Category Archives: Olympics

Johnson, Maradona, Tyson: defiance through sport

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johnson

Guest post by Sam Grove

Today is the 25th anniversary of Ben Johnson’s run of 9.79 at the Seoul Olympics; a race in many ways more glorious and shocking than Usain Bolt’s 100m in Beijing or his 9.58 run a year later in Berlin. If Bolt had both races won within 50 meters, Johnson had destroyed the field within 10 meters. Caught up in the exhilaration of the race I took a look at the splits for Johnson and Bolt’s respective records

Bolt_Johnson

Reaction Time 0.146_0.132

0-10m                1.89_1.83

10-20m              0.99_1.04

20-30m              0.90_0.93

30-40m              0.86_0.86

40-50m              0.83_0.84

50-60m              0.82_0.83

60-70m              0.81_0.84

70-80m              0.82_0.85

80-90m              0.83_0.87

90-100m            0.83_0.90

=                          9.58_9.79

There are a number of things to note from these splits:

– Johnson would have had a lead of 0.07 seconds translating to approximately 0.7m after just 10metres. It was the greatest start in the history of the 100m.

– However Johnson’s lead was down to 0.02 seconds at the 20m mark, approximately 0.2m. That is Bolt pulled back half a meter on Johnson in just 10 meters.

– From 10m mark onwards Bolt took 3 meters off of Johnson.

– Johnson’s pick up was what won him the race in Seoul. From 30-60m he was almost stride for stride with Bolt. He left his rivals, Carl Lewis among them, completely behind in those 30m.

– Bolt’s 60-70m is the fasted 10meters anyone has ever run (0.81). By quite a margin. The fastest anyone else has ever gone is 0.83.

Of course the statistics don’t tell the whole story; or at least not in Johnson’s case. The story of Bolt’s race really did last less than ten seconds. Johnson’s run in Seoul had a prologue and postscript which prolonged its narrative for many years. The story arguably began back in the 1984 Olympics when the rivalry with Lewis started (Johnson was run into third place by Lewis), and continued to build over the next four years culminating in their last ever race together. The story then obviously continued when Johnson failed a drugs test a couple of days later. Arguably the story continues today as the shadow cast over the sport has not gone away. If anyone ever runs faster than 9.58 Bolt’s legend will be tarnished. Johnson’s notoriety is timeless.

If I was ever to write a book about sport it would be to draw upon the elective affinity between Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, and Ben Johnson. All three were short explosive men that would literally tear through much larger taller men. Watching Johnson run, Tyson fight, and Maradona play football is unlike anything else their respective sport has ever seen. Before or since. It isn’t beautiful, its obscene.

Their sporting peaks were as shocking as much as beautiful, as outrageous as they were dominant. Maradona’s finest hour was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In the quarter final against England the first goal was brazen, the second majestic. England were left cheated and humiliated. Tyson’s destruction of Michael Spinks a couple of months before Johnson’s run in Seoul lasted for about as much time. Within twenty seconds the referee, Frank Capuccino, was already warning Tyson for throwing elbows. A minute later Spinks was down for the first time in his career. Seconds later he was down for the second time and lying through the ropes. If Johnson in hindsight had the race won in 10m, that wasn’t the expectation. Everyone knew Johnson had a great start, but Lewis was the fastest finisher in the world. For Johnson to have extended his lead over Lewis from 30-70m was impertinent.

Their performances were as much defined by the manner of their opponents defeat. The two moments that stand out in the England/Argentina quarter final were the wretched look on the England manager Bobby Robson’s face when the referee awarded the first goal, and Peter Reid’s somnambulation for Maradona’s second goal. If many experts had picked Spinks to win before the fight, they weren’t by the time the fighters touched gloves. Spinks had the look of a man condemned giving the iconic end picture a sense of inevitability. Lewis was so flustered by Johnson’s start that he twice ran out of his lane. If the defining moment of Johnson’s career was his raising his hand in victory with 10meters to go, what made it so emphatic was the anguish on Lewis’s face as he looked across to witness Johnson’s celebration.

