Beyond the pitch, track and ring: a guide to Olympian reading

With London 2012 drawing to a close, Mark Perryman rounds up the books which can help us to understand the long term significance of the Games.

Mark Perryman
7 August 2012

In the mid-1980s, a strain of leftist 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. These writers covered a wide variety of subjects that frame our everyday lives, but among them all, 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.

Sport was one of the subjects addressed in this way, with 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 first to foreground a politics of sport. It 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; 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 that 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 Athlete 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, and Olympic Village affairs. It is a tale of dedication, but also of loneliness and pressure; this is no ghosted biography that tells us nothing - this book claims to tell it like it is. The insights are certainly 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 book by a 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 is a beautifully written account of 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 the 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 or 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, such as the potential impact of any future legalisation.


For those who consider such a shift towards legality to be the antithesis of the meaning of sport, which is a contest founded on human physical endeavour and not the superority 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, and lifestyle to improve their 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 by every day of London 2012, that fiction is hardly needed to add to the impact. However, 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, no doubt many, 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 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.

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