Tag Archives: Mark Perryman

Not Running For Gold

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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

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 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/

Olympian Reading

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With London 2012 drawing to a close Mark Perryman rounds up the new books which help us to understand the Games’ longer-term significance.

In the mid 1980s a strain of left writing emerged which took popular culture seriously, too seriously, according to some critics, who preferred a more reductionist model of the old base-superstructure variety. However amongst these writers, covering a wide variety of subjects that frame our everyday lives, the argument that stood out was one of contestation. They made the case that via the media, film, music, fashion and more, ideas and ideologies were shaped, reinforced and crucially challenged too.

Sport was one of the subjects addressed in this way, a small number of original thinkers accounting for its role beyond the pitch, track and ring. Garry Whannel’s Blowing the Whistle, published in 1983 was one of the fisrt to foreground a politics of sport. He picked out two key themes. Firstly, the ways in which sport contributes to the way people see the world, especially via race, gender and extreme versions of nationalism. And secondly, the role of health and fitness in human development.

Applying some of these ideas to the Olympics a year later, ahead of the Los Angeles Games of 1984, Garry co-edited with Alan Tomlinson the collection Five Ring Circus .Ranging over issues of corporate power, the role of TV, sexism in Olympic sports, the cult of amateurism and more, this was a collection of its time, reflecting the emergence of a left that took culture seriously and rejected an instrumentalism that was dangerously close on occasion to framing a one-dimensional view of the world.

Almost thirty years on Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport has little time for the kind of nuanced critique of sport Whannel, Tomlinson and others helped pioneer on the British left. Instead he describes the growth of global sport as a ‘plague’. Racism, drug abuse, and worse has helped create a pornographic hybrid he dubs ‘sporn’, all in the cause of decadence fuelled by competition, fame and elitism. The rhetorical flourishes are hard to fault but the self-satisfaction of outright opposition to almost all versions of sport does tend towards an overbearing sense of moral and intellectual superiority at the expense of political engagement.

Written anonymously by a former member of the Team GB Olympic Athletes Squad The Secret Olympian is a book about the side of the Games the rest of us won’t see. The pressure to reach the podium, life inside the training camp, the drug-testing regime, Olympic Village affairs… A tale of dedication but also loneliness and pressure. The insights are revealing enough to suggest that despite the wall-to-wall media coverage the culture of elite sport remains largely under wraps to the rest of us.

For an entirely different view of the potential of sport read Run Wild by Chumbawamba frontman Boff Whalley. A hugely impressive first-time writer on the joyful freedom of running. Stripped down to its basics running is the most simple of all sports requiring next to no kit or facilities. Boff’s book describes what running wild, back to nature, can mean. However much we might enjoy the televised spectacle of Gold-medal winning performances this is the form of sport most of us will ever aspire to, and by capturing the democratic spirit of sport for all this book reveals its liberatory potential too.

The Olympic Park is without doubt a magnificent space of architectural excellence drawn to the purpose of sport. But what will it look like in five, ten years time? Anna Minton’s Ground Control puts the Park firmly in the context of spiralling CCTV networks, the privatisation of public space, shopping malls and gated housing which increasingly dominate contemporary urban living. Her analysis of the topography of legacy and regeneration is both wonderfully written and a telling response to the unthinking boosterism that is no preparation for future disappointment.

So far these Games have been largely free of drugs scandals, but the whiff of suspicion, rumour and samples that prove positive never seems so far away to be entirely discounted, Chris Cooper’s Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat provides, for the first time, an in-depth explanation of how drugs can improve sporting performances. How they are detected is explained but perhaps most interestingly of all this book provides an examination of the ethical issues: what would be the impact of legalisation?

For those who consider such a shift the antithesis of the meaning of sport, a contest founded on human physical endeavour not the superiority of the contents of one test tube over another, the perfect antidote is to be found in Adharanand Finn’s superbly-written Running With the Kenyans. With Kenyan athletes so dominant in middle and long-distance running, what are the secrets of their athletes’ success and is it possible for others to adapt their training, diet, lifestyle to improve our own fitness and running speed?

