This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
London 2012 is a once-in-a-lifetime event. So why, asks Mark Perryman, have so few of us got tickets?
With the Jubilee over - and short of England proving the surprise package at Euro 2012 - the 50-day countdown to London 2012 is set to go into overdrive.
Right from the days of the bidding competition back in 2005, hosting a ‘home’ Olympics has been sold to the British public as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is no idle boast. Along with football’s World Cup (2026 being the next year England has a chance to host) the Olympics is undoubtedly the biggest show on earth. Spread across 26 different sports and with over 200 countries competing, its reach and appeal is enormous.
Does size matter? Yes. An event in which millions can take part can be genuinely transformative. Sport at its best can generate this collective, community spirit - and while sometimes revolving around an attitude of us vs. them, it is mostly the joy and exuberance of participation that mobilises the sporting spirit.
The 2012 Games claim huge ticket sales, yet a cursory examination of sales per event across the entire programme reveals a startling lack of ambition and purpose. Modelled differently, these Games could have involved a far greater range of people than those now lucky enough to have tickets.
The core organising principle of the Olympics should be for the maximum number of people to take part. Without that vision London 2012 might as well be taking place in another country for all the impact it will have - and none of the costs. A Games which is being presented as the greatest show Britain has ever hosted is actually stunningly unambitious. With a spread of 26 sports the possibilities for using the largest range of possible venues has been entirely rejected in favour of a centralized model.
Take hockey as an example. This will be played as a mini-World Cup in one 15,000 capacity stadium within the Olympic Park. This could have been played across the West Midlands. Stadiums there include two in Birmingham and one each in Wolverhampton, Coventry and Sandwell. All of these are considerably larger than the special one built in Stratford. Earmarked at the start of the process as the Hockey host, the Team GB squad could have been based in the region, combining their training and preparation with outreach work in schools and communities to promote the sport. A civic pride could have been generated around hosting this part of the Olympic programme, with a localised opening ceremony for all the nations taking part in the Hockey Tournament. Why does London get the Opening Ceremony as well as all the rest of the Games too?
Or the boxing. Manchester would have been a good host. When Ricky Hatton fought his biggest fights in front of the largest audiences it was at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium in front of a crowd of over 40,000; again much bigger than the numbers which will get tickets to the Olympic boxing finals. The city could also have combined the Etihad Stadium with Old Trafford, capacity 75,000 and the MEN arena for earlier rounds.
Volleyball? Yorkshire boasts large stadia in Leeds, two in Sheffield, as well as Bradford, Huddersfield, Hull, and Doncaster. A regional host for this sport makes good sense and increases the numbers who can watch. With a modest degree of reconfiguration, and specially designed surfaces to lay on top of the football pitch in these stadiums, the possibility for an entirely different model of the Olympics is clearly evident.
The one part of the programme which has been organised in this fashion has been the football, and it hasn’t attracted the demand of tickets I am suggesting a different model of the games would generate. That’s for three reasons. Firstly the Olympic football tournament is regarded in GB as less than third rate in comparison with the World Cup or European Championships. Secondly, it is so obviously a sop to Scotland, Wales and the regions that this is the one bit of the Games they can have. Thirdly, a regional base, in the model of the 2005 Women’s European Football Championships, would have been far more likely to create a popular connection to the Olympic Football tournament.
What is being described here is the Olympics as a tool of civic mobilisation on a grand scale. Cities and regions awarded a part of the Games, using largely existing facilities reconfigured for alternative use. The sport and its host city or region working together to develop participation and support over a long period, tickets made available at the lowest possible price with many free for schools. A real local investment in the Olympics, primarily physical and emotional rather than financial.
Does any of this matter? Yes, because surely any democratic project for sport should be sport for all. The London 2012 model actively prevents this. The tickets are for the lucky few, the TV remote control for the rest of us. A project to decentralise, choose the largest possible venues, connect cities and regions to those parts of the Olympic programme they are hosting and those countries they would be hosting, would have been an entirely different venture: one worth hosting.
Mark Perryman is the author of Why The Olympics aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, available at a 15% pre-publication discount from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/