Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why We Should All Hate Sebastian Coe

"I hate Sebastian Coe"
The 1980s were all about class struggle. Thatcher, the miners, Wapping, yuppies; the lines were drawn and it was time to choose a side. And that also applied to sport.

In the world of snooker, Steve Davis was a Tory. Not only that, he was openly Tory, and this at a time when even people who voted Conservative would have the decency to deny it in polite company. The trouble with Davis was that he even played snooker like a Tory. He was cold, calculating, ruthless and robotic – and, everyone agreed, the best at safety play. How conservative could you get?! No child in their right mind grew up wanting to be the best at playing safe. And despite all the guff about being ‘Romford Slim’ he was never, ever, one of us.

Jimmy White on the other hand was working class through and through. As a kid he skipped school to practice at his local snooker hall and when he wore a shirt and tie it looked as though it was choking the life out of him, When Jimmy played it looked like he was genuinely playing. He would attempt outrageous long pots, audacious doubles, and shots most professionals wouldn’t dare try in exhibition matches. Barely a frame went by without him having the cue ball careering around the baize, and more often than not it seemed that he would hit the final black with such fury as to send it flying off the table. He was the natural heir to Alex Higgins, but unfortunately combined the Irishman’s genius with an unerring inability to win the World Championship. As Mark Steel says in Reasons to be Cheerful, the Tories weren’t happy with winning the class war, “They wouldn’t even let us win the bloody snooker.”

But this wasn’t the only sporting proxy for the class war. In athletics there was a rivalry so intense, so fierce, that it captured the imagination. It was, of course, the rivalry between the middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.

It was the clash of personalities and styles that made the rivalry so captivating. Ovett could be spikey and abrasive but in a manner that always felt real. Coe in comparison was renowned for his charm and courteousness but always came across as though feeling effortlessly superior. Although their backgrounds were not as different as one might expect, Ovett appeared as the worker, all guts and determination; Coe just oozed the entitlement of a self-satisfied Conservative. If the two had ever competed in a trolley dash, Coe would have sent a boy round Harrods, whereas Ovett would have trundled round the aisles of his local Lidl with a look of mildly ironic disdain.

On the track, Coe’s running style was as neat and efficient as his coiffured side-parting, metronomic and compact. As Andrew Anthony quite beautifully put it, “he had always seemed a sort of Tory pinup, aloof and smoothly superior, like Nigel Havers in spikes.” Ovett was a fantastic runner but his rough-and-ready, elbows out approach won him few friends in the world of athletic aesthetics. The contrast between the two could not have been much greater, and, better still, it was clear they couldn’t stand each other.

Anyone with half a shred of decent politics knew that Ovett was their man. This was confirmed in 1992 when Coe became a Conservative MP, before the country saw sense and kicked him and the rest of Major’s misfits out of office in 1997. By 2000 he was back in politics as Lord Coe, the unelected Baron of self-aggrandisement through sport. It seemed to many that, given his sporting past, he was the ideal choice to head up the British Olympic bid. Yet given that the bidding for the games is so obviously corrupt, and seemingly has more to do with money than sport, one can only surmise that Coe also demonstrated a skill-set including smarminess, politcal chicanery and a filofax full of business contacts.

Of course he also found time to become part-time judo instructor and bodyguard to William Hague. I remember one time when the two of them turned up in Portsmouth to announce some non-policy or other. Upset that the Mighty Dome should be heckled by a bunch of Trots, Coe made a beeline for the comrade carrying a megaphone and booted him in the shin. And you thought he had a kick on him when he ran the 1500m… Additionally he found time in his busy schedule to write a book. Part positive thinking claptrap, part management speak, The Winning Mind: My Inside Track on Great Leadership: Developing Inspirational Leadership and Delivering Winning Results, has a title that makes you want to vomit. I wouldn’t normally link to Amazon but the video of Coe on the page is horribly cringe worthy. I defy anybody who watches it not to want to give the man a slap.

