Participation is one of the main legacy claims of the London 2012 Games. Mark Perryman, author of a forthcoming book on the Olympics, examines the evidence.
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
The Olympic Motto “The most important thing is not the winning but the taking part” represents many of the finest ideals not only of Olympism but any model of sport as democratic, participative and accessible. It is a sentiment most liberals and progressives would readily endorse.
Indeed there has always been a tendency in such quarters to disavow almost any merit at all in competitive sport as a whole. But as the Jubilee hoopla fades away, the forthcoming summer of sport - Euro 2012, a serious British challenger at the Tour de France, Wimbledon fortnight, overseas rugby tours to the southern hemisphere, a domestic test match series, and the first and last home Olympics for most of our lifetimes - a soft patriotism around sport will be tested to the full as the mass emotions behind Team GB gathers pace.
Of course ‘Team GB’ is more contested now than it once was. Few Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish will have much interest in England’s efforts at Euro 2012, an early exit on penalties will bring plenty of happy smiles to those countries’ fans. And as for Wimbledon, the English position on Andy Murray is well known, ‘British when he wins, Scots when he loses.’ A little harsh perhaps but the recent invention of ‘Team GB’ to brand our Olympic squad has to cope now with the mounting tensions apparent in the devolution settlement and the Scots push for independence. Of course it is no accident Alex Salmond has chosen 2014 for the referendum vote, a year when Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games and outside of team sports the one occasion England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, not forgetting the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, compete as independent nations.
Seeking to cement the emotional investment in Team GB and the perceived benefits of London hosting the Olympics is the Olympic Torch Relay, now well into its second week. On the surface this is an initiative that would seem to represent all that is good about sport. Criss-crossing the country, coming to a city, town, or village near you. Isn’t this what ‘taking part’ should be all about? Not at all. Instead it reveals the flimsy populism combined with chronic lack of ambition that London 2012 has come to symbolise. The Relay has of course proved popular, almost any event with this scale of publicity and coverage would surely attract inquisitive crowds. And the passion is entirely genuine. But how is that energy being connected to participation. Beyond waving a flag, cheering from the kerbside, providing a backdrop to the sponsors’ branding and celebrity torchbearers what opportunities are there to take part?
A Torch Relay for all would have started off with popular participation as its organising principle. Each 10k leg the roads and pathways closed for the torchbearer to be followed by fun runners and active walkers London Marathon or Great North Run style. This could have been the biggest venture ever in participative sport, yet none of this gets a look-in because it might deflect, overrun literally, the sponsors’ message instead. Villages, towns, localities within a city each given their stretch of the route to run or walk down, other legs given over to cyclists, canoeist, ramblers and fell-runners, yachts and any other mode of human powered, or human steered transport. All this would have amounted to involving far more than the really quite limited numbers in the London 2012 version of the Torch Relay and directly connected to initiatives that provide the vital access to participation in sport the Olympics at its best can provide.
Sport is by its nature is a public activity, yet the neoliberal economics of modern sport have increasingly sought to confine it to private spaces. A process spearheaded by the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, the first Games organised on an explicitly commercial, for-profit basis, in the home state, California, of 1980s era ‘Reaganonmics’ as an ideological response to the Moscow 1980 Games organised by the USSR.
Sport constantly struggles with these restrictions. The London Marathon, Great North Run, fun runs big and small all over Britain, represent runners occupying public space - the overwhelming majority running for no financial gain, more likely to lose a few inches around the waistline and raise money for good causes. Likewise the Tour de France, the greatest cycling race in the world has days known as the 'Etape du Tour' when amateur cyclists can ride a stage or two, something reproduced on this side of the channel by the hugely popular day rides such as London to Brighton, Manchester to Blackpool, century rides and others. Both are hugely popular and imaginative combinations of elite and grassroots sport, something the London 2012 model has spectacularly failed to embrace.
To quote another Olympian motto, the Olympics is a festival to celebrate the ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’, and that is what the TV cameras and public interest will be focused on, especially when those that excel are dressed in the Team GB kit. But this is a model that increasingly precludes public participation, and has little or no impact at all on boosting any potential legacy. Neither anti-Olympics nor against sport, the key is to re-imagine a better Games for all.
Mark Perryman is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be’. Available at a 15% pre-publication discount here.