Originally published at: http://inside-left.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/lives-running-hack-review.html
Guest post: With his book offering a blueprint for a better Olympics published this week author Mark Perryman explains his Five New Rings.
Seb Coe and the London Olympics Organising Committee, Cameron and his hapless Minister of Culture, Jeremy Hunt, their predecessors, Brown, Blair and Tessa Jowell. All of them cling to a bipartisan consensus that everything to do with the Olympics is fine, nothing the International Committee and their sponsors demand needs to be questioned. It was a consensus which in London managed to unite those otherwise polar opposites, Boris and Ken, too, in solid agreement that the Olympics would be without doubt a good thing for the city.
Add the sports media, led by the BBC, which appears to have had all critical faculties surgically removed in the cause of Olympic cheerleading, to amplifies this all-embracing mood of agreement. Yet the discontent outside the parliamentary and media bubble is very obvious. Not an organised campaign of resistance but on issues ranging from the lack of tickets to the privileges enjoyed by the IOC and sponsors there is a mood of discontent.. Whilst more broadly there exists a deep-seated popular cynicism that the Games won’t be the benefit that they they are claimed to be. It is a discontent that is barely reported upon yet it basis is well-founded. There is scarcely a scrap of evidence from any previous Games of economic regeneration or a sustainable boost in employment. Not one recent Olympic host nation can point to an increase in sport participation levels as a result of the Olympics. And as for tourism, the Olympics leads to a decrease in visitors not an increase as the Travel Industry , which has no reason at all not to be one of the Games’ biggest supporters, has repeatedly pointed out.
Despite all this not one politician, nor a single sports administrator, none of the well-resourced think-tanks, and no journalist or broadcaster has come up with a plan for a better Olympics for all. This is what my book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, uniquely sets out to do. If a popular Left politics is to mean anything surely it is not just about pointing out the inadequacies of what we are against but constructing in our imaginations what an alternative might look like. A Games of Two halves, critique and vision.
I love sport, my book is not in any sense anti-Olympics, and I joyfully admit I will be amongst the first o be consumed by the excitement of the Games once they begin. But I also firmly believe that they could have been so much better and the discontent with how they have been organised to the effective exclusion of the many who could so easily have have been part of them is far too important to ignore as the Gold Medals are hung around Team GB athlete’s necks.
My ‘New Five Rings’ are really quite simple, they re founded on the core democratic principle that to make a ‘home’ games worthwhile they must be organised with the objective that the maximum number of people must be able to take part. If not then its the remote control and the sofa for most of us, and thus the Games might as well be anywhere else but here, minus both the expense and the inconvenience.
Ring One, a decentralised Games, taking place all over the country, a local Games for the large parts of the population, if such a structure is good enough for the World Cup, why not for the Olympics? This one change would at least make major parts of the Olympic programme geographically accessible.
Ring Two, a games with the objective of maximum participation. Across the country we have huge stadiums, mainly football grounds, yet capable of being used for a vast range of Olympic sports. But virtually none are being utilised, centralising all events in London venues with much smaller capacities that would otherwise be available slashes the size of audience who can attend and increases the ticket price for the few, instead of lowering those prices for the many.
Ring Three, shift the bulk of the programme outside of stadiums entirely for large scale free-to-watch events. A cycling Tour of Britain, A Round Britain Yachting race, a canoe marathon, open water swimming events in our Lakes and Lochs. The true measure of London’s chronic lack of ambition is the scrapping of the Marathon route, one of the few current free-to-watch Olympic events. The 26.2 London Marathon route which is lined each year with hundreds of thousands of spectators has been replaced by 4 six mile laps, reducing the potential audience by a 75% , yet this has scarcely been commented upon by media commentators too busy with their LOCOG cheerleading.
Ring Four, Olympics sports that are universally accessible. The same countries always win the Equestrian, Yachting and Rowing events while entire continents have never won a single medal in these events . The same goes for cycling, fencing, modern pentathlon and large parts of the whole programme. These are sports that require vast investment, specialist facilities and except cycling have next to no mass appeal. Compare the breadth of countries which have won boxing, football, middle and long distance running distance medals. These are sports requiring no expensive kit or facilities, use simple rules, and have massive appeal,. Sports should be chosen because of their accessibility and then given targets to prove it. If they fail to do so, drop them and replace them with others. My favourite candidate for reintroduction is the tug-of-war, which last featured at the 1920 Games. It is one of the most basic sports imaginable, all that is required is a length of sturdy rope, the teams could be mixed which is another plus, and in a packed stadium a tug of war competition is a potential crowd pleaser too, at least as much if not more than some of the privileged sports currently enjoying Olympic status.