Twenty-five years after the height of these rivalries Steve Davis is now an affable BBC commentator, who at least had the wherewithal to play up to the “boring” tag. And it’s astonishing how much can be forgiven just for being part of the (frankly brilliant) song Snooker Loopy. In contrast, Coe has set out to prove the old adage that people move to the right as they get older. His smug condescension rings out with every official Olympics announcement, reinforcing the feeling that these are the games of the rich and privileged. When London 2012 is over, and the razzmatazz gives way to a thick layer of dust settling on a half-baked legacy, expect his Lordship to become a mover and shaker in the International Olympic Committee. Given his arrogance and ego it seems unlikely that he would settle for anything less than a seat at the big boys’ table. In a world of corporate sports, the words Olympics & Coe have an appropriate ring about them.

If it looks like a Tory, sounds like a Tory and even runs like a fucking Tory, then it’s a Tory. And that is as good a reason as I can think of as to why we should all hate Sebastian Coe.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Olympic Torch

You should navigate away from this page immediately if you are one of those people who believes that the Olympic games is just one great big party and that anyone pointing out evidence to the contrary is just a big spoilsport. You know who you are, David Mitchell.

It won’t have escaped your notice that the country is buzzing with excitement at the news of the Olympic torch route. Some 8,000 people will carry the torch on a 70-day, 8,000 mile, nationwide journey. And I’m sure that for these people it will indeed be a “historic moment”, “something to tell the grandchildren about”, “a day to remember” and all the other tired clich├ęs that have been wheeled out. The local paper here in Portsmouth went so far as to say that “Olympic pride” would “light up the streets” when the torch passes through. Yet for an awful lot of people it will just look like an odd collection of joggers carrying fire on a stick.

The idea of an Olympic torch was the brainwave of a man called Carl Diem - an administrator, educationalist and historian who occupied a prominent position in German sports for a number of years. In 1932 Diem headed the successful bid from Berlin to host the 1936 Olympics. Within a year of the award Hitler had risen to power in Germany. It seems unlikely that Diem himself was a Nazi (his wife had Jewish ancestry) but, whether through fear or personal ambition, he swallowed whatever concerns he may have had and, undoubtedly, helped hide from the world the fact that Jewish sportspeople were barred from the German team.

Like so many in the Olympic movement at the time, Diem was a classicist, devoted to ancient Greece and her games. His suggestion of an Olympic flame, kindled at the site of Olympia and carried to Berlin may have been born of noble intentions, an idealistic gesture in a troubled world, but it was exploited for all it was worth by the Nazis. Swastikas and crowds would greet the torch in Bulgaria, Austria and Germany itself. Both Diem and the Nazis, the past and the present, wanted to utilise the power of spectacle, and the International Olympic Committee has turned it into a tradition.

Still for millions of people the Olympic torch does still represent something. It is a signifier of purity, integrity and fair play. In a world stained and scarred by racism, war and national rivalries its passing from person to person, place to place, is a symbolic gesture of goodwill and shared humanity. Which is exactly why so many corporations are desperate to jump on the bandwagon and have their name associated with the Olympic brand. Coca-Cola has paid more than £100 million to be the official soft-drinks provider at London 2012. And they, along with Samsung and Lloyds TSB, even sponsored the nomination process for selecting torchbearers. 

It is a wonderfully ironic twist that the torch, now a symbol of this marriage between sport and business, will start its journey out of Portsmouth from Fratton Park, the home of Portsmouth Football Club, itself symbolic of what happens when that marriage ends in a messy divorce.
Symbols can often seem contradictory as different interpretations compete for predominance. No doubt some people will watch the Union flag being hoisted at this summer’s medal ceremonies and feel a temporary sense of pride in their imagined community, whilst fascists and racists will experience something far uglier. Millions more of us will, however, see nothing more than the Butcher’s Apron fluttering in the breeze. Similarly the Olympic torch is a contested symbol. But, whatever it is meant to represent, I can’t help but see a corporate logo, an illusion of an ideal decked out in dollar signs. And a little bit of me hopes it rains.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

ARGH! The Olympics - I Need Your Help

Right then, this is a call for help. In case you’ve missed it, the Olympics are coming. It will be a two-week corporate jamboree at the end of successive governments spending billions of pounds worth of public money sorting their rich friends out with some prime real estate. Oh, and there’s some sport too.

