Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be

This review of Mark Perryman's new book, Why The Olympics Aren't Good For Us, And How They Can Be, was originally published on David Renton's excellent lives; running blog.

The Olympic Games are a contradictory affair. They are a product of spectacle and at the same time a spectacle of products, a festival of sport and a fortnight-long marketing extravaganza, they are used as a barometer of national strength and as a call for international respect and understanding. Jules Boykoff considers them “somewhere between multinational corporation and global institution”. The Games are a contradiction wrapped in a sponsorship deal wrapped in an ideal. And, overwhelmingly, they are political.

Mark Perryman’s new book, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, starts from the premise that sports and politics do mix. At present, however, the Olympics are governed and structured in such a way as to benefit the sponsors, host governments and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) while the rest of us look over our shoulders to see if the next round of austerity will put us on the dole. But what if they could be different? What if the power and idealism of the Olympics could be harnessed to create a Games that were good for us, all of us, rather than the sporting elite and the 1%?

Mark re-imagines the five rings of the Olympic symbol so that each represents a value for a new Games: decentralization, participation, sport for free, sport for all, and sport as a value not as a commodity. In so doing Mark rages against the corporate takeover of the Games, where companies such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola use the Olympics as “just another means of exposure and branding to shift products”.

But the main thrust of the book is to connect working class people to the Olympics in a way that is presently unthinkable. By having a host country rather than a host city people nationwide would be able to experience the Games. Larger venues would enable more people to watch events – especially if the tickets were free (rather than the exorbitant price they are currently). More events could be held outside of arenas to maximise the possibility of people spectating. The section in which Mark talks about the London 2012 Olympic marathon brought the logic of these suggestions home to me. Instead of running the London marathon course as one might have expected, the organisers have changed the route to include Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament, reducing the possible sites for spectators in the process. The needs of sports fans pale into insignificance against those of the London Tourist Board.

For me, Mark is at his best when dealing with the deleterious effects of the Games. He gives short shrift to the myth of legacy, juggling a host of sources to dispatch the claims of the Olympic boosters. More young people play sport as a result of the Olympics? Actually participation rates fall as armchair enthusiasts are confronted by images of elite athletes with unattainable physiques. Hosting the Games results in a boom for the tourist industry? In fact people stay away from the chaos and congestion, and the event is unlikely to induce people to visit in the future. An opportunity for urban regeneration and renewal? Nothing could be further from the truth! Prime real estate is handed to property developers at knockdown prices and, if Athens is anything to go by, the city is left with a litany of unused, unwanted and expensive sporting venues.

And what of our experiences of the Games? The assorted heads of states and visiting dignitaries can expect chauffeur-driven limousines rampaging through specially designated lanes, top notch corporate hospitality, seats on the finish line for the 100m final, and complimentary tickets to perv at the beach volleyball. The rest of us can expect sonic cannons, missiles on the roof, a crackdown on dissent, and a huge bill at the end of it all. Even sports fans are excluded. Ticket lotteries have come and gone, touts have moved in to fill the void. The Games could be staged in London, Paris, New York or on the Moon, it wouldn’t matter. The vast majority of us will still only experience them through the images on television.

The Olympics have turned physical activity into something quite removed from our own everyday experiences of sport. In a wonderful passage, the most powerful of the book, Mark illustrates this with recourse to his own running: “I can see myself as part of a popular movement of people who enjoy sport purely for fun and therefore are the antithesis of all that the Olympics has come to represent. I run free, for free. No rules, no sponsors, no entry fee, no national pride, nobody’s stopwatch to calibrate the results except my own. I run because I can.” It is a most beautiful example of how play and sport differ.

But there are problems with the book. Firstly, it is too short. It has obviously been conceived as a small volume, but there was more than one occasion where I wished Mark had more space in which to develop his ideas. The section on universal accessibility, for instance, felt like it needed more time to fully explore the argument and issues it raised.

Equally the brief reference to the nature/nurture debate surrounding the success of the Kenyan distance runners will bring many a knowing nod from track and field followers, but non-sports fans would benefit from a little more exposition (or even a point in the right direction). Philosophy Football describes the book as “an argumentative sprint not a marathon of a thesis”; I would suggest a well-paced middle distance could have allowed for greater exploration without sacrificing any of the reformist zeal. Occasionally it feels as though argument is replaced by listed evidence, sometimes contradictions creep in but are not dealt with. Can you lament the lack of athletes in the Olympic Village and still call for a decentralised Games? Is darts – a professional sport monopolised by the British and Dutch - really the best example of an event that would improve accessibility?

Far more pressing than these minor gripes, however, is the question of how far it is possible to reform the Olympic movement. The IOC is a huge monolithic organisation, with enormous economic and political leverage. A report by One World Trust considered it to be the least accountable, least transparent, least democratic of all the transnational organisations it looked at – and this is no mean feat when you consider that it finished below the likes of Halliburton and Goldman Sachs. Reading the book I found myself often wondering aloud, “That’s all well and good, but HOW THE BLOODY HELL ARE WE MEANT TO DO IT?”

Perhaps I should have been asking, do we even want to? Is there really anything about the Olympics that we can reclaim? To phrase the question in such a way is to suggest that there was once something intrinsically good and noble about the Games that we might wish to resurrect. “I haven’t written this book to bury the Olympics,” writes Mark. “I want to revive them.” And it is on this point that he and I part company. Mark has written a book essentially detailing the neo-liberal Games, despite noting that they were far from perfect prior to the explosion of commercialism at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His suggestions on how to improve them are interesting but at no point does he move outside the framework for the Olympics laid down by that idealistic old aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin way back in the 1890s. For all the lofty talk of bringing humanity together, the early Olympics excluded women, and the Baron extended his bigotry to include racism and anti-Semitism. For all the talk of peace, war brought the Olympics to a halt in 1914 and Coubertin enlisted in the French army in 1916. By 1936 his idealism had led him to praise the Nazi organisation of the Games, saying that Hitler had “magnificently served, and by no means disfigured, the Olympic ideal”. A sporting event bringing together the people of the world may be a wonderful idea, but does it have to be the Olympics?

There is a long history – when the left has been weak, when no other alternative looks viable – of trying to reform institutions for the better, even when this is quite obviously impossible. Trying to reform the Games and the IOC would be like trying to get David Cameron and George Osborne to take out subscriptions to Socialist Worker. But there is another history – when the left has been strong – of building alternatives ourselves. In the 1920s and 1930s the left (both reformist and revolutionary) boycotted the Games and instead held their own sporting events, the Workers’ Olympics. Thousands of worker-athletes from a host of countries came together to participate and play, not as members of a nation but as brothers and sisters who shared the common identity of class. It was an internationalism that did not rest on national boundaries; it transcended them. This is a history far more attractive than anything available in the official annals of the IOC.

Nevertheless, Mark’s book is a welcome addition to the bookshop shelves full of Olympic titles this summer. While many fawn over the prospect of London 2012 it is a timely reminder that the empty promises of a Games that will “inspire a generation” come at a huge price. And it is an attempt to put the mass of people – not the corporate logos – centre stage.

Mark Perryman’s Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us, and How They Can Be can be ordered from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/