Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I Think Therefore I Play - An Anti-Racist Review

Martin Luther King once remarked: “The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important.” The worthy sentiment certainly contains a degree of truth but it doesn’t quite explain Andrea Pirlo. The Italian is now in his 36th year and it seems that only relatively recently has his undoubted talent been widely recognised beyond the footballing cognoscenti. The magisterial midfielder disguised as Captain Caveman has entered the consciousness of fans in this country not so much for his quality but for the longevity of his quality. The fact that an English language version of his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play appeared earlier this year is testament to this recognition.

And we should all be glad that the translation has appeared because the book is a real gem, and a welcome departure from the standard, formulaic (auto)biographies of most footballers. Instead of the regular A to B narrative I Think Therefore I Play, beautifully ghosted by Alessandro Alciato, offers a series of vignettes which adhere only loosely to a chronological order. Pirlo jumps from an opening rumination on the pen he used to sign his contract with Juventus to the pain he felt as a child so much more talented than his peers. Avoiding sentimentality and arrogance he then weaves us through the 2006 World Cup final, his love of Inter, a pen picture of Silvio Berlusconi, the best ways in which to wind up Rene Gattuso and how he and Alessandro Nesta have spent way too many hours playing FIFA.

One passage in particular captures the style of Pirlo’s book. In his recollections of the 2005 Champions League Final against Liverpool in Istanbul – a game in which Pirlo’s AC Milan side threw away a 3-0 half-time lead, eventually losing the game on penalties – there is scant detail, no mention of the goals scored or conceded, and only once does he recall any of the opposition players (a passing reference to “Jerzy Dudek – that jackass of a dancer”). Instead there is a description of the dressing room atmosphere and the intensity of collective emotion. Nearly ten years on from the match you can still feel Pirlo’s confusion in those hours following the final whistle:
“We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t move. They’d mentally destroyed us. The damage was already evident even in those early moments, and it only got more stark and serious as the hours went on. Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: Istanbul syndrome. I no longer felt like a player, and that was devastating enough. But even worse, I no longer felt like a man. All of a sudden, football had become the least important thing, precisely because it was the most important: a very painful contradiction.”
The result is that the entire book carries this lightness of touch, an Impressionistic quality that provides a fitting literary form for a player whose artistry, control and vision is all but unrivalled. It allows Pirlo to tease out small details that seem to define the people around him, to ponder the geometry of his passes, to insist it is “high-time that football’s ruling class stopped dozing in their armchairs”, to explain the calming effect of imagining crushing grapes between his toes.

But one subject above all others caught my eye. In 2008 a newspaper in Italy erroneously outed Pirlo as being from a Roma – in particular Sinti – background. As Pirlo himself explains:
“At first I let it go, simply smiling at the headlines, but before long the media onslaught became unbearable. Some really serious untruths were said and written about my family, and they started spying on everything we did. They wrote stories about our daily habits, the places we went, the people we met. It was an annoying and dangerous invasion of our privacy and that of those we hold dear.”
The more intrusive the media became the greater the temptation grew for Pirlo to deny that he had Sinti heritage. At the time travellers in Italy were facing a renewed and concerted attack from the Italian government who were keen to make political capital from solving the specially constructed moral panic around the “nomad problem”. From 2007 the Italian authorities had adopted a number of ‘security measures’ which disproportionately affected the Roma and Sinti communities. This was in addition to a decade of forced evictions. As this report from Amnesty International states:
“Throughout 2008, the stigmatization of Roma and Sinti [in Italy] contributed to a climate in which attacks on groups and individuals reached record proportions. Roma people have been victims of mob violence by members of the public, in which individuals were physically and verbally attacked and settlements were set on fire.”
In these circumstances it would have been easy for Pirlo to simply dismiss the suggestions that he was Sinti. Instead he chose to keep his own counsel. He explains:
“If I’d issued a strongly worded correction, a categorical denial, I’d have run the risk of causing offence. It would have looked like I was trying to distance myself from the Sinti community and position myself against them. My desire to state the truth could have been wrongly interpreted as an act of racism, and that’s a risk I wasn’t willing to take, for the simple reason that I find racists disgusting.”
Some may suggest that the truly principled position for Pirlo to take would be to have come out and sided unequivocally with the Sinti; others will suggest that Pirlo is being wise after the fact, giving his silence an undeserved air of moral authority. The first suggestion is certainly true but misses the fact that sports stars rarely take political stands in the absence of mass movements. The second is plausible if cynical. The reason I reject it is because Pirlo speaks a lot of truth in his discussion of Mario Balotelli.

Pirlo’s admiration and support for Super Mario is beyond question. “We also need Mario Balotelli. I’m not sure he really appreciates it yet,” writes Pirlo “but he’s a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of the racists you find in Italian grounds.” With sadness Pirlo notes that racists are to be found at stadiums across the country, each having targeted Balotelli with chants and monkey noises. Pirlo’s response is to always greet his Azzurri teammate: “Whenever I see Mario at an Italy training camp, I’ll give him a big smile. It’s my way of letting him know that I’m right behind him and that he mustn’t give up. A gesture that means ‘thank you’.”