Ring Five. A symbol of sport not a logo for the sponsors. Reverse the priorities, the only use permitted for the precious Olympics Five Rings sport should be by voluntary and community groups on a not-for-profit basis to promote sport, The sponsors banned from any use of the Five Rings. They need sport just as much as sport needs their millions yet sport over and over again sells itself short bending over backwards to accommodate the sponsors ever-escalating demands. The biggest sponsor of London 2012? You and me, the taxpayer.
In his excellent review of the book for this website Gareth Edwards raises two important issues.
First, are the Olympics capable of being reformed, short of a revolution? The answer to that one is likely to be found in debates a tad broader than the chances of getting a ticket to the 100m final. But my broad response is that the fittest task of critics is to highlight the contradictions in a system of the sort the IOC has put in place in order to preserve its own, and associated corporate, interests. All the claims made for the Games benefits are funded on the flimsiest of evidence. The way London 2012 has been organised for the few, not the many, makes the idea of a ‘home’ games a nonsense for most fans. Push at the boundaries of these contradictions, and if a revolutionary moment is required to effect the kind of changes I describe, then I won’t lose any sleep over that eventuality.
Second, how about constructing an alternative outside of the structures of the official Games. Gareth points to the excellent example of the Workers’ Olympics of the 1930s, there wee both socialist and communist versions, which on occasion were bigger than the official version. Again it’s not a position I reject, not at all. BUt I would say that the global movements which framed these Games in the 1930s, whatever their undoubted flaws, simply don’t exist today to provide the kind of all-embracing narrative for such a project. I would begin closer to home, if the Trade Unions and broader progressive movement was to start to create sports festivals of an alternative, pre-figurative, type centred on the virtue of play that Gareth has also eloquently described then the building blocks towards something bigger may at least become evident. The signs so far, sadly, of efforts in this direction are not good.
As the Olympics has grown the the Games have come to represent far more than just sport. For some critics that means they with to demolish everything they now stand for. Not me, I want to build a new Olympics, to take the best of the Games I first fell in love with and have the sticker albums to prove it and reimagine with the help of principles founded on equality, diversity and access I hold dear. This should surely be the substance of politics, why then we should be asking has no such alternative, to date, been offered? Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, looks to redress that balance. Let the debate begin.
Published this week, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be costs £8 (£6 kindle edition) and is exclusively available from www.orbooks.com
By Gareth Edwards of Inside left
The Olympic Games are a contradictory affair. They are a product of spectacle and at the same time a spectacle of products, a festival of sport and a fortnight-long marketing extravaganza, they are used as a barometer of national strength and as a call for international respect and understanding. Jules Boykoff considers them “somewhere between multinational corporation and global institution”. The Games are a contradiction wrapped in a sponsorship deal wrapped in an ideal. And, overwhelmingly, they are political.
Mark Perryman’s new book, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, starts from the premise that sports and politics do mix. At present, however, the Olympics are governed and structured in such a way as to benefit the sponsors, host governments and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) while the rest of us look over our shoulders to see if the next round of austerity will put us on the dole. But what if they could be different? What if the power and idealism of the Olympics could be harnessed to create a Games that were good for us, all of us, rather than the sporting elite and the 1%
Mark re-imagines the five rings of the Olympic symbol so that each represents a value for a new Games: decentralization, participation, sport for free, sport for all, and sport as a value not as a commodity. In so doing Mark rages against the corporate takeover of the Games, where companies such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola use the Olympics as “just another means of exposure and branding to shift products”
But the main thrust of the book is to connect working class people to the Olympics in a way that is presently unthinkable. By having a host country rather than a host city, people nationwide would be able to experience the Games. Larger venues would enable more people to watch events – especially if the tickets were free (rather than the exorbitant price they are currently). More events could be held outside of arenas to maximise the possibility of people spectating. The section in which Mark talks about the London 2012 Olympic marathon brought the logic of these suggestions home to me. Instead of running the London marathon course as one might have expected, the organisers have changed the route to include Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament, reducing the possible sites for spectators in the process. The needs of sports fans pale into insignificance against those of the London Tourist Board.
