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 http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/