More interesting is his discussion on how he would react to his black teammates being racially abused. On the one hand he thinks that to walk off the pitch – as Kevin-Prince Boateng has done in the past – is “more a surrender than a reaction”. But at the same time he explains, “That said, if one of my team-mates was a victim of intolerance and refused to carry on playing, I’d go along with his wishes and those of the rest of the team.” Pirlo’s position is that he is willing to argue how best to confront racism but once black players give a lead he will offer his unwavering support and solidarity. People on the left in the UK could learn a lesson here.

I realise that I run the risk at this juncture of uncritical eulogy – and that certainly isn’t my intention. I’m no lover of millionaires or nationalism, so Pirlo blots his copybook twice without trying too hard at all. Furthermore his anti-racist credentials are dealt a serious blow by his admission that he has, on occasion, voted for Berlusconi – the very administration that took such pride in targeting the Sinti. That said, in the context of Italian football where racism is very much a live issue, and with Pirlo himself ensconced in the heart of a Juventus team sections of whose fanbase have been guilty of racially abusing players in the past, his defence of the Sinti and support for Balotelli is a most welcome intervention. If you’ve got any Christmas money left pop out and treat yourself.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies and Opta Statistics

The results are in and they are staggering. It has been revealed that nine out of ten match reports now include detailed statistical analysis. Over three quarters of journalists admit that they find it quicker and easier to use possession percentages and pass completion rates than go to the trouble of writing about the football game they’re paid to watch. The BBC and Sky combined spend more minutes per week discussing the figures released by Opta than they dedicate to women’s football. In other news, it turns out that 83.7% of made-up statistics are surprisingly believable.

Okay, those numbers are a fabrication. But the point still stands. Too many football articles are overly-reliant on statistics. Some of these stats can be interesting, genuinely deepening our understanding of the game. Others are obviously filler, as meaningless as being told how many times the number 33 has been drawn in the national lottery.

A quick google search reveals an abundance of tasty but irrelevant factoids. Apparently Swansea have completed fewer crosses than any other Premier League team; during the recent game between Man Utd and Chelsea, Daley Blind passed to Chris Smalling on twelve occasions; Mohamed Diamé averages five tackles a game this season. Perhaps the most pointless is the pass completion statistic, a metric which sees Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Josh Stones, Martin Skrtel and Phil Jagielka all feature in the top ten. Who would believe it? More pertinently, who cares? This tells us nothing more than they like to play a lot of easy, 20-yard square passes across the back four.

Football has always been home to the ‘anorak’. We all have a friend who will sit in the pub and tell you Shrewsbury Town’s top three goalscorers of all time or furnish you with a complete list of Inter-Toto Cup winners.  BBC commentator John Motson built his career – and his cult following – on his ability to pull facts and figures out of thin air. Along with his sheepskin coat it was his USP, the gimmick that set him apart from his competition behind the microphone.

These people have always been a figure of fun for fans. Back in the days when David Baddiel and Frank Skinner were living out their New Lad wet-dream on Fantasy Football in the mid-1990s, Angus Loughran made his television debut as Statto, the socially-awkward, font of all football knowledge. As his colleagues yawned with (mock) boredom, Statto would regale the studio audience with a stream of information, like Rainman in pyjamas.

What was once considered to be some sort of soccer sideshow is now big business. Opta are at the forefront of the sports statistics industry. They are the people doing the number crunching for Sky Sports, BBC, BT, ESPN and a host of internet betting exchanges. And all those spreadsheets have proved to be extremely lucrative. In the summer of 2013 the FTSE 250 company Perform purchased Opta at the heady price of £40million. The company’s joint-Chief Executive, Oliver Slipper, explained, “We felt over the past year or two that sports data for the media sector . . . is becoming a more and more important part of their content mix.”

In the age of scarce resources and Moneyball, clubs are increasingly turning to in-depth statistical analysis as a way of scouting players. The minutiae of distance run per game, shots on target, passes completed, interceptions made, and headers won are collated and calculated to assess potential signings. Writing in the Financial Times Simon Kuper argues, “In recent years, after many false starts, the number-crunchers at big English clubs have begun to unearth the player stats that truly matter.” Later in the piece he explains that David Comolli employed data analysis in the signings of both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez whilst director of football at Liverpool. From this we can gather Comolli’s success rate is, at best, 50%.

That does rather illustrate one of the problems with the endless procession of numbers. Unlike statistics-friendly sports such as cricket and baseball, where individual contests are played out in a team setting, football is a game in which the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. There is a growing tendency to know more and more about the tiniest details and forget the bigger picture. Opta cannot tell you if a player will reach their full potential or they will form effective partnerships with their teammates. They cannott tell you if Carlos Tevez won’t be able to settle in the area, whether Mario Balotelli is really motivated, or which Mesut Ozil will turn up on the day – will we see the world class attacking midfielder or the guy who couldn’t be bothered to break into a jog if his arse was on fire.

Statistics can never, ever hope to capture the extraordinary passion, excitement or beauty of football. They will never explain the feeling that sweeps a crowd as Lionel Messi picks up the ball, or tell us why a shot that nestles in the corner of the net is more aesthetically pleasing than one that catches the fingertips of a flailing, unsuccessful keeper. It might be stretching the truth to say that football is working class ballet, but it is a game in which even those with the stoniest of hearts are taken by its poetics. We talk of a ‘gorgeous’ pass, a ‘stunning’ volley, a ‘sublime’ piece of skill. The endless quest of the money-men and the statisticians to quantify the unquantifiable is futile. There is a reason we call it the beautiful game. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Liverpool FC - Cursed by God?