For me, Mark is at his best when dealing with the deleterious effects of the Games. He gives short shrift to the myth of legacy, juggling a host of sources to dispatch the claims of the Olympic boosters. More young people play sport as a result of the Olympics? Actually participation rates fall as armchair enthusiasts are confronted by images of elite athletes with unattainable physiques. Hosting the Games results in a boom for the tourist industry? In fact people stay away from the chaos and congestion, and the event is unlikely to induce people to visit in the future. An opportunity for urban regeneration and renewal? Nothing could be further from the truth! Prime real estate is handed to property developers at knockdown prices and, if Athens is anything to go by, the city is left with a litany of unused, unwanted and expensive sporting venues.
And what of our experiences of the Games? The assorted heads of states and visiting dignitaries can expect chauffeur-driven limousines rampaging through specially designated lanes, top notch corporate hospitality, seats on the finish line for the 100m final, and complimentary tickets to perv at the beach volleyball. The rest of us can expect sonic cannons, missiles on the roof, a crackdown on dissent, and a huge bill at the end of it all. Even sports fans are excluded. Ticket lotteries have come and gone, touts have moved in to fill the void. The Games could be staged in London, Paris, New York or on the Moon, it wouldn’t matter. The vast majority of us will still only experience them through the images on television.
The Olympics have turned physical activity into something quite removed from our own everyday experiences of sport. In a wonderful passage, the most powerful of the book, Mark illustrates this with recourse to his own running: “I can see myself as part of a popular movement of people who enjoy sport purely for fun and therefore are the antithesis of all that the Olympics has come to represent. I run free, for free. No rules, no sponsors, no entry fee, no national pride, nobody’s stopwatch to calibrate the results except my own. I run because I can.” It is a most beautiful example of how play and sport differ.
But there are problems with the book. Firstly, it is too short. It has obviously been conceived as a small volume, but there was more than one occasion where I wished Mark had more space in which to develop his ideas. The section on universal accessibility, for instance, felt like it needed more time to fully explore the argument and issues it raised.
Equally the brief reference to the nature/nurture debate surrounding the success of the Kenyan distance runners will bring many a knowing nod from track and field followers, but non-sports fans would benefit from a little more exposition (or even a point in the right direction). Philosophy Football describes the book as “an argumentative sprint not a marathon of a thesis”; I would suggest a well-paced middle distance could have allowed for greater exploration without sacrificing any of the reformist zeal. Occasionally it feels as though argument is replaced by listed evidence, sometimes contradictions creep in but are not dealt with. Can you lament the lack of athletes in the Olympic Village and still call for a decentralised Games? Is darts – a professional sport monopolised by the British and Dutch – really the best example of an event that would improve accessibility?
Far more pressing than these minor gripes, however, is the question of how far it is possible to reform the Olympic movement. The IOC is a huge monolithic organisation, with enormous economic and political leverage. A report by One World Trust considered it to be the least accountable, least transparent, least democratic of all the transnational organisations it looked at – and this is no mean feat when you consider that it finished below the likes of Halliburton and Goldman Sachs. Reading the book I found myself often wondering aloud, “That’s all well and good, but HOW THE BLOODY HELL ARE WE MEANT TO DO IT?”
Perhaps I should have been asking, do we even want to? Is there really anything about the Olympics that we can reclaim? To phrase the question in such a way is to suggest that there was once something intrinsically good and noble about the Games that we might wish to resurrect. “I haven’t written this book to bury the Olympics,” writes Mark. “I want to revive them.” And it is on this point that he and I part company. Mark has written a book essentially detailing the neo-liberal Games, despite noting that they were far from perfect prior to the explosion of commercialism at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His suggestions on how to improve them are interesting but at no point does he move outside the framework for the Olympics laid down by that idealistic old aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin way back in the 1890s. For all the lofty talk of bringing humanity together, the early Olympics excluded women, and the Baron extended his bigotry to include racism and ant-Semitism. For all the talk of peace, war brought the Olympics to a halt in 1914 and Coubertin enlisted in the French army in 1916. By 1936 his idealism had led him to praise the Nazi organisation of the Games, saying that Hitler had “magnificently served, and by no means disfigured, the Olympic ideal”. A sporting event bringing together the people of the world may be a wonderful idea, but does it have to be the Olympics?
There is a long history – when the left has been weak, when no other alternative looks viable – of trying to reform institutions for the better, even when this is quite obviously impossible. Trying to reform the Games and the IOC would be like trying to get David Cameron and George Osborne to take out subscriptions to Socialist Worker. But there is another history – when the left has been strong – of building alternatives ourselves. In the 1920s and 1930s the left (both reformist and revolutionary) boycotted the Games and instead held their own sporting events, the Workers’ Olympics. Thousands of worker-athletes from a host of countries came together to participate and play, not as members of a nation but as brothers and sisters who shared the common identity of class. It was an internationalism that did not rest on national boundaries; it transcended them. This is a history far more attractive than anything available in the official annals of the IOC.