All three performances were within a two year period of each other. It was the latter half of the 1980s when the commercialisation of sport was really taking off. All three represented huge commercial prospects, but none of them were equipped to handle what this entailed. These were basically young troubled kids from very poor backgrounds. Tyson grew up in the notorious district of Brownsville in Brooklyn New York where from a young age he had got into trouble with gangs. Johnson was a Jamaican immigrant living in Canada who had turned to sprinting as a defence against being bullied. Maradona was from a shanty town in Lanus, with an indigenous heritage. All three had their problems with drugs. Johnson infamously so. Maradona was also on steroids from an early age and then was a cocaine addict for most of his career. He was sent home from the ’94 World Cup in similar circumstances to Johnson. Tyson was a drug addict for his whole career (although there isn’t any evidence he used performance enhancing drugs).

All three saw themselves as outsiders to the sports that wanted to make them their public face. And of course they were outsiders. Despite being money making machines the authorities quickly became highly ambivalent about them; an ambivalence that climaxed with their peak performances. They had provided the defining moments of their respective sports for a generation, but the authorities were not prepared to accept them. Tyson had originally been marketed as the troubled kid come good. By the time he fought Spinks and with a host of tabloid scandals behind him he was ‘the baddest man on the planet’. Maradona had only recently left Barcelona having fallen out with the president. This was his last game for the club. The scandal surrounding Johnson began at the 1987 World Championships. Upset at the manner of his defeat, Lewis, the biggest name in the sport, initially claimed that Johnson had false-started, then complained of a stomach virus, before finally making this famous allegation—‘There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don’t think they are doing it without drugs.’ It later transpired that Lewis himself had failed a drugs test the following Olympic year. The golden boy of athletics kept his gold medal.

Johnson, Tyson and Maradona were far more comfortable playing the roles of rebels. Tyson and Maradona embraced this status in a much more overt political way than Johnson ever did. Both sport Che Guevara tattoos and have spoken out harshly against racism and imperialism respectively. Johnson kept to the micropolitics of his sport – claiming, with some justification, that he was a scapegoat for a problem that is endemic.

The Seoul Olympics spelled the end for Johnson as a competitive sprinter. He made a forlorn attempt to make a comeback in 1992 only to stumble in the heats. Maradona enjoyed a few more successful years with Napoli before being effectively chased out of Italy and then Spain. Tyson defended his title a couple of times, before succumbing to the greatest upset in boxing history when he was knocked out by a 40-1 underdog. In the same year that Johnson retired and Maradona left Napoli, Tyson was convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington, an 18 year old beauty contestant from Rhode Island. She was just 18 years old. Her treatment, both by Tyson and subsequently by the media (who having spent years character assassinating Tyson were suddenly hellbent on closing ranks behind him) casts light on some of the contradictions within the concept of “defiance” presented here and serves as a reminder that the roles of victim and victimizer aren’t invariable. By the time he came out of prison he was a shadow of his former self.

Of course Maradona, Johnson and Tyson defeated themselves. No one made them take drugs or commit rape. However the drug addictions they were afflicted by and the violence at least Tyson inflicted were symptoms of a larger system of exploitation they were born into. When they became athletes they encountered this same system only more intimately. Their sports chewed them up and spat them out. What is more, all three of them understood this. This meant that even at their peak, when they had the appearance of being unstoppable, their display of power and domination had an element of defiance and rebellion to it. For one summer’s day in Seoul, Mexico City and New Jersey the tables had been turned—‘three small men tearing through much larger opponents’ is both graphic depiction and political metaphor. It is this that makes them and their performances so compelling.

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Mo Farah and the fight against racism

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Going into the London Olympics, Mo Farah was far from favourite for either of the events in which he was running. As for his first final, the 10,000 metres: Wilson Kiprop and Moses Masai of Kenya had both run the distance in 27 minutes earlier that summer, while the 2004 and 2008 Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele and his younger brother Tariku (both running for Ethiopia) both had times of under 27:05. Farah’s best time for the year was a mediocre 29 minutes and 21 seconds. Andy Bull of the Guardian tipped Bekele for a third gold: “From the mountain top he occupies, Farah is a figure somewhere in the foothills, a man only just beginning to prove himself capable of competing at the highest level.” In the 5,000 metres, Farah had run a decent 12:56.98, but at just one race in July 2012, the Diamond League in Paris, ten Kenyan or Ethiopan runners had finished faster than this time.