This season Liverpool have been a study in turgid ineffectiveness – the Boxing Day encounter with Burnley at Turf Moor being a case in point. It is often said that the mark of a good team is that they can play badly and still pick up three points. On the evidence of that display Liverpool must be the best team in world right now. Oceans of ink, both the traditional and virtual varieties, have been spilled as pundits and fans alike seek explanations for the Reds loss of form. People have pointed to the sale of Suarez, the injury to Sturridge, the age of Gerrard, the inability of a jittery defence to deal with incoming crosses, Mario Balotelli and the transfer committee. Brendon Rodgers would do well to remember, rather than simply mimic, the words of David Brent: “Accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue.”

So what has gone wrong at Anfield this season?  Thankfully those of us searching for answers need look no further. Paul Rimmer, a former Ukip candidate, has revealed that Liverpool have been cursed by god. Channelling the spirits of Mike Bassett and Iain Paisley, the wonderfully named Rimmer believes the almighty is punishing the club following its support for the Liverpool Gay Pride parade in 2012. On Facebook he wrote:
“From the Bible, Sodomy defiles a Nation. Those who promote it will be punished & vomited out of the Land. In 2012 Liverpool FC sponsored the City’s Gay Pride Parade. Unless they repent they will be under a continual curse. Liverpool were amazing last year, but the title was denied them. Everyone knows homosexuality is wrong, but now we have to pretend its nice and normal and anyone who points out it’s a perversion is evil. This is a deep moral and spiritual sickness in our nation.”
At first look this seems to be just another example of a far-right nutbar using scripture-fodder to justify their latest round of bigotry. And to be fair it looks like that at second and third sight as well. This is after all a guy who has made his way from the BNP to Ukip to the English Democrats. Rimmer countered by claiming “I am only repeating what is said in the Bible – it's not my opinion, it's what the Bible says.” But wait… what if there is some truth to all of this? What if the club has failed to win a single league title for the past 25 years because they have been breaking the rules hidden in the Bible? What if Liverpool could only draw with Arsenal because Rodgers was coveting Arsene Wenger’s Ox? A quick look at Leviticus, that Old Testament rulebook, reveals a whole series of other offences liable to piss-off our football obsessed deity.

What if Stevie G slipped against Chelsea because he had accidentally eaten some fat (Leviticus, 3:17)? Perhaps the polyester blend of the Liverpool kit is behind the dip in form, since mixing fabrics in clothing is also a no-no (19:19). Does it seem all a bit far-fetched? Well it can be no coincidence that Martin Skrtel has found his feet since playing with a bandaged head (Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people”) or that Raheem Sterling has netted in consecutive games since his haircut (10:6). All of a sudden I’m warming to my task. ‘OMG’ one might remark, were it not for the fear that such an oath could scupper a potential FA Cup run.

Indeed all of football should be in trouble were it to be punished for transgressions of Biblical prohibitions. Sky’s Super Sundays would be very different were it to keep to the rule about working on the Sabbath (23:3) and there should hardly be a footballer in the land playing well given that the big G ain’t all that keen on people getting tattoos (19:28). Still not convinced? Well how about this. Is it any surprise that so many players with sideburns scored goals in the 1970s when you realise that Leviticus is so particular about people cutting their hair at the sides (19:27)?

It’s all nonsense of course. Paul Rimmer takes his selective reading from the Bible to justify a homophobia that has no place in the world. Anytime you find your politics to be behind those of Hollyoaks then you should know you’re in trouble. And if Rimmer really wanted to remain consistent in his reading of Leviticus he might want to pay attention to the passage that reads “the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born” (19:33-34). 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beyond the Froth

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football picks out the best of the autumn sports books.

I’m sorry but you won’t find here the just-in-time-for Christmas sports autobiography blockbusters. With enough manufactured controversy to ensure blanket coverage when they are launched even a skim read will reveal that on the contrary they tell the reader very little they didn’t either know or suspect already.

Instead I would recommend a weighty volume of this sort A Companion to Sport edited by David Andrews and Ben Carrington. The range of coverage from Monty Panesar to football’s 2010 World Cup is matched by the variety of insights, sport as a contested space being the overarching theme. As an academic book scandalously expensive, but  any well-stocked library. should have a copy. 

As a writer Rob Steen straddles that frustrating divide between the academic and the journalistic. His new book Floodlights and Touchlines reveals the richness of writing this mix can sometimes produce. A living history of the relationship between the spectator and his, or increasingly as Rob chronicles, her sport. This is social history of the very highest standard. Simon Inglis is rightly renowned for his writing on the cultural significance of stadia and other sporting buildings. His Played in Britain project has helped transform our understanding of what these structures mean to their localities, and his latest account of this relationship, Played in London not only continues the richness of Simon’s explanation but is unarguably his finest book in this extraordinary Played In...series yet.

