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A Games of two halves

With his book offering a blueprint for a better Olympics, published this week, author Mark Perryman explains his Five New Rings.

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

Seb Coe and the London Olympics Organising Committee; Cameron and his hapless Minister of Culture, Jeremy Hunt; their predecessors, Brown, Blair and Tessa Jowell. All of them cling to a bipartisan consensus that everything to do with the Olympics is fine. No demand from the International Committee or their sponsors needs to be questioned. It was a consensus which also, in London, managed to unite those otherwise polar opposites, Boris and Ken, in solid agreement that the Olympics would be, without doubt, a good thing for the city. Meanwhile the sports media - led by the BBC, appears to have had all critical faculties surgically removed for the cause of Olympic cheerleading - to amplify this all-embracing mood of agreement.

Yet the discontent outside the parliamentary and media bubble is very obvious. This is not an organised campaign of resistance but, on issues ranging from the lack of tickets to the privileges enjoyed by the IOC and sponsors, there is a mood of discontent. More broadly, there exists a deep-seated and popular cynicism that the Games won’t be the benefit that they are claimed to be. It is a discontent that is barely reported upon, yet its bias is well-founded. There is scarcely a scrap of evidence from any previous Games that they will lead to economic regeneration or a sustainable boost in employment. Not one recent Olympic host nation can point to an increase in sport participation levels as a result of the Olympics. As for tourism, the Olympics lead to a decrease in visitors, not an increase; the travel industry, which has no reason at all not to be one of the Games’ biggest supporters, has repeatedly pointed this out. 

Despite all of this, not one politician, nor a single sports administrator, none of the well-resourced think-tanks, and no journalist or broadcaster, has come up with a plan for a better Olympics for all. This is what my book ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be’ uniquely sets out to do. If a popular left politics is to mean anything, surely it is not just about pointing out the inadequacies of what we are against, but constructing in our imaginations what an alternative might look like. A Games of two halves: critique, and vision.

I love sport; my book is not in any sense anti-Olympics, and I joyfully admit I will be amongst the first to be consumed by the excitement of the Games once they begin. However, I also firmly believe that they could have been so much better. The discontent with how they have been organised, and the effective exclusion of the many people that could so easily have been part of them, is far too important to ignore – even if gold medals are hung around the necks of Team GB athletes.

My ‘New Five Rings’ are really quite simple. They are founded on a core democratic principle – the objective must be to enable the maximum number of people to take part; only this will make a ‘home’ games worthwhile. If not, then it’s the remote control and the sofa for most of us, and thus the Games might as well be anywhere else but here, minus both the expense and the inconvenience.

Ring One, a decentralised Games; events taking place all over the country, a local Games for large parts of the population. If such a structure is good enough for the World Cup, why not for the Olympics? This one change would, at least, make major parts of the Olympic programme geographically accessible.

Ring Two, a Games with the objective of maximum participation. Across the country we have huge stadiums and, although these are mainly football grounds, they are capable of being used for a vast range of Olympic sports. Yet virtually none are being utilised: all events are centralised in London venues which have much smaller capacities than would otherwise be available, slashing the size of the audience who can attend and increasing the ticket price for the few, instead of lowering those prices for the many. 

Ring Three, shift the bulk of the programme outside of stadiums entirely for large-scale free-to-watch events. A cycling Tour of Britain, a Round Britain yachting race, a canoe marathon, open-water swimming events in our lakes and lochs. The true measure of London’s chronic lack of ambition is the scrapping of the marathon route, one of the few current free-to-watch Olympic events. The 26.2 London marathon route, which is lined each year with hundreds of thousands of spectators, has been  replaced by 4 six mile laps, reducing the potential audience by 75% - yet this has scarcely been commented upon by media commentators, too busy with their LOCOG cheerleading.

Ring Four, Olympic sports that are universally accessible. The same countries always win the equestrian, yachting and rowing events, while entire continents have never won a single medal in these events. The same goes for cycling, fencing, the modern pentathlon and large parts of the whole programme. These are sports that require vast investment, specialist facilities and, except cycling, have next to no mass appeal.  Compare the breadth of countries which have won boxing, football, and middle- and long-distance running medals - these are sports requiring no expensive kit or facilities, that use simple rules, and have massive appeal. Sports should be chosen because of their accessibility, and then given targets to prove it; if they fail to do so, they should be dropped and replaced with others.  My favourite candidate for reintroduction is the tug-of-war, which last featured at the 1920 Games. It is one of the most basic sports imaginable; all that is required is a length of sturdy rope. Additionally, the teams could be mixed gender and, in a packed stadium, a tug-of-war competition is a potential crowd pleaser - at least as much, if not more, than some of the privileged sports currently enjoying Olympic status.

Ring Five, a symbol of sport - not a logo for the sponsors. Reverse the priorities: the only use permitted for the precious Olympic Five Rings should be by voluntary and community groups, on a not-for-profit basis, to promote sport; the sponsors should be banned from any use of the Five Rings. The people need sport just as sport needs their millions, yet sport, over and over again, sells itself short by bending over backwards to accommodate the sponsors’ ever-escalating demands. The biggest sponsor of London 2012? You and me, the taxpayer.

In his excellent review of the book for openDemocracy, Jules Boykoff raises an important point. What kind of global collective movement might be imagined to challenge the IOC and to effect anything like the changes I propose? The IOC has constructed a bidding system where the only apparent choice is for cities to compete against each other, and only on the IOC’s terms. Thus, the 2016 host, Rio de Janeiro, is already locked into the pre-existing model and by 2014, the 2020 host (currently shortlisted are Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul) will be likewise locked in. Yet, in my view, London still offers a window to challenge the orthodoxy. Austerity and the recession are forcing perhaps an unprecedented spotlight on the claims made for the Games and, at the same time, the issue of who gets to be part of the Games will be more sharply posed than before. If the outcome of London 2012 is thanks, but not as much thanks, as Coe, LOCOG and the IOC would expect for their efforts, then the possibilities of a collective challenge may begin to emerge. However, the starting point has to be more than just critique; it requires an alternative too - a politics, if you like, of two halves.    

As the Olympics have grown, the Games have come to represent far more than just sport. For some critics, that means they wish to demolish everything they now stand for. Not me; I want to build a new Olympics, to take the best of the Games I first fell in love with (and have the sticker albums to prove it) and reimagine, with the help of principles founded on equality, diversity and access. This should surely be the substance of politics; we should be asking why, then, has no such alternative, to date, been offered? ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us’ looks to redress that balance. Let the debate begin.

Published this week, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be costs £8 (£6 kindle edition) and is exclusively available from www.orbooks.com   

About the author

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest, The Corbyn Effect, is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.


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