Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Summer Of Sport I Missed

Like a tabloid pull-out supplement at the start of a new Premiership season, I’m back! Bigger, better and with smaller words than ever before! But, sports fans, before normal service is resumed it’s time to break out the world’s tiniest violin. As sure as egotism goes hand-in-hand with insecurity, so my story of heartache, misery and woe rivals anything Kevin Pieterson has had to endure over the past few months. All sorts of personal trials and tribulations have been behind my blogging hiatus: homelessness, a relationship breakup, no TV, no internet! It’s been a summer to forget for Inside Left, which is a shame because it’s been the most extraordinary summer of sport.

The break has of course meant that I’ve written nowt about the Olympics. It’s a silence interpreted by some – such as those cheeky, contrarian monkeys over at Spiked - as a mea culpa in the face of the “Greatest Games Ever™”. (And, FYI, if your radicalism sounds a little like a Seb Coe press release, then, really, you ain’t that radical.) So it’s time to put that right. Let’s start with a look at the sport itself. Since I saw almost sod all of the Games I’ll restrict myself to a few words on the one sport I did manage to catch a glimpse of – the athletics.

When Michael Johnson, the former Olympic champion turned BBC pundit, concluded that we had witnessed the greatest ever athletic meet, I couldn’t help but agree, even if the quality of the track far outweighed that of the field. Usain Bolt was spectacularly and unsurprisingly glorious. David Rudisha produced the most complete middle-distance race ever witnessed. Mo Farah completed a historic long-distance double (“typical, bloody asylum seekers, coming over here, winning ‘our’ gold medals, becoming national heroes…”).  In the women’s events Caster Semenya upset the form book to claim a wonderful silver medal behind Mariya Savinova in the 800m and in the process prompted Colin Jackson into an unexpected but most welcome insight. Semenya, hounded by the press and the athletics establishment, has contended with slights, insinuation and intrusion since her magical run in the 2009 World Championships. (Dave Zirin talks a lot of sense about Semenya in this interview.) Jackson, sartorially elegant but not known as a sports psychologist, suggested that Semenya had been capable of winning the race but on a subconscious level would rather finish second so as to avoid the media spotlight. It was a genuinely intelligent reading in television coverage that amounted to little more jingoism, pun making and track side reporter Phil Jones constantly asking athletes: “What did you think of this crowd?!”

But my problem with the Olympics was never the sport in and of itself. I could hardly blog about sport if I were not a sports fan. What irks me is the way sports are packaged, the accoutrements they inevitably bring. The price of the Games is still an appalling waste during a recession. I still find the nationalism and the corporate sponsorship distasteful. The myth of legacy – jobs, economic growth and regeneration – remains a series of untruths and hyperbole.

In fact the people who have emerged with the greatest Olympic legacies – athletes aside – have been Seb Coe and Boris Johnson. Coe, as I previously predicted, is heading for the IOC, while Johnson, who attached himself like a limpet to the Games, is now seriously considered as a challenger to David Cameron’s leadership of the Tories. Perhaps Boris and Dave could square off in a battle to the death in a new sport: Toff Fight! Now there’s a pay-per-view I’d happily shell out for… Otherwise the legacy is looking a little shaky.

It was only a week into the Olympics before Larry Elliot could write of how “expectations of a major boost to [economic] growth are rapidly being downgraded”. It seems that these fears have been borne out in the past few days as figures show that retail sales took a dip during the Games. Although the true impact - both the costs and benefits - of staging the Olympics will only become apparent in the years to come, there remains significant doubt as to quite how much London 2012 has affected such things as the long term unemployment figures. As Richard Anderson, the BBC’s business producer, reminds us: “Most economists agree major sporting events rarely bring lasting financial reward. The government will have its work cut out to buck the trend.” Still, we can always be thankful that, according to Lloyds Bank, we accrued £165 worth of happiness thanks to the Games!

And, of course, the inquest is beginning into the shambolic security operation of the firm G4S. They now top a ‘black-list’ of companies who even the government won’t trust to run public services. With G4S redefining the phrase ‘fit for purpose’, thousands of troops were drafted in to supplement the private security force – and everyone agreed that the armed forces were incredibly friendly and helpful. No shit, Sherlock. Who would have guessed that a bunch of people whose job it is normally to kill and be shot at would be happy and smiley whilst on a two week jolly working tourist information? Besides, some of their time was spent filling in for the corporate schmucks who happily took free tickets for the Games but failed to show up. It turns out that empty seats are as embarrassing for Olympic boosters as they are unappealing for the TV cameras.

Still they all claimed that the London 2012 security operation had been a success. This is true if you ignore the fact that there was never really the threat of a terrorist attack – no matter how much organisers and politicians may otherwise have hinted. It was a little like putting extra locks on your front door and then claiming that this was the reason Mark Thatcher hadn’t organised a coup d’état in your living room. The government flitted between constructing false syllogisms and mealy-mouthed hypocrisy. A cross-party consensus soon emerged urging that children be encouraged to take up sport. Yet in less time than it takes Boris Johnson to complete a zip-wire descent, news was leaked that Michael Gove, MP for child-catching, was caught selling off even more playing fields.

The opening and closing ceremonies were lauded as exemplary celebrations of the Olympic ideal, fusing national pride and razzamatazz. This wasn’t really a surprise though, since combined they cost in the region of half a billion quid. What did people expect? An hour of stand up from Russ Abbott followed by Tony Blackburn picking his favourite songs from Spotify? Far more interesting to note was the reaction of those Tories driven to a state of apoplexy by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Aidan Bailey took time out from attending Nazi-themed fancy dress stag-do’s to denounce the show as “leftie multi-cultural crap”.

Even I let loose a chuckle as Eric Idle fell out of a cannon during the closing ceremony, before he urged us to look on the bright side of life. In weirdly portentous fashion the former Python hinted at the post-Olympic comedown and return to austerity-ridden normality we were in for, reminding us that “life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it”. It was a sentiment that may well have chimed with those people volunteering at the Games. Channel 4 news ran interviews with the volunteers, all of whom spoke of the joyous experience of the past weeks, the friends they had made and the memories they would carry with them. Yet there was genuine anguish in the words of one volunteer who said, “I really don’t know what I will do now.” And there, my friends, is the rub.

In keeping with previous Olympiads the Games did indeed win over many of the doubters, and provided that ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ buzz of excitement for millions. Endless anecdotal (although clichéd) accounts say that people found themselves happily chatting with strangers on tubes and buses about the event, rather than avoiding eye-contact at all cost, or, at a push, making small talk about the weather. It seems that London 2012 did invoke feelings of companionship and togetherness amongst many people.

This was to be expected – and it’s exactly the point that I argued in my piece on the Olympics for the Irish Marxist Review and elsewhere on this blog. In a world of pain and powerlessness the Olympics (and their purported values) can feel like an oasis of humanity. For a month, the Games and the ensuing Paralympics hinted at a world where people were drawn together rather than divided. But that feeling of solidarity is transitory, ephemeral, and ultimately undermined by the national constructs that contest the medal table. To acknowledge this in no way delegitimises the critique of the Olympics developed by academics and activists alike. Similar to the day after a fantastic party we’re left with a hangover of Olympic proportions, forced to return to the real world of cutbacks and uncertainty, all the time staring into our wallets and wondering where all the money has gone.

Does it have to be this way? Imagine a world where those feelings of shared enjoyment and experience were not fleeting but rather permanent. What if human solidarity was life’s raison d'être rather than merely the by-product of a quadrennial corporate love-in? What if we could have sport but without the hype, the commercialism, and the nationalism? In short, what if we could have sport but not capitalism?