Few have successfully used sport as the plotline for a novel. The real life drama of sport is so epic, as vividly portrayed every day of London 2012, that fiction is hardly needed to add to the impact. With Gold Chris Cleave shows how a plot mixing emotion and intrigue plus Olympic cycling can produce a compelling and thrilling read. As good as the real thing? In this case, even better and well-deserving of the rave reviews, and no doubt bumper sales, the book is already attracting.

Almost every day of London 2012 there has been a race, a result, a contest on water, around the track, in the ring or on the pitch, that has been a conversation starter in the home, at work, the bus stop or wherever. Some, many no doubt, begin and end with who won what and how. But plenty will also reveal themes of race, gender, class and national identity which connect with issues represented by sport. These books are evident, in their different ways, of how writers make those connections and enrich our enjoyment of sport as the one of the most compelling, and vital, global spectacles of the modern era.

Mark Perryman is the author of Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be just £8 (£6 kind edition), available from www.orbooks.com.

On the Roads of Surrey, Another Olympics

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MARK PERRYMAN, author of a new book on the Olympics, sees the potential for a different Games at Wednesday’s Cycling Time Trial.

No expensive and hard-to-come-by ticket required. A front row seat guaranteed. Precious little commercialisation, bring your own barbecue. And a Gold Medal performance. Wednesday’s Cycling Time Trial had all the components of the better Olympics I have made the case for in my book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be.

Stretched around the single 27 mile circuit for men, 18 miles for the women, huge crowds lined each side of the road. Packed in at any hairpin bend to catch the cyclists as they slowed down and for the final few hundred yards before the finishing line nevertheless an early start meant it was easy enough to get a front row space, up and close to the fast-moving action. Churches, community centres and more than a few enterprising householders had set up sandwich and cake stalls in their front gardens, with the more ambitious stoking up a barbecue too. This is an enterprise impossible for the corporate sponsors to dominate, and with the only roadside branding permitted the Olympic Five Rings and ‘London 2012’ this is also an event where the visual backdrop belongs to sport not the advertisers. The sometimes oppressive securitisation of the main Olympic Park was also almost non-existent with just volunteers and fluorescent jacketed crowd marshals in the main present. This is one of the Olympic events most vulnerable to disruption yet for long stretches not even a crowd barrier separated us from the action, if the risk is considered so low here of a protest, or something much worse, why the thousands of security staff everywhere else? And best of all the crowds were able to witness Wiggo’s Golden ride.

This is the kind of 2012 Olympics we deserved to have. Two cycling time trials, two cycling road races, the men’s and women’s marathons, the race walks and parts of the triathlon course are the sum total of the free-to-watch programme.  A decisive shift towards expanding the number of events of this sort would entirely change the nature of the Games, opening it up to many more millions to take part in. Estimates for the crowd at Saturday’s cycling road alone are around the million mark. Imagine if the Olympic cycling programme had included a Tour de France style multistage event, nationwide over seven to ten days, what might the been the numbers turning out for that? Or lining the beaches and quaysides of coastal Britain for an Olympic  Round Britain yachting race?  In both cases such races already exist, so organising an Olympic version would have certainly been feasible. There are other possibilities too, the canoe marathon is an existing race that could have been added to the Olympic programme with crowds lining the riverside. Or one of our biggest live attendances every year for a free-to-watch sporting event is for the Oxford vs Cambridge boat race. Couldn’t a week of Olympic rowing races, tides and width of the Thames permitting, have been organised along this route to watch for free, alongside the regatta programme at Eton Dornay?

The Olympic Time Trial proved the potential and popularity for a different Olympics. Though why did all four cycling races have to take place in leafy Surrey with not a single one through the Olympic boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney. Such a route would have transformed the complexion of the crowd and given something back to those who live on the edge of the Olympic Park yet are singularly underrepresented amongst its thronging crowd. And given the huge turnouts for Saturday and Sunday’s cycling road races why not hold the TIme Trials at the weekend too, or at least in the early evening, to open the events up to hoe who have to work through the Games.

