Mark Perryman, editor of the new book London 2012 How Was It For Us explores the meaning of sport one year on from the Olympics
In his excellent book chronicling the sins of modern football Richer Than God journalist David Conn sums up neatly the way the game has been commodified:
“All around us is a celebration and injunction to watch other people playing sport, the hype that supporting a professional football ‘club’ is compulsory, Sky TV’s relentless persuasion that paying £50 a month will provide endlessly exciting hours on the sofa, the newspapers, whose sections are wholly about following the skills of a very few, and almost never about helping people play sport themselves.”
A Manchester City fan, David in between celebrating City winning the league accounts for the consequences of what football has turned into: “Arriving at Manchester City, and all the other stadiums, to find the burger vans lined up and some seriously unhealthy looking middle-aged fans in extra-large replica shirt, who look like they have not broken into a jog for years, has become part of the landscape of football’s boom. Its flipside are the rotting public pitches and decline in people exercising. And it is seen as a great credit to England that we are exporting around the world our multimillion pound Premier League, for more people in other countries to watch on television.”
For the duration of the Olympics and a chunk of the Paralympics football didn’t enjoy its customary absolute dominance in the shaping of sports culture. But within days that domination was re-established and it’s been the same ever since. Football has led the way in the transformation of modern sport into a business, and it has grabbed the biggest share of the spoils too. But the Olympics has never been very far behind, and sometimes ahead in this particular race. It is a process founded on the commercialisation of sport’s traditions and the commodification of sport’s practice. The result, in the words of that wonderful quote from Marx, “ All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
After London 2012, and his victory in The Tour De France Bradley Wiggins was certainly a demi-god, but holy? Maybe. Cycling offers a potential counter to the commercialised and commodified meltdown Marx was prefacing, though perhaps not in the guise of Olympism. What other sport can you use as a way to get to work, to school or college, with a handlebar mounted basket or decent pair of panniers double up with a shopping trip? We can do it as a family , use it as a basis for a day out or for the more adventurous a holiday. Cycle for a good cause, challenge ourselves to beat clock and body completing a hundred-mile century ride. Never have to stand in a queue for a bus or wait for an overcrowded train, sail past cars stuck in a traffic jam and keep our carbon footprint small into the bargain. With Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s success in last year’s Le Tour, Lizzie Armistead and Emma Pooley on the roads too, Chris Hoy and, Victoria Pendelton being overtaken by a new generation headed up by Laura Trott on the track , we have the poster boys and girls of aspiration too. Its a potent mix yet the Olympics and elite success are only one part of cycling’s potential to engage those not active, or getting those who are, more active.
We may well be in the middle of a cycling boom. There are certainly reports that suggest this is so. Jackie Ashley in the Guardian wasn’t alone in dubbing 2012 while at the same time pointing to some of the messy contradictions that remain:
“A quarter of us, roughly, are obese, children as well as adults. Our urban air is filthy. We are using too much carbon. But the great thing is millions of us are getting the message. Real revolutions come from below, and this one is too. That’s perhaps the greatest message from 2012, the year of the bike.”
In the early 1980s it was the running boom that was making similar headlines. Accompanied by the success of Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott on the track jogging became a social phenomenon, the first London marathon was run, almost every city and town could boast a fun run of sorts, many raising funds for good causes. In the USA Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running became a best seller, pretty soon with a world-wide readership too. In GB it was the late, and no longer anything but great, Jimmy Savile who helped popularise the link between running and reducing the risk of heart disease. A Radio One DJ, chomping on his trademark cigar, wrists and chest covered in what today we call bling, the message seemed to be if JImmy could do it then anybody could, and tens of thousands of us did.
