This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
This summer, the London Olympics are preceded by Euro 2012. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the European governing body for football, UEFA, follow a near identical agenda, and one with far reaching consequences for the public experience of sport. Along with football’s global governing body, FIFA, these bodies share a strategy that has commodified the game, basing its organisation on a corporate model that undermines the love of participation. But the implications of this are relevant further afield, and the question begs: what precedents are being set in the lead-up to the Olympics?
Firstly, the so-called ‘Fan Zones’, introduced at the 2006 World Cup, and which have been a feature of World Cups and European Championships ever since. These huge privatised spaces are all about control and commerce. Whatever the host country, the space is more or less the same - the only sustenance available is fast food, soft drinks, and beer provided by the authorised sponsors, while the chances of sampling some local fare are next to nothing. Every available space is occupied by the sponsors’ branding. Of course, this is what some fans seek - a secure and safe environment to watch the matches in large numbers alongside those following the same country. Those who shun these spaces don’t have any kind of explicitly political agenda; rather, they prefer to have a look around, do the tourist trail, or, even better, get beyond it - try the local eating places, the pubs and cafes to take in a game, with, best of all, a barely comprehensible commentary. Unpoliticised it may be, but this do-it-yourself fandom is the antithesis of the corporatisation of sport.
Secondly, in a classic, if subtle, manoeuvre of control, the stadium’s PA system is pumped up to such a volume you can’t hear yourself think, let alone shout, cheer or jeer. For more than an hour ahead of kick-off, we are drowned out by these over-amplified antics, imploring us to ‘make some noise’ - something no group of England fans who have made it out here needs to be told to do. Meanwhile, the babel of the announcer and backing track continues until kick-off, before reappearing in overdrive once a goal is scored: ‘GOAAAAAAAAAAAL!’. Against this alienating backdrop, the passionate, communal roar of the fans remains inextinguishable.
In contrast, a third major event of this sporting summer provides the basis of an alternative sporting model which is outside of the complete control of the sponsors. The Tour de France will be followed more closely than ever before in Britain following last year’s success of Mark Cavendish winning the Green Jersey, and this year’s presence of Bradley Wiggins, who is a serious British contender for the coveted Yellow Jersey. As the competitors race along the public roads of France and its neighbouring countries for almost a month, the crowds on the route will be huge – and not one person will pay for a ticket. Strung out over tens of kilometres each day, and hundreds across the duration of the race, this is a crowd impossible to control - entirely unticketed, yet respectful and law-abiding. Although there is still heavy sponsorship, the Tour de France has a notable focus on public participation.
Sport matters because it is a space where these kinds of contests are played out, with an ever-changing pattern of shifts and balances. The disorganised resistance that the corporatisation of Euro 2012 provokes is emblematic of a broader discontent with the direction in which the London Olympics is heading. Not much of this takes any kind of formal political shape; the bipartisan parliamentary consensus that London 2012 is unquestionably a good thing accounts, in part, for this. A similar consensus existed between Boris and Ken in the recent London Mayoral election. Beyond Parliament, there are just a few fragments of an outside left that shows much interest in the politics of sport. The smallish oppositional movements that do exist tend to denounce the entire idea of the Olympics, seeking to stop the Games rather than seeking to change them for the better.
Olympic Games which had taken Le Tour as its inspiration might have added to the Marathon, Race Walks and Triathlon, as the only three unticketed events in the current programme. But how about a multi-stage cycling race for the length of the Games? Yachting round Britain for the benefit of coastal locations? A canoe marathon to follow from the riverbanks? If such crowds can be accommodated for the Diamond Jubilee, and for the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, why not for the Olympics?
None of this necessarily undermines the budgetary ambitions of the project. These are events that would require virtually no expensive new facilities, and the crowds, if the Olympic Torch Relay is any indicator, would have been enormous. In terms of profits, live crowds are surely more likely to be disposed to purchase merchandise than those watching on TV. As for the supposedly inspirational effects of the Olympics on viewers in inducing them to take up sport, there is next to no evidence that watching sport from the comfort of your own sofa does any such thing – it is the emotional attachment, from being there and from being part of it, that has a chance of igniting this much-fabled legacy of participation.
Of course, any such re-imagining is too late for London 2012. But as the self-congratulatory hoopla takes over for what will undoubtedly be a euphoric two weeks, a critical perspective can show how this once-in-a-lifetime event could have been so much better, cost less to put on, and been mostly free to watch. Who’s going to argue with that?
Mark Perryman is the author of ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How they Can Be’