Michael Walker’s Up There is a hugely entertaining application of the social and historical, along with the political and cultural, to the place of football in England’s North-East. Newcastle, Sunderland, ‘Boro, but also the likes of Hartlepool and Darlo, where would English football be without them? The First Game With My Father by Michael Tierney expertly, and movingly applies this macro-analysis of big picture football connectivity to the micro, the personal. A tale of how football frames many families' lives in the way it is a central influence in shaping both fatherhood and masculine adolescence, for good, and sometimes bad. Football once had this degree of influence because it truly was ‘the people’s game’. Today it dominates so many lives because it is big business, almost impossible to escape from. Alex Fynn is a renowned chronicler of the processes behind this very particular evolution, his latest book Arsène & Arsenal continues what amounts to an in-depth study of Arsenal both as a football club and a business, a brand even, what Alex terms a ‘superclub’. If such a notion fills fans with horror, have a read of Ian Plendereith’s  rip-roaring Rock n Roll Soccer an account of the 1970s North American Soccer League which serves as a warning of what happens when football chooses to be simply a branch of a global entertainment industry and forgets where it came from on the way. 

Of course wholesale resistance to any change amounts to a conservatism, few progressives should welcome. Has the penalty shoot-out spelt the end of football as we know it? No, an occasional thrilling end to a tightly-fought match. Ben Lytlleton’s carefully researched Twelve Yards contains plenty of original insight into how to take penalties successfully and turns this quirky idea for a book into a fine read along the way. The last tournament England exited following a penalty shoot-out was Euro 2012. The high point of Roy Hodgson’s England managerial reign to date getting out of a tough group consisting of France, Sweden and Ukraine. In the year of London 2012 and Wiggomania however few took any notice and England have been down ever since. Peter Kennedy and Christos Kassimeris have put together a really excellent academic survey of the tournament, Exploring the Cultural, Ideological and Economic Legacies of Euro 2012. A legacy for the Ukraine which in essence was a tournament which united the nation instead of the bloody separation which followed so shortly afterwards. 

No figure better represents the world English football fears lost to the excesses of commerce as it monetised our sport better than the late Bobby Moore.  Matt Dickinson’s new biography BobbyMoore: The Man In Full reveals both Moore’s supreme achievements, with England and West Ham, but also the flaws even the most heroic contain within themselves. In Moore’s day the media spotlight was nothing like as intense as it is now. We even have the phenomenon of the anonymous insider dishing whatever dirt that might otherwise be hidden from public gaze. Guide to the Modern Game is the third volume of  home truths from the suspiciously well-informed ‘Secret Footballer.’ Who is he? Who knows? And who cares as he continues to open the changing room door to put all behind it on show for his readers. And this time it is the tactics board, team talks and training he treats us to.

Two books kind of book-end the romance and the misery of modern football. Both happen to be about Arsenal, they could have been written about almost any club. Amy Lawrence’s Invincible tells the story of the club’s 2003-2004 unbeaten season. Amy is a writer who will help you to appreciate the football on the pitch with an understanding of how the game is played few can match. At the same time she never fails to appreciate the passion that makes us fans. The Arsenal Shirt by James Elkin and Simon Shakeshaft is a beautifully designed art book visually detailing the history of the club’s most iconic of shirt designs. But of course since the advent of sponsors logos and merchandising profits any legendary kit simply becomes a moneymaking billboard. Unwittingly perhaps the book eloquently reveals the death of tradition that football’s monetisation has successfully engineered.  Progress? In some areas certainly, but at what cost? It is the shift over the past twenty years from the positives Post Italia 90 to the negatives after two decades’ worth of the dire Premier League (sic) that Martin Cloake charts in his new book Taking Our Ball Back. This is writing with well-informed anger. Martin carefully unpicks the causes, and effects of a growing discontent with  how what was once the people’s game is being transformed.

Sport of course doesn’t simply collide with economic forces it is indivisible from the political and social too. This is the basis of these quarterly forays into reviewing the best of current sportswriting. The Nazi Olympics of 1936 remain the strongest example yet of this combination. a platform for Hitler, sport used to seek to prove the physical superiority of the Aryan race, brilliantly demolished of course by  black American athlete Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track and in the long jump pit. A superb achievement that has been allowed to mask countless examples of large sections of the sporting establishment’s effective covering-up and collaboration with the Nazi regime in order to save their sports’ relations with Germany. An England football team ordered to give the Nazi salute before an England v Germany game an incredible, and shameful, moment in football’s history. Field of Shadows by Dan Waddell uncovers a part of sporting history from this period which I suspect even the most well-informed sports fan would be unaware of. The 1937 English cricket tour of Nazi Germany! The impulses and reasoning behind such a bizarre adventure for the Germans and  the English were many and varied. What Dan Waddell’s account reveals though in this most extraordinary of settings was how the cricket was framed by Germany’s fast-moving descent into Nazi barbarism while England remained divided by tendencies towards appeasement and collaboration  versus popular and militant anti-fascism. When being knocked for six could land Hitler a propaganda victory cricket is not quite the gentle sport we’re used to Dan Waddell’s tale is scarcely believable. The fact it is just the makes the book an even better read.

Herbie Sykes covers a different sport , cycling, and a different era for Germany, the East German GDR years of state socialism and the Berlin Wall. Of course comparisons with the Nazi era are both crass and ill-founded historically yet the clash between politics and sport all the same was a constant across these two contrasting period in German history. Herbie’s wonderful book The Race against the Stasi details the career, life and times of one of the sporting heroes of East Germany,  Dieter Wiedeman. The culture that turned him firstly into an elite athlete, then into an icon of GDR socialism the disillusionment that led him to escape, turn pro, ride Le Tour and the efforts of the Stasi to repatriate hum. This is sport as a record of post-war politics with a plot good enough to make it as a thriller.

