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, nothing the International Committee and their sponsors demand needs to be questioned. It was a consensus which in London managed to unite those otherwise polar opposites, Boris and Ken, too, in solid agreement that the Olympics would be without doubt a good thing for the city.
Add the sports media, led by the BBC, which appears to have had all critical faculties surgically removed in the cause of Olympic cheerleading, amplifies this all-embracing mood of agreement. Yet the discontent outside the parliamentary and media bubble is very obvious. 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. Whilst more broadly there exists a deep-seated popular cynicism that the Games won’t be the benefit that they they are claimed to be. It is a discontent that is barely reported upon yet it basis is well-founded. There is scarcely a scrap of evidence from any previous Games of 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. And as for tourism, the Olympics leads to a decrease in visitors not an increase as the Travel Industry, which has no reason at all not to be one of the Games’ biggest supporters, has repeatedly pointed out.
Despite all 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 o be consumed by the excitement of the Games once they begin. But I also firmly believe that they could have been so much better and the discontent with how they have been organised to the effective exclusion of the many who could so easily have have been part of them is far too important to ignore as the Gold Medals are hung around Team GB athlete’s necks.
My ‘New Five Rings’ are really quite simple, they re founded on the core democratic principle that to make a ‘home’ games worthwhile they must be organised with the objective that the maximum number of people must be able to take part. If not then its 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, taking place all over the country, a local Games for the 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, mainly football grounds, yet capable of being used for a vast range of Olympic sports. But virtually none are being utilised, centralising all events in London venues with much smaller capacities that would otherwise be available slashes the size of audience who can attend and increases 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 a 75% , yet this has scarcely been commented upon by media commentators too busy with their LOCOG cheerleading.
Ring Four, Olympics 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, 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, middle and long distance running distance medals. These are sports requiring no expensive kit or facilities, 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, drop them and replace them 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, the teams could be mixed which is another plus, and in a packed stadium a tug of war competition is a potential crowd pleaser too, 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 Olympics Five Rings sport should be by voluntary and community groups on a not-for-profit basis to promote sport, The sponsors banned from any use of the Five Rings. They need sport just as much as sport needs their millions yet sport over and over again sells itself short 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 lives;running Gareth Edwards raises two important issues.
First, are the Olympics capable of being reformed, short of a revolution? The answer to that one is likely to be found in debates a tad broader than the chances of getting a ticket to the 100m final. But my broad response is that the fittest task of critics is to highlight the contradictions in a system of the sort the IOC has put in place in order to preserve its own, and associated corporate, interests. All the claims made for the Games benefits are funded on the flimsiest of evidence. The way London 2012 has been organised for the few, not the many, makes the idea of a 'home' games a nonsense for most fans. Push at the boundaries of these contradictions, and if a revolutionary moment is required to effect the kind of changes I describe, then I won't lose any sleep over that eventuality.
Second, how about constructing an alternative outside of the structures of the official Games. Gareth points to the excellent example of the Workers' Olympics of the 1930s, there wee both socialist and communist versions, which on occasion were bigger than the official version. Again its not a position I reject, not at all. BUt I would say that the global movements which framed these Games in the 1930s, whatever their undoubted flaws, simply don;t exist today to provide the kind of all-embracing narrative for such a project. I would begin closer to home, if the Trade Unions and broader progressive movement was to start to create sports festivals of an alternative, pre-figurative, type centred on the virtue of play that Gareth has also eloquently described then the building blocks towards something bigger may at least become evident. The signs so far, sadly, of efforts in this direction are not good.
As the Olympics has grown the the Games have come to represent far more than just sport. For some critics that means they with 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 I hold dear. This should surely be the substance of politics, why then we should be asking 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