Tag Archives: Why the Olympics aren’t good for us and how they can be

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/

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 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/

Who gets to see the Torch? Who gets to see the Games?


 As the Olympic Torch relay starts its route around Britain author of a forthcoming book on the Olympics Mark Perryman questions the claim of a Games for all

Beginning its long route around Britain the Torch Relay is one of the few examples of decentralisation and free-to-watch  events that could have transformed the 2012 Olympics into a  Games for all.

There is little doubt that the sight of the Olympic torch  as it passes through a village, town or city up and down the byways, with photo-opps at famous landmarks will ignite popular interest and huge media coverage.

But the scale of that enthusiasm reveals the lack of ambition behind the 2012 model for the Olympics. In my new book Why the Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, I propose Five New Rings for the Olympic symbol. The first, and most important, of these is decentralisation. As a mega-event football’s World Cup has its problems too with new stadia sometimes built with no obvious future likelihood to be full again once the tournament is over. But the singular advantage for the hosts of a World Cup over the Olympics is it is spread all over the country, and sometimes more than one. In this way the global spectacular becomes not only a national event but a local event too. The Olympics is an entirely different model, apart from the yachting and the football tournament every single event is London-based, most of Britain will have no contact with the Games except a fleeting glimpse of the Torch relay as it passes through.

Decentralisation could have changed all this, and saved enormous amounts on new builds too. Glasgow and Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester, the North-East, Yorkshire and the Midlands all posses world-class stadia and arenas with huge capacities and multi-use possibilities. North Wales, the Lake District and parts of Scotland have the natural landscape perfect for events including the canoe slalom and mountain biking. Badminton is one of the finest three-day event venues in the world, its not in London so its not being used for 2012.

Avoiding those costly new builds by using existing facilities would not only magnify the Olympics’ local appeal but vastly increase capacities too. With imaginative reconfiguring Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium could have hosted the showjumping, Manchester’s Old Trafford and Etihad stadiums plus the MEN Arena the boxing, between Glasgow and Edinburgh share the Hockey tournament , the Midlands Stadiums host the Beach volleyball, the North-East already hosts the Great North Run, why not stage the Olympic Marathon there, give Yorkshire the Football tournament and so on.

Decentralisation enables this spread of venues with far bigger capacity than many hosting the events in London. And with Scotland, Wales, regions and cities hosting entire parts of the Olympic programme an effective campaign combining civic pride and participation in the adopted sport could have been mounted.

Decentralisation could also afford an extension of the Olympic programme to include events that are both nation-wide and free to watch. Why not an Olympic Tour of Britain multistage cycling race, and a Round Britain sailing race. The potential for crowds lining the streets and the quaysides to watch , for free, as the Olympics comes to their town or port would have been huge.

The book that I have written is neither anti-Olympics nor it it against sport, I am a fan of both. But I am opposed to what the Olympics have become, the false promises made on their behalf and the chronic lack of ambition in the way they have been organised. My argument is that a different Olympics isn’t only possible, but better. If our only experience of the Games in this much hyped once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host them is watching them on the TV, well, they might as well be anywhere else but here, and a lot less costly too.

Mark Perryman’s Why the Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be is available at a pre-publication 15% discount from www.orbooks.com.