As a black British athlete Farah was forced to carry further burdens. Weeks before the Games, an anonymous article in the Daily Mail complained that there were 61 “plastic Brits” in the Olympic squad. The article gave examples of nationality-swappers such as a formerly Ukrainian wrestler Olga Butkevych who had been granted a UK passport only in 2012 at the age of 26. The figure of 61 plastic Brits was gathered by counting every UK Olympic competitor to have been born (like Farah) outside Britain. Its journalists illustrated the piece with a photograph not of (white) Olga Butkevych nor of (white) Bradley Wiggins (born in Belgium to an English mother) but of Yamile Aldama, a black triple jumper who had been born in Cuba.

Mo Farah’s first event was the 10,000 metres. At the start, Kenenisa Bekele made his way straight to the front, with Farah in second. Yet far from stretching the pack, Bekele in fact slowed the race, going through 400 metres in just 65 seconds. The pace then slowed further, so that when Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea hit the front, after six laps, his average time was just 76 seconds, or about 13 second per lap outside world record pace. Tadese, the world record holder for the half-marathon, might have been expected to hit the front hard and sustain a fast pace, yet having briefly opened a gap, Tadese raced hard for just one lap (in 61 seconds; after which Farah was down in twefth and seemed to be losing touch with the leaders) before allowing the race to settle again into a pace of 64-65 second per lap, allowing “sprinters” such as Farah and his training partner Galen Rupp to narrow the gap on the leaders.

Three countries had teams of athletes in contention: Kenya (with two runners; Kiprop having pulled out after losing his shoe mid-race), Ethopia (three still in contention) and Eritrea (three). Victory would have required only a first runner in the team to set a fast enough pace, and a second (or third) to stick with them. Athletes hate running like a team; nobody wants to be the “bunny” who sets a hard pace, knowing they will not sustain it and will have to drop out, and someone else will benefit from their pacing. But the refusal to run collectively – this shared cowardice – cumulatively gifted the race towards athletes known for their fast finishes.

Mo Farah’s race winning time was slow: outside the top 20 races run all year; half a minute down on the best Kenyan times for 2012, 45 seconds outside his personal best, and 75 seconds outside the world record. Yet one part of the race, above all, was impressive: Farah’s last lap was run in just 53 seconds, a shattering 9 seconds faster than any other lap he ran all race.

The final of the men’s 5000 metres followed the script of the 10000 metres, with a series of athletes coming to the front briefly before slowing immediately on reaching the head of the race. Farah was one of barely a handful of runners “doubling up” by running in two events (Rupp was another; while Abadalataai Iguider of Morocco combined the 5000 metres with the 1500 metres in which he came third). Unlike the others, it was his third tough race in a week. To a far greater extent than in the 10000 metres, Farah had to fight to impose himself on the race. Into the last lap, he was leading from only 2-3 metres from a group of runners including Bernard Lagat of America a former Olympic silver medallist over 1500 metres, and Iguider, each of whom could have been expected to have a faster kick.

Farah’s winning time was again very slow: 64 seconds outside the world record, well outside the top 20 times run in the year. At 13 minutes 41 seconds, Farah was more than 15 seconds slower than the slowest time that any of the runners had run in qualifying for the final. Once again Farah’s victory was down to his sprint. As in the 10,000 metres, he ran the last lap in 53 seconds. By way of comparison, at the same Games, David Rudisha of Kenya ran laps of 50 and 51 seconds in the 800 metres final, and in doing so shattered the world record. Farah was only two seconds slower over his last lap having run six times as far.