Once again it isn’t Seb Coe and LOCOG’s scale of ambition that is the problem, it is the lack of ambition, with little or no thought given to how to create a Games of the people. Celebrate Wiggo’s magnificent Gold Medal-winning ride, but lets not ignore the opportunities this race provided to reveal the possibilities of another, better, Olympics, for all.   

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be, £8 (£6 kindle edition) exclusively available from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

A Day at the Olympics, Pluses and Minuses

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Author of a new book on the Olympics, MARK PERRYMAN, spends a day at London 2012

Over the past few days I’ve lost count of the number of politicians decrying critics of the Olympics. Labour’s newly appointed ‘Olympic Legacy Adviser’ Tony Blair has returned to one of his favourite themes, declaring war on cynicism. Boris Johnson joins the chorus of boasts that the Games proves London to be the world’s greatest city. And in the press Jonathan Freedland has been amongst those demanding that enthusiasm for the Games must trump any tendency towards critique.

What none of these, and plenty of others, appear capable of recognising is that it is perfectly possible to be both a fan of the Olympics and a critic. When I passed through the Olympic Park turnstiles  I was both looking forward to the event we had tickets to see but also entirely aware of the limitations of the Games model as insisted upon by the IOC and dutifully followed by Seb Coe and LOCOG.

After our day out here are my Olympic Park pluses.

Firstly, the Olympic Park itself is a magnificent jumble of world-class sporting facilities with plenty of open space in-between. Quite what it will look like a few years after the Olympics are over who knows but right now it is something Britain has never seen before and to be enjoyed.

Secondly,  the sport we went to watch, the Women’s Water Polo, had attracted a near-capacity crowd, and I would guess like me most had never paid to watch this sport before, let alone knew the rules. Yet we were transfixed, fast, immensely skilful, occasionally brutal. The crowd were enthusiastic, non-partisan, and clearly enjoying themselves as part of the Games.

Thirdly, inside the stadiums there are no adverts, no corporate branding at all, just the Olympian five rings and London 2012. The commercialisation stops once the sport begins, so why on earth do the IOC permit the 5 Rings to become a logo for sponsors rather than a symbol of sport in every other available space?

But there were minuses too.

First, the now notorious empty seats. The Water Polo arena was almost full, 90% I would reckon, yet for the past week the London 2012 website had the sold out sign up. A few hundred empty seats, mainly in the National Olympic Committee, VIPS and Sponsors areas plus some in the public sale areas. Clearly this should have been anticipated, and an easy-to-operate returns arrangement made. But the problem is systemic. The magnificence of the Olympic Park is prioritised over decentralisation, using much larger venues, the Water Polo arena could have easily accommodated twice the number of seats, at much reduced prices. The VIP tickets aren’t a side issue but the numbers who could have attended a home games if the vision was maximum participation is what should be key.

Second, the disconnect with East London. Fans arrive by underground and Javelin train. Straight into the Olympic Park, spend the day there, out via the Westfield Shopping centre and back on the train home. Overseas visitors are doing likewise, straight back to their hotels, very few of which are in East London. At the epicentre of three of Britain’s most multicultural boroughs, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney the Olympic Park is full of those travelling in from the Home Counties, precious few locals are there.  The Olympic Park is an expensive bubble, almost entirely divorced from the locality.

Third, the much mentioned issue of security. The process of getting in is pretty basic, not much more than what anybody would be used to at any modern sporting event of any size. So quite why thousands of trained soldiers still in their Afghanistan issue camouflage are doing here isn’t immediately obvious. Those I saw yesterday were from our elite fighting forces, the Paras and Commandos, is checking bags really what they’re best equipped to be doing?  Was it really so difficult to find those who could have done these jobs? It is a strange image for these Games to project thousands of uniformed soldiers and heavily armed policemen filling the public areas, a scene that for many is anything but reassuring.