The cycling intrigue we are perhaps more used to are the drug scandals, particularly of the Lance Armstrong era. Michael Barry is the latest rider to break ranks with the peloton to reveal the consequences of the sport’s drug culture and how cycling has to change in order to rid itself from this scourge. Michael’s autobiographical Shadowson the Road is both brutally honest while elegantly moving in terms of his vision for what riding clean means. Restoring the undoubted romance, heroic endeavours and idealism of road cycling at its best is what Jan Cleijoine’s graphic history of Le Tour achieves. Jan’s Legends of the Tour is a stunning graphic history of what remains the greatest race on earth. Until relatively recently British cyclists wouldn’t be much more than an honourable footnote in such a history, Ellis Bacon’s Great British Cycling tracks the irresistible rise of the sport on these shores from modest beginnings. to such achievements at World, Olympic and Grand Tour level to be thought of as worldbeaters. At the core of that achievement in recent years have been women cyclists. Victoria Pendleton, Lizzie Armistead, Laura Trott and others. Nicole Cooke’s autobiographical The Breakaway is both a powerfully-written testament to the measure of that achievement by a former World and European champion on the road plus a well-argued critique of the barriers that stand in the way of women's cycling.

The latest edition of The Cycling Anthology remains the must-read collection of the very best writing on two wheels. Keep Calm and Pedal On is a great collection of quotes on cycling which gives us an idea of the breadth and depth of inspiration riding a bike fast, slow or in-between can provide. Getting our hands dirty fixing what might have gone wrong with a bicycle might not seem  much of a radical act. Sam Tracy would dispute this and has written a Bicycle Repair Manifesto full of useful diy maintenance tips to keep the bike, if not a revolution, on the road. Still not convinced? Bike Mechanic is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve ever read. In words but, most of all with arthouse standard photographs and layout a homage to those who build and maintain bikes. 

Sport of course should never be treated as a fixed, unchanging, entity. It is shaped by powerful cultural and economic factors as well as the political and social. It demands investigation and often a critique too. Allyson Pollock’s pioneering Tackling Rugby provides both with a sparkling abundance of well-researched writing. Her target? Children and youth rugby, the risk of injury, especially head injuries, and the failure of the sport’s governing bodies to react, with practical suggestions for how to safeguard both young players’ health and the future of the game. A textbook example of how to  investigate sport, expose and help to make change possible.

And my sports book of the quarter? David Goldblatt has already produced one definitive work The Ball is Round, his global and social history of football. His latest book The Game of Our Lives is both a social history of the domestic game and a critique of its modern, monetised manifestation. David combines a sympathetic and original explanation of why football is of such importance to so many while accounting for why it deserves nothing resembling a hagiography because of its many, mostly self-inflicted out of commercial greed, failings. As such it is a book that informs and inspires, a truly great piece of writing.

No links are provided to Amazon. If you can avoid buying from tax-dodgers please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka PhilosophyFootball

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dear Jose Mourinho - A Letter on Racism

Dear Jose Mourinho,

Sorry I haven’t been in touch sooner. I’ve been meaning to write ever since you joined the discussion about black managers in the English game by saying, “there is no racism in football”. That really was one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. I mean, fair play to you, it takes some real front to make that claim and also retain John Terry as the captain of your side, but you should really engage your brain before you let the words slip out of your mouth.

We know you’re arrogant. Dare I say it, some of us quite like your trademark persona. It brightens up our football days. Our eyes widen in mock incredulity when you have the temerity to describe yourself as “The Special One”; we snigger as you go to shake Roy Keane’s hand minutes before the final whistle. But tell me, Jose, how does it feel to be the multi-millionaire manager of one of the world’s richest clubs and tell struggling black coaches that racism doesn’t exist?

And it takes a special kind of arrogance to state there is no racism in football and offer no evidence whatsoever in support. Instead you say: “If you are good, you are good. If you are good, you get the job. If you are good, you prove that you deserve the job. Football is not stupid to close the doors to top people. If you are top, you are top.” Yes, Jose, we all know that this is how it should work. The problem is that something is quite obviously wrong with the supposed meritocracy. Can you honestly say that football truly reflects the talents of black managers in this country?

I suppose you might respond by arguing that the burden of proof rests on those of us who seek to confront racism in football. Fair enough – there’s plenty of evidence. Only two of the 92 managers working in the top four divisions of English football are not white. And both Keith Curle and Chris Powell were appointed at the start of the current season. The Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, claims “there is a hidden racism which holds clubs back” from appointing black managers. In this interesting segment from Football Focus both Dion Dublin and Paul Ince discuss the difficulties facing black people in football and say that action is urgently needed.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Perhaps you’re waiting for a smoking gun. Perhaps you’ll only accept that racism exists in football if you see video footage of dozens of white club chairmen sitting in a room discussing their favourite racial slurs. Jose, there are none as blind as those that will not see.

By ignoring the evidence that does exist, you not only belittle the struggle of ethnic minorities in English football, you also pander to the worst sort of class prejudice. Everyone is quick to point out the problems of racism as long as it is being perpetrated by working class people on the terraces or on the pitch. And rightly so. But is it really so inconceivable to you that bigotry and racial prejudice can also be found in the boardroom? Are the great and the good, the movers and shakers and king-makers immunised against intolerance by virtue of their education and their riches? The answer, in case you were wondering, is no.

