Tag Archives: Mark Perryman

Not Running For Gold


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


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


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



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



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


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?



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/

A Games of two halves


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

Book Review: Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be


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/

Keeping the Flags Flying


With England out of Euro 2012 on penalties the flag-waving build up for the Olympics begins in earnest. MARK PERRYMAN describes the varying sporting nationalisms and internationalism framed by football and athletics. Mark is a prominent media spokesperson for the ‘progressive patriotism’ position, one which the author of this blog is happy to debate yet explicitly rejects

David Hemery burning his way round the track to victory in the 400m hurdles, Mexico 1968. Mary Peters defying gravity as she hauled her frame over the high jump bar to lift pentathlon Gold in Munich 1972.  David Wilkie winning in the pool, Montreal 1976. Coe and Ovett enjoying 1500m and 800m glory, Moscow 1980. Decathlete Daley Thompson acting the golden cheeky chappy, Los Angeles 1984. Great Britain beating Germany in the men’s hockey final, Seoul 1988. Christie and Gunnell triumphant on the track at Barcelona 1992. Steve Redgrave promising he’d never be seen near a boat again after winning his fourth straight Gold with Matthew Pinsent at Atlanta 1996, before doing precisely that to win his fifth and final Gold, once more with Pinsent, at Sydney 2000. Kelly Holmes grabbing an eye-popping 800m and 1500m golden double against all the odds in 2004. Hoy, Pendleton, Adlington and Ohuruogu leading Team GB’s Gold medal charge to fourth in the Beijing 2008 Medals Table.

From a late sixties childhood to twenty-first century fiftysomething I can measure my life out in the glow of the quadrennial summer Olympics.  Each and every Games remembered for the achievements of others, as well as our own. 1968 for the long jump leap beyond the limits of human capacity by Bob Beamon. 1972, the impish Olga Korbut tilting her head at the close of her floor routine in the gymnastics hall. Cuban Teofilo Stevenson supreme in the Olympic boxing ring, winning three consecutive golds, 1972, 1976 and 1980. An amateur heavyweight boxer who never turned professional despite the millions of dollars offered to him by US promoters. And so it goes on.

Having just returned from Euro 2012 I can report that this co-existence of sport nationalism and internationalism persists and with a home Olympics  due to begin in less than four weeks has the potential to dominate this year’s summer of sport. The cosy assumption of some leftists that nationalism and internationalism are polar opposites was largely subverted in the past two and a week bits out in the Ukraine and Poland, as it has at every World Cup and European Championship that I’ve been lucky enough to follow England to since ‘Euro 96. Some of the nastiest versions of nationalism sharing space with the most popular forms of internationalism. The single European currency? For the duration of the Euros, its football not a bank note that unites Europe , and divides us too for ninety minutes, plus extra time and penalties.

Football is my passion, particularly international tournament football, but running is the sport I do, or at least make an effort at. My view is that track and field athletics is shaped by a different version of sports nationalism to football and the other major international team sports. The thrill of seeing the fastest, furthest, highest  performances shattering world records and pushing the boundaries of physical endeavour is dominant. And with individual achievement the core of athletics sports culture the attractiveness, or otherwise, of individuals and their personalities is of much greater importance too. For those of a certain age you were either a Coe or an Ovett fan and unlikely to support both with the same degree of enthusiasm.

For some this celebration of individual performance transcends any residual national preference, for most national favouritism still prevails. But even in the latter case the popular investment of emotion seems far more temporary and individually expressed compared to teams sports, most especially football. With England having qualified for the European Championship or World Cup every other summer except 2008 since 1996, plus winning the Ashes in 2005, 2009 and 2011 as England, the Rugby World Cup in 2003 as England too, there is surely little doubt that  the massive support helps prove Eric Hobsbawn’s  well-made observation ‘the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’ Hobsbawm’s point is peculiarly appropiate to England, we have few other trappings of a nation-state and particularly since the beginnings of the devolution settlement in 1997 the salience of the St George Cross flag to emphasise Emgland’s part in Britain’s break-up has become more and more obvious. And now we have the new dynamic of First Minister Salmond seeking to lead Scotland out of the Union with the next two years.

Like it or not, 2012 will be the year of the Union Jack, stylishly redesigned for the Team GB kit by Stella McCartney. But whether London 2012’s role in sparking all this flag-waving proves a temporary respite from the seemingly irreversible drift to  separation or a more profound revival of Britishness remains to be seen.

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 http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/