I went away from the Olympic Park felling privileged to have been there, lucky to have applied in time to get a ticket. But at the same time regretful that a Games that so many more could have been part of wasn’t what London 2012 ever became. Its a balance neither uncritical enthusiasm nor outright opposition accomodates but after a day in the Olympic Park I was more convinced than ever before that the Olympics are both a good thing, but could be so much better too.

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Just £8, Now available direct from www.orbooks.com

A secure Games, but who are they protecting?

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Author of a new book on the Olympics MARK PERRYMAN argues that the London 2012 security mess isn’t just about staff shortages.

Munich ’72 will always remain one of the most iconic of all Olympic Games. Not so much for Olga Korbut’s impish performance in the Gymnastics or the Gold Medal haul of Mark Spitz in the pool. It is the lethal carnage resulting from the Israeli athletes being taken hostage by the Palestinian Black September group that Munich will always be remembered for.

In Gaza and the West Bank immense problems remain, the murderous consequences of Israel’s war on the Palestinians only too obvious. Yet in all the commentary on the security threat to the London Games scarcely anyone has observed that in 2012 Palestine competes as a nation-state at the Olympics, under its own national flag. This would have been almost impossible to imagine 40 years ago, the threat of terror can never be defeated by military means, the root causes can only ever be solved via a political solution.

Of course the Games organisers cannot afford to wait for a political settlement to the cause that frames the terror threat they identify facing London 2012, the fallout from the Iraq war and the continuing occupation of Afghanistan. But recognising there is a reason behind these acts of violence should at least be the starting point for understanding the securitisation of the Olympics. A point almost entirely absent from all the breathless reporting on London 2012 security and why all these tens of thousands of security staff were required in the first place.

It would be reckless to dismiss the horrors that would be the result of any kind of attack on the Games. But security is also about where you choose to draw the line between safety and liberty. Three examples show how London has got it wrong.

First, the Lea Valley Towpath which runs alongside the edge of the Olympic Park. Already the park is enclosed by a sky high fence, topped by razor wires and electronic sensors, with CCTV every few metres and security patrols inside the fence, all to protect the Park from intruders. But in addition  the towpath was closed to public access 23 days before the Olympics even began.  All across London on the edge of Olympic venues there have been similar restrictions imposed.

Second, on the list of banned objects which cannot be taken into the Olympic Park is ‘the flag of any country not competing in the Games’. This is aimed specifically at Free Tibet demonstrators, Tibet is a country not represented at 2012, what possible harm is there if anyone wanted to wave Tibet’s flag? Isn’t this what’s called free speech? Again, this is just one example of numerous other instances of crossing the line between safety concerns and policing the right to protest.

Third, the experience of previous events. I have been lucky enough to have been to the last four World Cups. None of this very public mobilisation of the host nation’s armed forces took place, no obvious presence of missiles, warships, aircraft on standby, troops on the streets. There is something about the martial and imperial tradition that seems to insist that in GB we must parade our military hardware for all to see and believe this will somehow reassure rather than leave people asking, why?

The security risk cannot be entirely discounted. But the overwhelming effort of all those employed to guard the Games has nothing to do with terrorism. They are there to prevent any sort of protest and to defend the interests of the sponsors. Another item on the banned list of products to take into any Olympic venue is an ‘excessive amount of food.’ If fans are peckish its not an extra round of cheese and pickle sandwiches the organisers want them tucking into but a Big Mac and all the other officially approved products. 

And when the private sector provider couldn’t supply the ever-escalating numbers of staff to frisk fans for their home-made sardines or the wrong brand of fizzy drink to the rescue came the public sector in the shape of the armed services, many recently returned from Afghanistan. Overnight ‘Help for Heroes’ has turned into cheap labour from Heroes in order to protect not you and me, but Macdonald’s, Coca Cola, Heineken and the rest. A secure Games, but who are they protecting?

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published 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/