I’ve been asked to write an article on the Olympics, looking at its history, politics and price tag – and this is where you come in. So much has been written on the subject (lots of it absolutely worthless) that it is all but impossible to sort through the acres of column inches. I’m asking anyone who comes across anything about the games that looks remotely useful to let me know, just in case I’ve missed it. Recommendations of interesting books or articles on racism or sexism at the Olympics are particularly appreciated. As is anything on the history of dissent and protest.

And just in case you need some inspiration, above is the wonderful Artist Taxi Driver who says more about the games in five minutes than Boris Johnson has managed in five years.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Peculiar Economics Of Football – Part I

It’s been a tough few weeks for Pompey and Rangers fans. As Revenue and Customs come knocking at the door looking for a hefty dose of unpaid tax, people are left wondering whether or not the two clubs will still be in existence come the end of the season. And you know football is in a bad way when the subject makes its way onto the letters page of Socialist Worker. With some justification writers identified the profit motive as central to the crisis currently affecting football. But is this the whole story? Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely someone who believes that capitalism = bad. My worry is that in our haste to pin the blame on the particulars of profiteering alone we lose sight of the overall picture.

The relationship between football and business goes back a long way. Small Heath were the first club to assume limited liability status way back in July 1888, and by 1920 all but two of the clubs in the football league had done the same. The FA imposed a maximum wage cap in 1901 (and also barred match bonuses) much to the chagrin of the Association Footballers’ Union. And in 1913 chairman Sir Henry Norris moved Arsenal FC to Highbury chasing increased crowds and revenue, dropping the Woolwich in the process. 

Yet, in his book Pay Up and Play the Game, the economic historian Wray Vamplew suggests that professional sports (including football) were characterised by “peculiar economics” in the period 1875-1914. He argues that while one might normally expect a capitalist enterprise (Microsoft, Coca-Cola, McDonalds etc) to constantly seek to maximise their profits, there is evidence to suggest that this was but one consideration for the owners and directors of football clubs in this era.

In Victorian and early Edwardian times there was certainly a feeling that sport and commerce shouldn’t mix, it was after all still the golden age of the amateur. The Football Association limited the dividend payouts of club shareholders to 5%, a tidy return for some but hardly capitalism’s greatest ever get-rich-quick scheme. There appears to be a lot of data indicating that profits were often ploughed back into clubs, either being held as reserves, used to buy new players or invested in ground improvements.

The owners and directors may have made some money out of the clubs but equally they were attracted by the kudos and prestige that came with their position. Charles P Korr brilliantly captures this mood in a piece on West Ham in the 1920s. He tells the story of how the board of directors invited assorted local dignitaries, politicians and businessmen to celebrate the unveiling of a new stand in August 1925. It was, he writes, “where one section of the local elite toasted another”.

To say that sports, especially football, are no longer suspicious of money would be an understatement. Quite obviously revenue streams are of huge importance, which is why such a high premium is placed on shirt sponsorship, TV income, and gate receipts. One need only witness the plethora of Premier League clubs who embark on pre-season tours to the far east – a geographical region to which most sports journalists apply the soubriquet, “rapidly expanding market” – to see that money and markets matter. In this regard it is true to say that a team such as Manchester United is as much a brand as it is a football club.

Indeed football is a lucrative career for some people. As working class people are being priced out of the game by the soaring costs of replica kits, season tickets and satellite channel subscriptions so there are plenty of companies and individuals making money. Sportswear manufacturers such as Nike and Adidas can claim higher revenues than many countries can boast GDP. Sepp Blatter, bigot-in-chief at FIFA, is earning’ $1million a year. David Gill, one time director at Chelsea before switching his allegiance to Man Utd, takes home nearly £2million a year. And, of course, at the top end of the spectrum there are players who make more in a week than most of us will earn in 25 years of wage slavery. But is profit now the only motivating force in football?

