Category Archives: Olympics

The Good, The Bad and the Orbit

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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/

The Counter Olympics Network relay

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A short film by activists from Save Leyton Marsh with the last 400 metres and the speeches, from last month’s anti-Olympic relay, featuring lots of nice footage of the torch (Julian Cheyne explains its history)

The first London Olympic Marathon

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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.

Caster Semanya; another athlete with a Games to celebrate

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Ten weeks ago, I listed three athletes who I hoped would do well at the Games: Mo Farah, Caster Semenya, and Bahaa al-Farra, the Palestinian 400m runner. I thought, between them, they might achieve three finals and one silver. I didn’t think it would be two silvers and a gold.

Al-Farra broke 50 seconds but did not make it through the first round.

Mo, I’ve discussed, and there’s no need to go back over his victories.

Dave Zirin encapsulates what it means to have Caster Semenya at the Games:

“Here is a phenomenal athlete who has had to endure all manner of allegations and innuendo simply because she does not fit the stereotypical body shape of a female runner.”

“This idea of binary gender norms is something that the Olympics—indeed the whole sports world—are going to have to address whether they like it or not. There will be more and more transgender athletes and this arbitrary dichotomy is going to be challenged. The idea that boys play in one place and girls in another is not something inherent to human nature; it is something that has had to be enforced and codified. Of course there will be different divisions of athletes, but why base this on gender? Why not on strength or speed or body mass? It is arbitrary and yet at the same time not arbitrary—it becomes yet another way to divide us and make us feel different from each other.”

Semenya has been roundly slated by the commentators, the suggestion being that she was naive to leave it so late in the 800 metres. Their other idea being that maybe she didn’t want to win Gold – not after the horror she had to endure after winning golds at the World Championship in 2009.

That’s not how I saw the race. Watching her, she seemed far bulkier than any of the other runners, and heavy on her feet. She was fighting hard to stay in contention, and was surprised to discover how much she had left in her legs.

You have to remember that Semenya has been injured for much of the past 12 months and hadn’t broken 2 minutes this year until the Olympic heats. Before the Games began, few serious commentators thought she would get a medal; even reaching the final was a victory for her.

She retains the leg speed to run a very fast 50 metres – she no longer has the right balance to be able to go (as by contrast David Rudisha can) seamlessly from anaerobic to aerobic exercise.

A way of thinking about how she runs is to imagine how Usain Bolt would race the 800 metres; he would just hope desperately to remain in the race until the end – knowing that if he did his last few metres would be devastating. That’s exactly how Semenya ran – not out of innocence nor in fear but in full knowledge of her body, and of fit (or not) she is just now.

In praise of Mo Farah

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To give you an idea of how well Mo Farah just run: until the Olympics, his best time in the 10,000 metres this year was only the 7th fastest any athlete had run in 2012. In the 5,000 metres, he wasn’t (and still isn’t) one of the fastest ten runners over the distance this year.

The genius of the race was that, in contrast to the 10,000 metres, which the other athletes gifted to Farah by refusing to lead from the front, leaving the race to whoever could sprint fastest, the 5k was a proper fight. Farah had to impose himself on the race. Into the last lap, he was leading from only 2-3 metres including from one athletes who is a specialist 1500 metres runners and should be expected to have a faster kick.

You can see how much better Farah ran in the 5k by the position of his training partner David Rupp in the two races: 2nd in the 10k, but only 7th in the 5k. Be clear: Rupp is a fantastic athlete in his own right. The only difference between him and Farah is desire.

And to run under 53 seconds in the last lap … To give you a comparison – David Rudisha just ran laps of 50 and 51 seconds in the 800 metres, and in doing so broke the world record. Farah was barely slower over his last lap having run six times as far.

Brendan Foster described it as the “greatest single moment in British athletics in my lifetime” – and this from a man who ran at three Olympics, won European and Commonwealth golds and was a world record holder.

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?

The Gender Games

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One of the most positive outcomes of Team GB’s success has been the prominence of Women Athletes winning medals. Author of a new book on the Olympics MARK PERRYMAN considers the likely long-term impact.

A World record crowd for a Women’s Football match. Three more Team GB Golds, all won by women athletes. The first ever Women’s boxing Gold, again won by a Team GB athlete. That was just yesterday, Thursday, at London 2012. For Team GB these Games have perhaps represented the single biggest challenge to the traditional masculine hegemony that to date has gripped British sporting culture.

