any popular project for human liberation. There is a danger that as activists welcome the return to the ‘real’ business of fighting the cuts and mobilising for the 20 October TUC demo we dismiss and discard the last two and a bit weeks. For many millions that experience was as real and as moving as any experience they are ever likely to have. An experience funded by the biggest single sponsor of the Games, and Team GB, the British taxpayer. The next time a politician demands austerity with the mantra ‘we cannot spend what we haven’t got’ they should be reminded of that pertinent fact. 

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



Saturday was my first Parkrun; for those who have never done one, it is a series of 5k races run at (give or take) 164 separate venues all around the country (and in 7 other countries round the world). There is no entry fee; all you have to do is sign up on the website, and print off your own barcode. The organisers time everybody and send you an email letting you know how you got on within a few hours of the race. Each Saturday 80,000 people take part, 3,000 of them for the first time. The phenomenon even has its own weekly radio show.

I was running at Finsbury Park in a race led off by ultra-runner Michael Wardian, who between 2007 and 2009 held the world record for running a marathon while pushing a baby in a buggy (in case you’re wondering, his time was 2hrs 42, which would be pretty decent even without the buggy).

I ran with a man called Adam. He told me how he’d started running: in Switzerland, on garden leave for a few months, he needed something to pass the time, and started up running less than a year ago. Having caught the bug, he is now in England, and has his sights set on a half marathon in the autumn.

The route itself took us twice round the eastern side of the park, up and down a gentle hill, and past the running track and the lake. Even before we had started, I could feel the calf tear which has weighed on my running all through the summer. I tried to compensate for it by keeping my feet low and my tread gentle on the ground.

Adam had one of those fantastic watches which you can use to give you a clear time for each kilometre, and from early on I could tell that we were running at only around 25-26 minute pace. I thought of running a little faster, but I preferred to finish without injury rather than risk a worse tear.

The day was bright, and all around I could sense the gentle cascade of the wind blowing through so many leaves.

I kept up with Adam to the last 300 metres, confident by then that he would break his own PB of 26 minutes (which he did) and kicked on for about the last minute, running it in about the same sort of pace that I had run the 800 metres on Monday. If anyone had been watching I’m sure they would have teased my “Hollywood finish”. In truth, when my legs are as week as they have been, I can’t run properly for more than a few hundred metres.

The race leaves me to reflect on why I run. I have plenty of friends who are capable of maintaining a competitive speed for far longer than I can. They make decent road runners. I know of others, even if I don’t count them in my immediate acquaintance, who see running as a chance to explore wild places, previously unknown to them. I lack the stamina or the opportunity (being London-based) to run like them.

What I enjoy best are those few seconds at the end where my body “clicks”, and I race at anything like my top speed.

The first London Olympic Marathon


What everyone knows about the marathon at London’s first (1908) Olympics – the extension of the distance from 25 miles to its present distance of 26 miles and 385 yards in order to accommodate a start at Windsor Castle – turns out to be the least interesting thing. There was no Royal conspiracy (even through there may have been some unnecessary planning by the Games’ organising Royalists). Focussing on the distance distracts us from the race itself, which was extraordinary.

As David Davis tells in his new book, Showdown at Shepherds Bush, racers had a very different training regime in those days. The favourite for the marathon, Tom Longboat, a Native American from Canada, drank and smoked heavily. He and his rivals relied on whisky or strychnine to revive them when they tired, or cold baths applied externally (the only strict “no” appears to have been a prohibition on drinking water to cure the runners’ thirst).

The crowd of 100,000 people waiting at the stadium in the White City for the finish of the marathon were read the names of the leading runners: originally, Thomas Jack and Jack Pack Price (both English, neither had ever previously run a marathon), later Charles Hefferon of South Africa, and then for the last two miles Dorando Pietri of Italy.

Pietri’s arrival in the stadium was far from a victory procession; “As I entered the stadium the pain in my legs and in my lungs became impossible to bear,” he wrote in the Italian magazine Sport Illustrato several years later, “It felt like a giant hand was gripping my throat, tighter and tighter. Willpower was irrelevant now. If it hadn’t been so bad I would not have fallen the first time. I got up automatically and launched myself a few more paces forwards. I no longer knew if I was heading towards my goal or away from it. They tell me that I fell another five or six times and that I looked like a man suffering from paralysis, stumbling with tiny steps towards his wheelchair. I don’t remember anything else. My memory stops at the final fall.”

Jack Andrew, the clerk of the course and Dr Michael Bulger of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association eventually lifted Pietri and pushed him over the line:

As Pietri finished, a second runner, Johnny Haynes of the USA, was just two minutes behind. In all probability, were it not for the assistance given to Pietri by Andrew and Bulger, Haynes would have won. The American sports association duly appealed and Pietri was disqualified.

I’d recommend Davis’ book. It’s written in a blood-and-thunder, 400 metres runner’s style. Everything is in the present tense, and the writer is searching – constantly – for arresting detail.  He focuses a bit too much on Johnny Haynes for my liking (Haynes being the least interesting character of the Pietre-Haynes-Longboat troika). But what carries Davis to the line is the history itself, and above all Pietri’s story.

Pietri’s defeat proved his making: one paper dubbed him “the man who won, but lost, and then won”. Awarded a special prize by Queen Alexandra, he was signed up by a promoter and and sent on a tour of London music halls. Newspapers raised public collections for him. Crowds cheered his departure from London. He raced professionally over the next three years, making an extraordinary £200,000 in prize money and twice beating Haynes.

Pietri’s triumph was made possible by his audience’s understanding of his sport. The 1908 marathon was the first ever raced in England. Merely running the event was seen to be an achievement at the very limit of human stamina. It dominated the Olympic Games in the same way that sprinters dominate in a digital age. Articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association took it for granted that marathon running did permanent serious damage to the heart. Pietri had given absolutely everything to finish – and he was loved for it. Those of us who have run and suffered the event should recall his name with pride.