All the time racism exists in society then it will exist in football – at every level of the game. Burying your head in the sand won’t change that. Instead we have to look at ways to fight it. That is why so many people are looking towards a version of the Rooney rule. First adopted in American football the rule states that clubs seeking a new head coach must interview at least one person from an ethnic minority.

There is a debate over how effective this would be. Les Ferdinand seems to be against it while Rio Ferdinand is for it, which should make for fun conversation at the family Christmas get-together. Let’s be honest. Such a regulation would hardly change the world. What it would do is show that English football is taking the issue of racism seriously,

Sadly it feels like we have been here before. It’s nearly 40 years since Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis played together for West Brom and were booed by racist sections of their own fans. It’s nearly 30 years since John Barnes back-heeled a banana thrown at him from the crowd in one of the most iconic anti-racist images football has ever produced. As these generations of black footballers moved into coaching they faced the old racism in a new setting and have stared long enough at the glass ceiling. They have never enjoyed your privileged position Jose. The very least you can do is to acknowledge their struggle.

Yours sincerely


Inside Left

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Greatcoats for Goalposts

Dave Zirin is rightly renowned as a radical sportswriter.

In the USA he is the sports correspondent of The Nation. His most recent book  Brazil's Dance With The Devil is a powerfully written exposure of the negative consequences for Brazilian democracy of hosting both World Cup 2014 and the Rio Olympics. He was named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, ESPN and Democracy Now! He also hosts his own weekly Sirius XM show, Edge of Sports Radio. His other books include What's My Name Fool? (Haymarket Books), A People's History of Sports in the United States (the New Press), Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner) and, with John Wesley Carlos, The John Carlos Story. You can find all his work atwww.edgeofsports.com. 

In Britain we have precious few sportswriters who combine Dave Zirin's radical politics and popular impact.

To mark the centenary of the 1914 Christmas Football Truce Philosophy Football therefore thought it would be a grand idea to invite Dave to make a rare visit to these shores and to lead a discussion on 'Why Sport Matters'. He gladly accepted our invite, and with the generous support of the RMT Trade Union, the Amiel & Melburn Trust and Thompsons Solicitors we now have a superb seminar organised in association with the journal Soundings which is FREE to attend. 

Saturday 20 December, 3.30-5.30 at the Rich Mix Arts Centre, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA

Dave will be joined by discussants  Tony Collins, author of the acclaimed Sport In Capitalist Society, Heather Wakefield, Head of Local Government at Unison, Nick Davidson, author  of a new book on German football club St Pauli  Pirates, Punks, Politics and Michelle Moore, an activist promoting equality in sport.  In the chair Anne Coddington, Programme Leader in Sports Journalism, London College of Communications, University of the Arts London. 

This looks like a fantastic event - you can book your place by following this link.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Defending Raheem Sterling

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Raheem Sterling has come in for some serious flak in the past 24 hours. England fans have been upset that the Liverpool midfielder spoke to Roy Hodgson before England’s game with Estonia and told the national boss that he felt jaded and out of form. With this in mind Hodgson replaced Sterling with Adam Lallana as England laboured to a 1-0 victory over Estonia.
                                 
It has been interesting to witness the variety of criticisms that have been levelled at Sterling. Firstly, how can a 19-year-old be tired a month into the season? Secondly, how dare a player who earns thousands of pounds each week be tired ever? Thirdly, who is calling the shots in the England camp? Each carries some validity but yet none of them really hold sway. Let’s deal with each of these in turn.

Those of us who have watched Sterling’s performances for Liverpool can testify to the fact that he is not enjoying the same rich vein of form that characterised his performances towards the end of last season. He possesses such pace and talent that he is still a potent attacking threat but his runs are meandering rather than incisive, his passes all too often misplaced. One may wonder how a player so young can be fatigued but that he is showing signs of tiredness is surely not in doubt. Moaning that he shouldn’t be tired does nothing to change this fact.

Raheem Sterling is handsomely rewarded for his footballing ability. Once his contract negotiations with Liverpool have been completed he can expect to receive around £100,000 a week. This is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and another sign that market forces are a complete nonsense. Workers in the public sector (nurses, civil servants, teachers) will go on strike having been offered a measly 1% pay rise. We live in a horribly unequal society. Football in particular seems to know the price of everything and everyone and the value of nothing. But, once again, this does not stop Raheem Sterling actually being out of form.

Finally there is a question around Roy Hodgson’s leadership. Is he letting the players call the shots? Or did he drop Sterling to the bench to placate the increasingly irate Brendon Rodgers? Frankly, who cares? The cult of the manager, complete with strong, interventionist leadership, is everywhere in society but at its worst in football. Hodgson made his team selection on the strength of the information in front of him. Such decisions are made every single day and don’t mean that players have more power than managers. Would that it were the case. As anyone who has ever gone to work can tell you, managers know very little about what happens. Given the way England are playing at the moment it might not be a bad idea to get rid of Hodgson and let the players work it out for themselves. 

Assuming that Sterling is genuine – not just pulling the footballing equivalent of phoning into work and telling your boss you’ve got the squits – then he is to be congratulated, not castigated. He is aware of the limitations of his own body, he is open and honest enough to tell Hodgson that he doesn’t feel at his best, and he has put the needs of the team above his own self-interest. Sterling is no fool, he will have known the expectation that people are placing on his shoulders. Under this pressure one might expect a teenager to buckle, instead he trusted his instincts.