It simply isn’t the case that the owners of the biggest clubs in the country have acquired Premiership outfits purely in the hope of making a profit. The owner of Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, may eventually turn a profit at the Ethiad Stadium but he hardly needs the cash. With personal wealth topping £20 billion it’s safe to say that he’s never struggled to pay the electric bill. You could make an argument that the club is now part of his investment portfolio but equally the ownership of a Premier League football club is the 21st century status symbol, allowing an owner to bask in the reflected glories of their team. The same can be said of Roman Abramovich, the billionaire oligarch who has shelled out upwards of £700 million in transforming Chelsea since purchasing the club in 2003. As much as my instinct is to distrust anything a friend of Vladimir Putin utters, his statement rings true:
“I have no Napoleonic dream. I'm just hard-working and pragmatic. I'm realizing my dream of owning a top football club. Some will doubt my motives, others will think I'm crazy. The goal is to win. It's not about making money. I have many much less risky ways of making money than this (buying Chelsea football club). I don't want to throw my money away, but it's really about having fun and that means success and trophies. Investors have very short memories.”
Where Charles Saatchi collects art, so Fenway Sports Group collect sports clubs. Where J D Rockefeller once used his enormous wealth to create institutions that bore his name, so Abramovich looks to build a footballing legacy to compliment his business empire. Part prestige, part hobby, and entirely self-indulgent this is the conspicuous consumption of the beautiful game. Without wishing to downplay the insidious role played by profit in modern day football it must be said that there is still something peculiar about the economics of the nation’s favourite sport. As worrying for those of us who invest time, money and way too much emotion into following the ‘people’s game’, is the fact that football is currently the de rigueur plaything of the rich.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On The Knowledge Economy

E P Thompson’s Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism is a wonderful essay. It charts how the lives of people, once governed by the changing of the seasons, came to be dominated by the clock. Punished and disciplined, people were made to accept the new factory time of developing capitalism. The piece was originally published in the journal Past and Present in 1967,  and it is yours to access online today, for a single day, for the princely sum of $25.

I know it’s old news, but the rates being charged by publishers to access online journals is astronomical. And believe me, compared with some other sites, the EP Thompson article is a snip at that price. The internet should be a place where knowledge is freely available, yet it is policed and patrolled more than a student demonstration. Last month a group of publishers succeeded in having the website taken offline, claiming copyright infringement. The site had housed more than 400,000 books, articles and monographs all in downloadable pdf files. It was by no means perfect, and, if the figures are to be believed, those responsible for the site were taking in $10m a year through advertising and donations. But it was a way for people to access publications quickly, easily and, as the saying goes, from the comfort of their own homes. Yet publishers such as Elsevier (who turned a £724m profit in the last financial year) insist on monopolising knowledge.

Of course, in the good old days, one might have sought refuge in the local library, certain that there was at least one place in every town or city that acted as a repository for knowledge. After all, libraries gave us power. Not any more though. Thanks to ConDem austerity around 600 libraries and mobile libraries are under threat of closure. Not that it matters; the publishers of academic journals are charging thousands of pounds (in some cases tens of thousands) for a yearly subscription, a figure well beyond the average library budget.

Which leaves us with Wikipedia, a fine resource and, often, a useful starting point for further investigation, but it is clearly not the same as reading the original material. And, as everyone knows, it has its limitations - highlighted in the most comical fashion following the death of composer Ronnie Hazelhurst. Knowing that journalists cobble together obituaries based on the content of the website, some cad changed the Wikipedia entry for Hazelhurst, listing him as being responsible for the S Club 7 song Reach. Cue hacks staring at their shoelaces and sheepish corrections in the papers. 

Thankfully, there are websites that continue to push boundaries and bring people fine collections of radical writings – the incomparable Marxist Internet Archive being the example that springs most readily to mind. For that matter you can find the Thompson article, free of charge, here. But it really shouldn’t be so difficult. What annoys me about all of this isn’t so much the commodification of knowledge - as contemptible as that is. After all, we already know that capitalism turns anything and everything into a product to be bought and sold. Instead what irks me most is the expectation inherent in the pricing. The cost of the articles reflects the prejudice that only the well off or academics might be interested in history or in ideas. They don’t stop, even for a moment, to consider the possibility that a working class person might want to read the likes of EP Thompson. So, here’s a question from a worker who reads: what price knowledge?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Parody That Olympic Officials Want Banned

Continuing the theme of an Olympic crackdown on dissent, Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy brings us this little gem. It would appear that the organisers of the games have got most upset by this video. Copyright infringement or something...

So we can now add "having a laugh" to the things we're not allowed to do in 2012.