This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
Mark Perryman loves sports. As a child he awaited the Olympic Games with eager anticipation, urging his parents to purchase Esso petrol so he could more speedily collect the firm’s collectible Olympics stickers. Now he laces up his running shoes for a daily run in the South Downs of East Sussex, sometimes racking up a ten-miler (in 75 minutes, no less). Perryman is no crotchety intellectual railing on about sports as a waste of time and money. This is someone who believes in the power of sport, and wishes to democratise and decentralise it so more people can experience it in a meaningful way. With Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us, and How They Can Be, he has written an engaging, visionary book for fellow-traveller sports aficionados, and others open to criticism about the Olympics yet keen to figure out ways to improve the five-ring juggernaut.
In the first half of the book, Perryman lays out his “Why-the-Olympics-Aren’t-Good-for-Us” argument. In Chapter 1, he busily chisels his way through the façade that the Olympics are apolitical—a façade buffeted with dogged verve by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its allies. Along the way he points out that the Olympic torch relay was first invented by the Nazis to drum up support for the 1936 Berlin Olympics; that the Games were a handy proxy for Cold War realpolitik; and that the IOC has historically engaged in gender discrimination—for instance, women were boxed out of many events including the marathon, which the IOC finally allowed them to run in 1984. He writes convincingly that in the modern era, the Games have become a jamboree of gigantism riding on the rails of commercialism and professionalism.
In Chapter 2, Perryman zeroes his attention on the London 2012 Summer Olympics and all its attendant legacy promises, assessing London’s alleged legacies with great scepticism. He focuses on three legacies touted by boosters: that the Games will jumpstart British participation in sport, especially among the young; that the Olympics will economically regenerate East London; and that the host city will have its image burnished and its hotels stuffed with pound-spending tourists. Drawing from academic studies, think tank reports, and tourism industry trade publications, he punctures holes in these sumptuous legacy promises. Perryman credibly argues that, by and large, the Olympics do not live up to the sparkly promises that politicians and their corporate pals make from behind the public-relations podium. He concludes: “The Games are designed to serve the interests of the IOC in maintaining and defending their very particular model of the Olympics, and not the needs of the host city and nation” (p. 56). Moreover, he argues: “Staffed by sports’ own political class, in many cases with no obvious constituency of athletes to which they are accountable, the IOC and its local variants, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), trap elected politicians and much of the media in their gaze of unsubstantiated expectation” (pp. 56-57). Yet, he asserts, this need not be the case.
The heart of Perryman’s book—and its most innovative aspect—is his vision for revamping the Olympic Games. Playing on the ubiquitous five-ring symbol of the Games, he offers his “New Five Rings”: (1) decentralise the Olympics so they’re staged in a country and not just a city; (2) select athletic venues that will maximise participation; (3) move Olympic events outside the stadia and make them free to the public; (4) select Olympic sports based on their universality and accessibility to the less affluent; and (5) reduce the role corporations play in commercialising the Games.
In geographically decentralising the Games, Perryman aims to tailor events to particular localities in order to mobilise interest and pride in sport that could encourage increased participation. Also, buying into the idea that the Olympics can raise the profile of a city, he writes that spreading the Games to a range of localities would give them “the kind of global platform that the Olympics is supposed to provide” (p. 70). In arguing for decentralisation, he points to the already-existing examples of the World Cups for cricket, football, and rugby that take place across a host country, not just a host city. This suggestion will likely raise the eyebrows of environmentalists who will not be overly keen to spread the Games across the country, thereby increasing the travel and traffic that contribute to climate change and other ecological maladies. Holding the Olympics in a relatively contained space helps IOC honchos make claims about sustainability, as flimsy as those claims can be.
Perryman’s second and third rings are a one-two punch of vamped public participation. By selecting already-existing venues with bigger crowd capacities, organisers could increase the number of tickets for events, thereby growing the number of locals who could play a part in the Games as live spectators. He argues this could also help reduce ticket prices. Perryman’s third ring goes even further—why charge for tickets when you could offer them for free? He makes a case for taking some events—like the marathon and rowing—out of the stadia and into public space. Built on the foundation of decentralisation, these two rings would allow many more people to experience the Olympics firsthand.
The fourth ring addresses sport democratisation. The London 2012 Games will feature twenty-six sports. Sports with high start-up costs—like fencing and rowing—are dominated by athletes from relatively rich countries. In an effort to level the playing field, the author suggests increasing the number of events that require fewer resources, such as the half-marathon and trail running. The tug-of-war was a competitive event in early twentieth-century Olympiads—why not bring it back? To the sure delight of many a pub-goer, Perryman also suggests making darts an Olympic event—after all, archery and shooting are sanctioned sports at the Games. He also argues for bringing back medalled competitions for arts like literature, music, and painting. Competitive arts were a part of the Games under Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who revived the modern Olympics in the late 19th century. (In fact, Coubertin, writing under the pseudonyms “Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach,” won a literary prize at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm for his prose poem “Ode to Sport”). Olympic purists will argue that by bringing in a host of new sports, Perryman is diminishing tradition. Others will argue that art and literary circles are already plagued by an over-caffeinated awards culture, and that the last thing artists and writers need is more competition and high-stakes prizes. Still, Perryman’s bold suggestions are thought-provoking and worthy of our consideration.
Perryman’s final ring is de-corporatising the Olympics. Given the fact that corporate interests have taken centre stage in London—with draconian brand-protection laws on the British books and with special VIP driving lanes for sponsors to use—this suggestion may well elicit the least disagreement. That said, he does not necessarily believe corporate sponsors should be excluded from the Games. Rather, they need to be regulated. He does suggest banning the commercial use of the Five Ring symbol—“only non-profit-making bodies would be permitted to use it in order to promote their involvement in, support for and association with the Games. The Five Rings would be recast as a badge of civic and sporting pride” (p. 106).
In this timely, highly readable book, Perryman offers a well-rounded critique of the Olympics and provides a constructive vision for reimagining Olympism. If followed, his plans could meaningfully connect elite and grassroots sport while making the Games more equitable and just. But, as Perryman would surely acknowledge, improving the Olympic Games requires a collective, reflexive effort. His book is one part of that ambitious endeavour. Let the conversations begin.
'Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us, and How They Can Be' is available to purchase through OR Books for £8 (£6 e-book)