Nevertheless, Mark’s book is a welcome addition to the bookshop shelves full of Olympic titles this summer. While many fawn over the prospect of London 2012 it is a timely reminder that the empty promises of a Games that will “inspire a generation” come at a huge price. And it is an attempt to put the mass of people – not the corporate logos – centre stage.
Mark Perryman’s Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us, and How They Can Be can be ordered from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/
Guest post by Gareth Edwards of Inside Left
[I asked Gareth to write something on the distinction between sport and play, which he uses in his research as a way of thinking about organised sport in general and the Olympics in particular]
I once took a friend, a confirmed sports sceptic, to a game of rugby. As we watched two front row forwards, a combined forty stone of muscle, sweat and intent, collide with unnerving force he turned to me and said, “I don’t know what these guys are doing, but it certainly isn’t playing.” In a summer full-to-bursting with sporting contests – the Olympics, the Euros, Wimbledon, the test series – we’ll hear countless commentators talk of players, playing and plays in sports. But what is the relationship between sport and play?
Answers to the question have historically fallen into one of two camps. The first, exemplified by the liberal-idealist Allen Guttmann, sees sports as being a distinct subset of play, marked by its physicality, its competitiveness and its rules. In short, it argues that while not all play can be considered sport, all sport is necessarily play. The second argument, and one that characterises much of what passes for sports theory on the left, is the complete rejection of a link between play and sport. This is typified by the work of Jean-Marie Brohm whose book Sport – A Prison of Measured Time is held in far greater esteem than it deserves. In it he makes the point that “a child who practices sport is no longer playing but is taking his place in a world of serious matters”.
The problem facing such writers is that their theory of play is so lacklustre – or in Brohm’s case, entirely absent – that the attempts to analyse the nature of sport inevitably fail. Instead of theorising play in any meaningful way they are reduced to listing a set of characteristics that are used to describe, rather than define, play. These characteristics include spontaneity, a certain sense of freedom, fun, a separation from everyday life and make-believe, although this is by no means an exhaustive list. In the absence of a working definition, nearly all the serious writers on the topic fall back on the same four words: play is not work. Or to give it a sophisticated feel, they talk of play as being a non-productive or non-utilitarian activity. And when they’re feeling particularly wordy, they describe play as being autotelic, i.e. it is an activity performed for its own sake.
This commonsense dichotomy between work and play might seem to be a fair approximation to reality but it is fraught with problems, and it is possible to arrive at a far more satisfying and insightful definition of play by using Marxist concepts. I would argue that play is the unalienated, simultaneous production and consumption of use value. I’m aware that such a phrase is not only horribly unwieldy but also requires a fair amount of ‘unpacking’.
By defining play as a use value we recognise it as fulfilling a human need. As Trotsky notes in The Problems of Everyday Life, “The longing for amusement, diversion and fun is the most legitimate desire of human nature.” Whether this need for play is an innate biological drive or socially and historically conditioned is unimportant, the fact is that the want for pleasure and excitement exists. That this creative drive should manifest itself in so many forms is an indicator of humanity’s ingenuity and inventiveness. It is, therefore, possible to see how play is the creation of use value, as Marx outlines:
“Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values.”
By stating that play is an unalienated activity one is able to both incorporate and transcend the quality of freedom that writers identify. But rather than limiting the question of freedom to whether one chooses to play or not, it encompasses the freedom of the players to create and control their play environment. Either individually or collectively people choose how they play; there are no structures delimiting play’s potentiality, nor are managers and supervisors issuing instructions as to the players’ conduct. Furthermore the separation of producer from product, a key feature of alienation, is missing as play belongs immediately and irrevocably to the players.
In similar fashion the notion of the simultaneous production and consumption of use values allows us to overcome the limitations of the autotelic model. Play is still seen as an end in itself, but this definition allows one to avoid being caught in the theoretical trap of the players’ intentions. Equally it renders as redundant the notion that play is an essentially non-instrumental activity. Instead play differentiates itself from other spheres of human activity not so much through what is (or is not) produced but in the way it is consumed. Here the very act of production is the act of consumption. In a dialectical sense they occupy the same moment. Labour produces use values that may be consumed at some indeterminate point in the future but in play production and consumption occur simultaneously. The very act of playing is the satisfaction of the need to play.
