With the Olympics over Mark Perryman reflects on the ups, downs and thereabouts. London 2012 has been internationally lauded as a success, but a better Games was possible and we should not allow the euphoria to obscure that critique.
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 was played in a single stadium. Centralisation suits only those with easy access to the Olympic Park while most games take place during the working day, further narrowing those who can take part. The stadium itself? 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 few such as myself.
My biggest reason to doubt the alternative I proposed in my recent book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be 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. Centralisation certainly helped 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 sporting 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, why the existing events were 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.
Perhaps the most unpredictable plus, unpredictable in the sense that you can never be sure who will win the medals, has been the much increased prominence given to GB's 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 being talked of as a ‘1966’ moment, if that proves to be the case then British sports culture will never again accord football the status it has enjoyed for so long. But for that to happen the Olympic sports will also have to 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 Olympic sport, cycling, has the greatest potential to grow in stature and mass appeal. Riding to work might just become a case of doing a Wiggo or a Trott.
The joyful crowds at 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. Meanwhile, the jobs created were largely filled by a black urban working class on short term contracts; casual work and not well-paid either. A rather more uncomfortable picture of modern Britain emerges from this contrast, a picture 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 remain convinced that a critical sports politics should have a vital place in any popular project for human liberation. For a Left that largely doesn’t take sport seriously, or if it does concentrates any concern almost exclusively on football, perhaps this might become our legacy of London 2012?
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 www.orbooks.com