Sterling’s body is still changing, still developing. He already looks a completely different figure to the spindly boy that made his debut for Liverpool in March 2012: his physique is bigger, his shoulders broader, his upper body more muscular than before. Without a strategy to manage this continuing development the incessant demands of the modern game will take a heavy toll. Sterling is still at the stage where he needs to be rested occasionally. The alternative is potentially career threatening.


And there are warnings from Liverpool’s own recent history. Both Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen burst on to the Anfield scene as precocious teenagers; neither would ever fully realise his potential. As I've noted elsewhere on this website: "In his first four full seasons playing for Liverpool Fowler appeared in 188 games. Over the same timespan Owen notched up 160 appearances. It was an incredible stress to place on the bodies of professional athletes who were little more than boys. The prodigious talents of both players dawned in an era of fading fortune for Liverpool FC. When Kenny Dalglish resigned from his position of manager after Hillsborough he left behind an aging squad, short on fire power. To exhibit such extraordinary ability at such a tender age was the curse of both men. The intensity of those early years – the result of a club desperate for glory, honours and revenue - almost certainly accounts for the fact that neither man reached his full potential." 

If Raheem Sterling is to avoid a similar fate then he must continue to be brave enough to know the limits of his own body. 

Beating the Franchise

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Some football matches are more important than others. Cup finals, relegation six-pointers and local derbies all mean more than your average game. But then there are some fixtures which have a significance reaching far beyond the confines of the pitch. They speak to us about the society in which we live, its divisions and priorities. Sometimes teams assume the roles of good and evil in a battle for the very soul of football. It’s just not often that this all happens in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Last Tuesday Adebayo Akinfenwa scored the winner as AFC Wimbledon beat the team from Milton Keynes 3-2. It was a result which brought smiles to the faces of countless football fans across the country regardless of which team they support. Why? Because this was more than a game. It was a contest between two very different conceptions of what football is and what it should be. On the one hand you have AFC Wimbledon, a genuine grassroots initiative. On the other, you have Milton Keynes, a club that will always be the “Franchise” and will never be the “Dons”. And their histories are painfully connected.

Wimbledon FC was formed in 1889 and for the best part of a century the club rattled around non-League football. Only elected to the Football League in 1977 they rapidly climbed through the divisions and were promoted to the top flight of English football in 1986. Two years later they beat Liverpool to win the 1988 FA Cup. For more than a decade the Crazy Gang, featuring the likes of John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and Lawrie Sanchez, would terrorise the so-called big clubs, turning their brand of physical, direct football into something of an art form.

But their success was not to last. Unable to develop Plough Lane they were forced to groundshare at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park from the start of the 1991/92 season. By the end of the century their larger-than-life owner Sam Hammam had sold the club to Charles Koppel, Kjell Inge Roekke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten. In 2000 they were relegated. Still without a ground of their own and financially unstable Wimbledon were faced with an uncertain future. Then in stepped Pete Winkleman.

Winkleman had long wanted a football club in Milton Keynes and it was much easier to steal a team from another part of the country than build a club from scratch. His pitch was simple: Wimbledon could move to Milton Keynes. This was a city without a club for a club without a home. After protracted negotiations with the FA and the Football League – both of whom had originally rejected Winkleman’s idea – the club moved in 2003. Winkleman personified vulture capitalism at its worst: wait for a business to fail, cherry-pick the parts you want and damn the consequences for everybody else. The effect was to destroy Wimbledon FC - screw the history, screw the tradition, screw the fans.

The closest the English game had previously come to a franchise side had been in 1913. It was then that Arsenal chairman, Sir Henry Norris, moved the club from Woolwich to north London, in search of larger gates and increased revenue. Instead franchising has been most closely associated with sport in the United States, where club ‘brands’ can be bought and sold and, in theory, transplanted to the other side of the country on the whim of a multi-millionaire owner. Milton Keynes is the only such franchise club in English football.

Wimbledon fans were rightly outraged by the way their club had been stolen from them. But they didn’t mourn the loss of their club, they organised. AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002 and their rise through the divisions has been every bit as meteoric as that of Wimbledon in the 1970s and 80s. Their victory over the Franchise was just the latest in a series of milestones. But was it justice for what Wimbledon fans have gone through? Not according to Kris Stewart, the founding chairman of AFC Wimbledon.

“I can't speak for everyone, only myself, obviously,” said Stewart. “For me, I'd say that it essentially makes no difference – the Franchise still have the league place they stole, they still exist. No-one should ever have to play them. They shouldn't exist. "Justice", if it comes, will come the day they go out of business. And it was a tinpot cup. And we've been there twice and lost. And we shouldn't ever have to play them. But fuck me, it was great to stick it up 'em!”

“We spend very, very little time thinking about them. We have a great club and we're on our way home. We 'proved' whatever we had to prove back in July 2002 when we played our first friendly at Sutton United and lost 4-0. We have nothing to prove. We are Wimbledon.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Remembering Brian Clough

Last month football stopped to remember Brian Clough who passed away ten years ago. It seems rather odd to think that an entire generation of fans has grown up without him as a footballing reference point. As a player and a manager Clough was one of the great figures of the English game in the twentieth century. As a man, however, Clough was legendary: feared and revered, a perfect blend of talent, humour and outright arrogance. And he was, of course, the best manager England never had.