I was one of those. The first Olympics I can properly remember, Munich ‘72, a Games of Team GB disappointment on the track. With his Zapata moustache, trademark red socks and a cockiness that we traditionally didn’t associate with our Olympians, David Bedford was going to Munich to win, telling us back home to “stop what they were doing to watch him win a gold medal“. He never even came close, attempting the same double as Mo triumphed in at the 2012 Games Dave finished sixth in the 5000m, and a lowly twelfth in the 10,000m. A fantastic runner, a year later Bedford was to run a world record time for the 10,000m, at Munich though he failed to live up to my boyhood expectations. But another runner did catch my eye, Dave Wottle, a US athlete, who wore a battered old golf cap when he ran, symbolising an almost carefree attitude to his sport. When he won 800m gold with a quite incredible sprint to the line from almost last position he even forgot to take the cap off during the medal ceremony. Reviewing Wottle’s career the US magazine Running Times described his Munich victory as “marking the end of age of innocence for sport.” For me it was the beginning, and I’ve hardly stopped running since. In the 1980s just like cycling today, running seemed to be part of a boom, and by the 1990s commentators were dubbing the era ‘the Age of Sport’. Yet the twenty-first century has seen Britain report record levels of physical inactivity and obesity with all the health problems associated with both. Some run, cycle, swim too, most don’t.
Mark Rowlands is a philosopher of running, in his book Running With the Pack he makes two key observations of the sport. Firstly , for runners what we do has a variety of instrumental purposes. “Different people run for different reasons: some because they enjoy it, some because it makes them feel good, look good, because it keeps them healthy, happy even alive. Some run for company, others to relieve the stress of everyday life. Some like to push themselves, test their limits; others to compare their limits with the limits of others.”
But Mark then adds a second observation. That the appeal of running lies not in any of these reasons at all, the point of running is that it is pointless: “It is true that running has multifarious forms of instrumental value. However at its purest and its best running has an entirely different sort of value. This is sometimes known as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘inherent’ value. To say that something has intrinsic value is to say that it is valuable for what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow to get or possess. Running is intrinsically valuable, when one runs one is in contact with intrinsic value in life.”
As I clock up another week’s running mileage I’ve come to realise all those years on from Dave Wottle and the Munich ‘72 games that the appeal of an early morning run lies in that it has no purpose other than its appeal. Yes my legs are stronger and fat-free, I can run a distance and in a time plenty half my age couldn’t even start. But the instrumentalism of running will always disappoint. I’ve scarcely ever won a race, despite all those miles I’ve still got a bigger waistline than I’d prefer, running has left me less resistant to colds, flu and sundry other viruses.
So why do I run? Because its free and it is freedom, it is the most basic form of sporting activity, I run because I can. And the reason I can is in large measure socially constructed. I have a lifestyle which enables me to put ninety minutes or so aside most days for a run. I’m male, the dark mornings from October through to March don’t hold too much fear for me. Today I live on the edge of the South Downs, my gravest fear is a randy Bull taking an unnatural fancy to me. For twenty odd years though I ran along the towpath of the River Lea, circumnavigating what was to become the Olympic Park . In those two decades along my route there were two shootings, and on a couple of occasions I was chased by a variety of the deranged and the inebriated. Fortunately I have a decent finishing kick, which can come in useful when you least expect it. And when I started my running I went to a school with a playing field to run round, next to a heath too, the basic facilities to nurture my childhood enthusiasm existed. I’ve never joined a running club, this is a sport you can do individually or collectively, but when I wanted to race there were events I could easily and cheaply enter, family and friends to provide the transport and support I would sometimes rely upon. I have come to value and protect the time I spend on my runs, but in order to do so I had to have the time to run in the first place.
My access to my sport is socially constructed. All sports are. The best Olympic Games ever will be the one that both recognises this and changes it. London 2012 was one great party, me and tens of millions more, we’ll always be grateful for that. For a precious few it will have changed their lives, for most it hasn’t. You can’t keep politics out of sport. Sport is politics.
London 2012 How Was It For Us is published by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, David Renton, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Gareth Edwards, and others. Available pre-publication, £2 off, just £12.99, post-free signed by Mark Steel from here