Beyond Biggles

“Racism”, Dave Widgery of Rock Against Racism (RAR) once wrote, “is as British as Biggles and Baked Beans. You grow up anti-black, with the golliwogs in the jam, the Black and White Minstrel Show on TV and CSE dumb history at schools. Racism is about Jubilee mugs and Rule Britannia and how we won the War…” Widgery continued by referring to the visible racists of the National Front, then active on Britain’s streets, before turning his fire on what we would today consider the “institutional racism” of the police, courts and immigration system: “Outwardly respectable but inside fired with the same mentality and the same fears, the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with the cold sneering authority, the immigration men who mock an Asian mother as she gives birth to a dead child on their office floor, policemen for whom answering back is a crime and every black kid is a challenge.”

Yet anti-racism too is a British tradition, and it has taken many forms, sporting as well as (like RAR) musical. Many football fans will be familiar with the story of how John Barnes, on signing for Liverpool in 1987, become only the club’s second black player, and received racism initially from both away and home fans before winning over the Anfield crowd by his brilliance on the pitch. It is a story encompassed in a famous photograph of Barnes back-heeling away a banana which had been thrown onto the field. Most football clubs in Britain have something like their own “John Barnes” story, and most sports have their “John Barnes” moments. National sporting teams play a part in this story; with anti-racists using their multiracial character as a rebuke to the racism of the politicians. In 2009, BNP leader Nick Griffin told a radio 1 journalist that English footballers Rio Ferdinand and Theo Walcott were not ethnically British; a racist sound-bite that the Labour-supporting Mirror newspaper quoted back at him during the 2010 election.

The iconic image of the Games was the sight of Farah swapping his “Mobot” celebration with 100 metre champion Usain Bolt’s “lightning Bolt”. Former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen tweeted, “Nick Griffin just choked on his dinner when Mo Farah won. Been rushed to hospital. An Asian doctor is treating him.” “Mo Farah’s famous victories in the 10,000m and 5,000m seemed like a validation of British society’s inclusivity and openness”, Oliver Holt wrote in the Mirror, “They felt like a victory for tolerance and acceptance, a thumb in the eye to the BNP and bigots ­ everywhere.”  Even papers usually associated with the Conservative Party were briefly willing to promote a similar message that Farah’s victory proved the viability of an England increasingly people by migrants. In the Daily Mail, Yasmin Alibhai Brown quoted Farah’s answer, after his victory in the 10,000 metres, when he was asked if he’d rather be representing Somalia, “Not at all, mate. This is my country.” “Mo Farah has sent a message of hope to all migrants” said the Evening Standard.

In the 1980s popular views on racism moved to the left (even while society, in other ways, was moving to the right). More recently however, there has been a sustained increase in racism, encouraged by politicians from each of the main parties but finding an unwelcome resonance in popular attitudes. It began with New Labour’s relabeling of refugees as “bogus asylum seekers”, continued with press attacks on Muslims during the hot days of the War in Terror and the easy ride given by the same papers to the anti-immigrant “think tank” Migration Watch, took in David Cameron’s courting of UKIP and EDL supporters by denouncing multiculturalism, and has continued right up to David Starkey’s verbal assault on the London rioters (one of whom was Farah’s brother) as “whites who have become black”.

The old racism of the 1970s looked ridiculous in the bright glare of the Mo-moment; and even the “new racisms” were temporarily silent in response to the victory of this Muslim former child refugee.

After twenty years of defeats, the Mo Farah moment articulated anti-racism in a visual, digital form, immediately, without requiring any of the “cultural translation” through the newspaper form in which the left specialises, but which in an age of social media leave most people cold. The challenge is to convert enthusiasm into the sinews of permanent campaigning against the racism that continues to affect so many lives: against ethnic profiling by police officers, against deportation, against racial bias in sentencing.

“Only connect”: we need an anti-racist idiom that joins up the sports fan with the protester against deaths in custody; the blogger with the athlete; the radical artist with the hundreds of thousands who grasp that racism is a poison and are open to the activist’s question, “so what do we do about it?”

For a moment, Mo reminded millions of all of us of the essential sameness of our lives, and of the brutality of the racism which treats the same experience so differently. His victory was a step in advance of the great strides that are still to come.

The above is an extract from my chapter in London 2012 How Was It For Us, published last week by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Gareth Edwards, and others. Available pre-publication, £2 off, just £12.99, post-free signed by Mark Steel from here

Sport: better watched or done?