How then does this relate to sport? The key to our understanding is, as Richard Gruneau has written, the fact that “the structuring of sport has become increasingly systematised, formalised, and removed from the direct control of the individual players.” Governing bodies exercise control over sports across the globe setting rules and issuing directives. In sport the players are not free to participate, instead they are faced with a series of gatekeepers – managers, coaches, selectors. Some of these people then exercise control over the way in which players play. Tactics are prescribed and, of course, plans and set pieces are part and parcel of the contemporary sporting world. You could easily argue that they predominate. Nowhere is this clearer than in the use of the word ‘play’ in the American version of football. Here a verb suggestive of spontaneity is transformed into a noun denoting a preordained manoeuvre.
At the heart of sport is a constant tension between play and competition. As the importance of the contest – and the financial stakes involved – increases so playfulness gives way to “playing the percentages”, “playing it safe” and “stopping the other team from playing”. But it would be wrong, I think, to say that there is no element of play apparent in sports. When commentators talk of an inspired move or a piece of ingenuity, it is the case that the ludic is reasserting itself in the face of the demands of competition. It should come as no surprise that those sportspeople who acquire iconic status (Best, Botham, Ali) are the ones who look as though they are genuinely ‘playing’ even in the most serious and competitive situation. The nature of the sporting contest, with its unfolding drama and the need for instantaneous individual and collective decision-making, means that individuality and personality can never be wholly removed from a game. It is possible for the quarterback to change the play.
The world of professional sports is not best understood as existing in the realm of pure play, or as its negation. If we use Marx’s criteria and look at “the relation of labour to the act of production in the labour process” then professional sports are the alienation of play.
Equally the use values produced by those playing sports no longer belong to them. Play is now a spectacle, and in turn, therefore, a commodity. In professional sports use values do not present as the fulfilment of the need of the player, but as the satisfaction of the demands of capital, where spectators are the consumers of a product. In professional sports, play is mediated through the prism of capitalist relations and placed on the market as a commodity. The sporting spectacle is no longer the by-product of play; it is the product, deliberately cultivated, and it is now play which is incidental. As Gideon Haigh laments of one sport, “cricket must be sold in order to be played.”
As ‘work’ is the contemporary manifestation of labour, so sport is a historically conditioned form of play. We may still point to its physicality, its competitive nature and the development of physical and intellectual skills as important characteristics, but when defining its relationship to play these alone are insufficient. Instead professional sport is commodified, alienated play. We may, perhaps, be so bold as to re-write the famous aphorism of Marx and say, “Players play, but not in the conditions of their own choosing”.
This isn’t simply an academic exercise, nor is it an exercise in self-justification, as we lefties attempt to excuse our guilty passion for competitive sport. The more we can understand the link between play and sport the more we safeguard against writing sports fans off as mere dupes in front of capitalist ideology and the better fitted we are to orientate ourselves on sport’s struggles and contradictions, whether they take place on the pitch, in the stands, or – increasingly – in the boardroom.
As London 2012 rolls ever closer, one theme which will become more prominent is the abstract internationalism of the Olympic Games. The Olympic Charter promises “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
I am grateful to Gareth Edwards of the Inside Left blog for pointing me towards John Hoberman’s Towards a Theory of Olympic Internationalism, which sets out a compelling theory of where this internationalism comes from, and how we get from the waffling idealism of Baron Coubertin to the fascism of the 1936 Olympic games and of the postwar Olympic administrators (including, but not only, Samaranch).
Hoberman points out that the early twentieth century saw a number of movements that promoted a message of international fraternity and that their politics ranged from conservative nationalism (eg the Scouts) to socialist internationalism (eg the second interntaional) with all sorts of intermediate positions (eg Esperanto).
The 1936 Olympics stands as a first moment of crescendo in this story; with a group of French nationalists (including Coubertin himself) using the event to promote a reconciliation of France and Germany on the basis of the latter’s politics. In the aftermath of the Games, Hitler paid Coubertin a grant of 10,000 Reichsmarks and put the Olympic founder forward for the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are lots of other treasures in the piece, including an account of the pedigree of the fabulously corrupt Kim Un Yong, about whom I’ve written before, who turns out to have been a Moonie with an interesting backstory in Korean “anti-Communist” circles. But I can’t do better than encourage any readers of this blog to read Hoberman’s piece themselves.