And its not just in the ring, on the pitch or round the track. In the BBC TV studio Clare Balding has for most been the stand out presenter, putting the more than occasional hapless amateurism of Gary Lineker once he strays outside the comfort zone of football, to shame. In the Guardian  women sportswriters have enjoyed a prominence that was previously unheard of even in this paper. Marina Hyde, Anna Kessel and Emma John in particular. While prominent feminist columnists Zoe Williams and Suzanne Moore have contributed pieces echoing the approval of what the Games have come to represent.

All this less than a year after the notorious BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award managed to fail to feature a single sportswoman on the shortlist. To do that this December would be simply unthinkable.

Of course inequalities still exist. No Olympic Woman football, basketball or cycling star will ever earn even a fraction of the money their male counterparts are paid. But the Olympics does broadly treat Women’s versions of the medal sports on an equal basis with the male versions. Few, except the most embittered chauvinist, would treat Laura Trott and Victoria Pendelton’s achievements in the velodrome as somehow inferior to Jason Kenny and Chris Hoy’s. The Team GB women rowers were celebrated every bit as much as their male medal-winning counterparts, in fact arguably with even greater prominence. It is almost impossible to measure  the magnitude of  Jess Ennis’s Heptathlon Gold versus Mo Farrar’s 10,000m Gold. And while the most puerile sections of the media, and not a few men too, will sexualise the female athletes’ bodies in a degrading manner few male athletes will have to endure, this is no longer the dominant norm.

Last night’s Women’s Gold Medal Football match at Wembley was a sparkling occasion. The previous world record crowd for a Women’s Football match was 76,000, Wembley topped 80,000. The standard of play was for the most part superb, perhaps a tad less physical, a fraction slower but this makes for a more skilful, passing game. The goals were of the highest quality, Hope Solo in the US goal putting on a world class performance to keep the Japanese women at bay. No. its not the same as ‘men’s football’, but then why should it be. These superbly gifted footballers aren’t trying to play the men at the game blokes like to call their own, they’re playing something different.

With next to no dissent, the one solitary dive, a single yellow card in many ways the game was better too. In the stands the passion was different too, a much more joyful atmosphere than the one I’ve become too used to watching England. No one standing up to block my view and refusing to budge, no foul and abusive language wrapped in hate for others in the name of passion, and most of all none of the drunken, threatening misogyny that too many have excused over the years as just what lads at football get away with.

This has been a glorious two week break from the way sport has become perverted, particularly via football, a process excused by many, I include myself, in the cause of a supposed authenticity of our crowds’ passion. For that grip to be broken I propose one simple idea. Forget about bidding to host the men’s World Cup, 2026 is the earliest now that tournament might come here. Bid now for England to host the Women’s World Cup, the 2015 competition is in Canada, 2019 should be the target. Send out the clearest possible message that our national game belongs every bit as much to women as men. Use the positive euphoria around our women athletes’ achievements across a whole range of Olympic sports to unravel the hitherto impregnable male bastion of football. Take that brick out of the wall and male hegemony in sport would come crashing down, for the better. The FA has been scrabbling round for a sense of purpose ever since the Premier League took over the game and the national team proved incapable of getting past a quarter final, mired in the ever falling standard of behaviour of our players and clubs out of financial control. This would give football a mission, one fitting with a post-Olympics mood that compared to the way our Olympians conduct themselves our male footballers don’t compare. Nothing less will do. 

Mark Perryman is the author of the Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And

How They Can Be, £8 (£6 kindle edition) from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

Can David Rudisha run the perfect 800 metres?

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“I think two laps of 50 seconds are not out of sight” (Seb Coe, 22 December 1979).

The first runner to break 1.40 for the half mile will cross a boundary as impermeable as the 4 minute mile once seemed. To run it, you would have to run two laps in under 50 seconds each. There are relatively few runners who have the leg speed to manage even one lap at this time.

Step forward David Rudisha. Of the twelve times in history that any runner has broken 1.42, six have been run by Rudisha.

In his last three races before the Olympics, Rudisha ran on each occasion in under 1.42; in the first of them (at New York) he ran a first lap in under 50 seconds; in the second (the Kenyan trials) he ran a last lap in under 50 seconds; in the third (the Diamond League), he was back to an opening lap in sub-50 seconds.

I don’t doubt that Rudisha has broken 1.40 in training; the real question is whether he can do it in open competition?

If he does, then the Olympics deserve to be remembered for his achievement as much as any record that any other athlete breaks.