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We know what capitalism has in mind for the future of sport; we can see the neo-liberal vision every day of our lives. Sport is increasingly defined as an activity which only the most unusual people can do, whether millionaire footballers or superhero Paralympians. Sport must be as competitive as the market, with which it is increasingly intertwined. Activities such as gymnastics, dance, walking, which humans have done together collectively for countless millennia, can find a limited place in the sporting world but only where they are done in a spirit of competition.

The increasing rigours of work in an age of austerity mean that the vast majority of people are too time-poor to do anything with sport but watch it. Indeed, we watch sport from further and further away. Here, as so often, football shows the way to all other sports. Watch old photographs of the crowd at the Hillsborough FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989 and you will see something as distant to our time as Richard Arkwright’s spinning machine which launched the Industrial Revolution: namely a football crowd predominantly composed of people in their early 20s or younger (37 of the 96 dead were teenagers). In the modern Premiership of £2000 per year season tickets, few workers under 30 can afford to get in. The average spectator watching Premiership football live is in their mid-40s. Younger supporters make do, not with watching games live in the flesh but watching them on television, not on free-to-view programmes but on satellite channels, not on ordinary subscriptions but on pay-to-view tariffs. Supporters are driven to scouring the internet for clips of goals, mere fragments of games.

No sport is exempt from this dynamic of holding the spectator at further and further remove from the action. Live Test cricket is banished to satellite, so are the various Cricket World Cups. Watch the footage of West Indies’ victory at the 1975 World Cup Final at Lords and you will see an audience, young, mixed in terms of both race and gender, responding jubilantly to every boundary. You will not see the young or the poor at the 2013 Ashes, not when ticket prices start at £80 per head.

For football in particular this banishing of the spectator is extraordinarily self-defeating. Take away the intense passion of its supporters and football would be just another sport, as well-paid and as culturally significant as handball or darts.

Force people physically away from live sport, and their ability to grasp it is diminished. Their perspective is narrowed and flattened. In the women’s 800 metres finals at the Olympics, the consensus of those who commentated on the event was that Caster Semenya could and would have won gold if only she had started her final sprint 50 metres beforehand. It was the judgment of people who followed the event on a screen, focussing (as the camera does) on the action at the head of a race, not on those – like Semenya – struggling at the halfway point to keep up with the early leaders.

Watching live sport gives invariably a broader canvas, a better chance than technology ever allows to peer back from the moment, to view the whole, to see the runs at the side of the action, to grasp tactics and the personality of all the players. Of course, a minority of sports are hard to grasp live (cycle touring, I am told, is a case in point). The problem of late capitalism is its refusal to allow both a broad perspective and the intimate view that you can only get in the flesh.

The taming and corporatisation of sport has enabled a certain kind of journalism and academic writing to flourish in which it is perfectly legitimate to analyse sport as a variety of business, going deeper than the performance of individual players to analysing the accounting profit on player sales, relative wages of rival clubs expressed as a proportion of business turnover etc, the metrics in short which explain not the outcome of a game but of an entire season. Even the Financial Times now has its own sports columnists, such as Simon Kuper, advising a mid-Atlantic audience on the viability of the various Anglo-US sports franchises. The Guardian employs its own counterparts, such as David Conn, to cast a more sceptical eye over the companies’ accounts.

A socialist analysis of sport worthy of the name cannot begin and end with the visual spectacle of performance; it must absorb the insights of those interested in the workings of business and go beyond even them. It must dig deeper.

Anyone interested in the story of football should have a consciousness of the dramatic importation of the visual symbols of contemporary football support (i.e. banners, team scarves, hats) and its sounds (not songs but chants) in double-quick time at the start of the early 1960s, alongside other traditions which now belong only to history (e.g. swaying from side to side by thousands on the terraces). Among the best source material is the BBC’s Panorama film of the Anfield Kop in 1964 complete with interviews with fans explaining why they were “fanatic” about their team.

There could be no sufficient history of (for example) the Hillsborough disaster which did not take at least some account of the supporters’ position in the context of both the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985, which outlawed causing or permitting alcohol to be carried on coaches or trains, being drunk in a sports ground, taking alcohol into a sports ground, and possession of fireworks at a sports ground and the policy obsession of the Thatcher government with compulsory identification cards for football spectators which formed a kind of “bridge” between the desire of senior South Yorkshire police officers to shield their force from criticism and the willingness of the Sun newspaper to lie about the dead.

As ever, the need to understand both performer and spectator applies not merely to football but also to other sports. Left-wing cricket writers have usually been most enthusiastic about the form of five-day Test cricket, a kind of sport which has the capacity to give intense meaning to passages of play lasting barely a few seconds. Yet in CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary, the beating heart of English cricket was said to be league cricket, a one-day, limited over format, aesthetically bereft of Test cricket’s more careful pace, but within which the proletarian crowd was a much greater force in shaping the total scene.

In more recent times, the true state of British athletics is best illustrated not by the crowds that turned out for the Olympics or the Paralympics, but the half-empty stadium for the British Olympic trials in Birmingham just five weeks before. This was the second most important athletics meeting in Britain for decades, far cheaper to enter than the Olympics themselves, and with large numbers of global celebrities to watch as well as cameos from UK athletes including Mo Farah. Athletics had a real and sustainable mass following in 1980s Britain which it lacks today. This is one reason why the supposed Olympic “legacy” of mass participation will prove a mirage.

The socialist vision for sport goes deeper even than the joining up (important though that is) of what happens on and immediately around the field of contest. Part of Marx’s vision of socialist society was a world in which any person could in one day successively hunt, fish, shepherd animals and write philosophy. There are at least two parts to this vision: a first in which occupational categories have been smashed to bits and anyone can do anything, plus a second (logically prior to this) in which the knowledge on which any occupation rests has been shared universally.

Applying the same principles to sport would mean that anybody could have access to any sporting competition. Of course, something a bit like this happens even now, as during those barely watched 2012 Olympic trials where the 50 year old athlete Roald Bradstock threw 72.78m in the javelin, enough to some second, and taking him closer to an Olympic place than at time since his previous Olympic selection 24 years before. Bradstock is now the holder of the certified world record for the over-50 javelin, a fitting finale to a life spent claiming unofficial records, for throwing iPods, boiled eggs, golf balls, telephones and dead fish.

Bradstock’s journey may not have been consistently serious but it reminds us that one obstacle to a world of genuine sporting choice is the need of sports businesses to arbitrarily limit the range of activities which can be considered sport. The Workers Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s included performances of poetry and song, mass hikes, chess games, lectures and art, group gymnastics, and countless ways of being physically active that required little if any competition.

From the perspective of the future, a major unachieved “prize” to which all of humanity tends is the liberation of the working day. The cheapening of information technology has fuelled, over the past three decades, the most extraordinary increase in the collective productive capacity of all humanity. Computerisation and miniaturisation are meta-technologies; almost everything that people do has been made more efficient. Yet this new industrial revolution has been used nowhere to reduce the time that people spend on repetitive or menial tasks, instead we see their continuous re-entrenchment. The total number of hours worked by the average person is rising simultaneously in China, Iran, the US, and in every country in between. Meanwhile, the global speed-up is not altogether without purpose; in the US, the income of the richest 1% rose by 275% between 1979 and 2007 (the income of the poorest 20% rose, over the same period, by merely 18%).

There should be no distinction between “work” and “art”, “culture”, “leisure” or “sport”. There should be no reason why any one of us at 2pm of an afternoon should be incapable of going on any day for a cycle, a run or a swim. The person who exercises is a person recharged. They are more creative as a result.

What holds back this re-integration of mind and body is capitalism’s subordination of everything to profit and the principle which follows from it that no worker can be trusted to use their time intelligently but must always be managed by another person. But if work really was something that could be done in a few hours of concentration and if sport, along with art and music, was allowed to fill those vacant hours, how much richer the lives of all of us would be. This, ultimately is the socialist vision of sport, a world in which anyone really could do anything.

On watching sport

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More people want to watch sport, but when this desire interacts with inequality of wealth and access, the result is that fewer and fewer people are allowed in. No event illustrates this more neatly than the recent London Olympics. As the London Metro reported yesterday:a vast operation was at work to make sure that the most desirable tickets were kept out of the hands of ordinary spectators and reserved instead for corporate sponsors.

Only 3% of tickets for World number 1 Novak Djokovic’s opening match in the tennis went on general sale, with the vast majority going to sponsors. Less than half of the tickets for the cycling went on general sale; most of those that were sold were kept in the “top” price bands of £150-£325. LOCOG promised to keep half of all tickets in every event affordable (ie under £20).  This target was missed for every single sport with the sole exception of the unloved Olympic football.

The problem is hardly restricted to London 2012. The increasing rigours of work in an age of austerity mean that the vast majority of people are too time-poor to do anything with sport but watch it. Indeed, we watch sport from further and further away. Here, as so often, football shows the way to all other sports. Check old photographs of the crowd at the Hillsborough FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989 and you will see something as distant to our time as Arkwright’s spinning machine which launched the Industrial Revolution; a football crowd composed of people in their early 20s or younger (37 of the 96 dead were teenagers).

In the modern Premiership of £2000 per year season tickets, few workers under 30 can afford to get in. The average spectator watching Premiership football live is now in their mid-40s. Younger supporters make do, not with watching games live in the flesh but watching them on television, not with scanning free-to-view programmes but with satellite channels, not on ordinary subscriptions but on pay-to-view tariffs. Supporters are driven to scouring the internet for clips of goals, even though they are mere fragments of games.

No sport is exempt from this dynamic of holding the spectator at further and further remove from the action. Live Test cricket is banished to satellite television, so are the Cricket World Cups. Watch the footage of West Indies’ victory at the 1975 World Cup Final at Lords and you will see an audience, young, mixed in terms of both race and gender, responding jubilantly to every boundary. You will not see the young or the poor at the 2013 Ashes not when ticket prices start at £80 per day.

For football in particular this banishing of the spectator is extraordinarily self-defeating. Take away the intense passion of its supporters and football would be just another sport, as well-paid and as culturally significant as handball or darts.

Force people physically away from live sport, and their ability to grasp it is diminished. Their perspective is narrowed and flattened. In the women’s 800 metres finals at the Olympics, the consensus of those who commentated on the event was that Caster Semenya could and would have won gold if only she had started her final sprint 50 metres earlier. It was the judgment of people who followed the event on a screen, focussing (as the camera does) on the action at the head of a race, not on those – like Semenya – struggling at the halfway point to keep up with the early leaders. Watching live sport gives invariably a broader canvas, a better chance than technology ever allows to peer back from the moment, to view the whole, to see the runs at the side of the action, to grasp tactics and the personality of all the players.

Late capitalism refuses to allow both a broad perspective and the intimate view that you can only get in the flesh.

Samia Yusuf Omar: the Other Olympian

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Many thanks to Dick Gregory for sending me the story of Samia Yusuf Omar, who ran for Somalia in the 2008 Olympics, and whose death (in April 2012) was only reported by the world’s news media this month.

Omar competed at the 200 metres, finishing her heat about 40 metres behind the other runners.We are all familiar with the cliches of the Olympic athlete overcoming immense obstacles merely in order to compete, but in Omar’s case they had a basis in fact. She lived in Mogadishu, among six siblings in a two bedroom house, her family selling fruit and vegetables to survive. She trained without access to a running track, by jogging on the streets of the city. To avoid being harassed for wearing “men’s clothes”, Omar trained in a head scarf, long sleeve shirt, and sweat pants. She was one of only two Somalia athletes who competed at Beijing.

Omar tried to relocate to Ethiopia, after becoming a target for Islamist militia, but it seems that this move was unsuccessful. And earlier this year she died in an accident, while attempting to cross by boat from Libya to Italy. It is said that she had been hoping to find a coach in Italy and compete at London 2012.

The Somali athlete Abdi Bile, a former World Champion over 1500 metres, recently compared her situation to that of the Somali-born British athlete MoFarah: “We are happy for Mo – he is our pride … but we will not forget Samia.”

When athletes spoke their minds (2)

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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

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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.