Clough made his debut for Middlesbrough in 1955 and quickly formed a deadly partnership - and lifelong friendship - with Lindy Delapenha, the first Jamaican to play professional football in England. Clough netted 204 goals in 222 league games for the club before moving to Sunderland in 1961. While on Wearside he bagged another 63 goals in 74 matches. Who knows how many more Clough would have scored were it not for the knee injury which ended his playing career at the age of just 29. This extraordinary level of success would continue as Clough made the transition into management. His Derby County side won the league in 1972. He achieved the same feat at Nottingham Forest in 1978, and subsequently secured back-to-back European Cup successes.

These accomplishments, astonishing as they are, formed only the backdrop to the very many articles which appeared to commemorate his life. It was Clough himself that took centre stage. As Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian, “Clough’s legacy should not just be measured by his European Cups and all the other trophies. It was the charisma with which he did it, with his own set of rules, and the way he mesmerised everyone in his company”. Pat Murphy, BBC journalist and friend of Clough’s, made a similar point: “what set him apart was personality - his ability to transcend his sport. Clough was a genuine one-off and there are more anecdotes about him than anyone else in the game.”

These anecdotes are at the very heart of Clougie folklore. Whether he was explaining his football philosophy (“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there”) or knowingly referencing his own egotism (“You know that Frank Sinatra, he’s met me”) Clough was never ever short of something to say. This was a man with no respect for reputation, prepared to skewer the pompous and self-regarding. And he was the only person to verbally spar with Muhammad Ali and come out with a victory. There are other elements integral to the Clough story – being ignored by the Football Association, his 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United, that green jumper – but all pale in comparison next to his ability to deliver a killer one-liner. Yet, strangely, while writers all remembered Clough’s wit and wisdom, few, if any, mentioned his politics.

In the 1970s the National Front (NF), an avowedly fascist organisation, had gained a small but all too real foothold in British society. They stood in local and national elections, picking up both votes and new recruits in the process. But it was on the streets that the NF posed their most serious threat, intimidating and viciously attacking black and Asian people. Racism seeped onto the terraces and black footballers were regularly abused, sometimes even by their own supports. Anti-racists struck back and formed the Anti-Nazi League in 1977. Clough, along with thousands of football fans, was a supporter – indeed he was one of the signatories of the ANL’s founding statement.

Similarly, Clough would offer his solidarity to the miners who went on strike in the 1980s. As a socialist he understood only too well that Maggie Thatcher’s plans to close the pits would decimate whole towns and ruin countless lives. Clough marched with the miners, refused to speak to “scab” reporters, made donations to their campaign and urged others to do the same: “all right-minded working class fans should contribute towards the miners’ fund.” And this was not the only time. He had taken Derby County players to picket lines in the 1970s and marched against pit closures in the 1990s. Just imagine the controversy if Jose Mourinho was seen protesting on the streets about unemployment or Arsene Wenger took part in demonstrations against the privatisation of the NHS! Not that anyone could or should try to paint Clough as a prolier-than-thou working class hero. He had, as we all do, the vices of his virtues. His later life was marked by alcoholism; Alan Sugar alleged that Clough “liked a bung”; his treatment of Justin Fashanu while at Forest was shameful.

But his politics were a key part of who he was and how he managed. Like Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - the three Scottish managers who dominated British football in the 1960s and 1970s – Clough imbued something of his working class upbringing and his beliefs into the sides that he managed. No one player was ever bigger than the club; teams played their best football when they were a collective rather than merely eleven individuals.

In the modern game there are plenty of managers who seem to think that by criticising referees or the FA they are, somehow, speaking truth to power. Brian Clough set his sights a little higher than that. His targets were racial prejudice and Conservative governments. Those who want to honour his memory would do well to follow suit. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Smash FIFA

In the wake of last week’s Scottish referendum some young scamps took to Twitter, floating the idea that maybe football should seek independence from FIFA. It was a hugely popular suggestion and it is not difficult to see why. In the minds of most football fans FIFA has become synonymous with corruption. For as long as people can remember it has lurched from one scandal to another, mired in controversy. And yet, in a bizarre attempt to push the entire planet into irony overload, the first ever World Summit on Ethics in Sport is currently being held at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters. Asking football’s world governing body to host an event on ethics is as ludicrous as getting Jimmy Carr to head up a tax-evasion taskforce or making Tony Blair the Middle East peace envoy.

So bad has the situation become – and so vocal are the organisation’s critics – that FIFA have been forced to launch their own ethics committee. Earlier this month the head of that committee, Michael Garcia, delivered his findings following an 18-month investigation into the bidding process that saw the 2018 and 2022 World Cups awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively. So far only four people have seen that report and it seems likely there will now be a protracted battle to see it published in full. Any attempt by FIFA to keep the document confidential will surely only serve to further tarnish their reputation.

Elsewhere a story surfaced that 28 people on FIFA’s executive committee had each been given a £16,000 watch by the Brazilian Football Confederation during the World Cup. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce promised to return his having remembered that he had stashed it in his garage. Seriously, how rich do you have to be to forget that you own a watch worth £16,000? Greg Dyke said that he had received six watches since he took over as the head of the Football Association last year. Although not on the same level as the allegations surrounding Russia and Qatar, the watches scandal does nothing to dispel the notion that there is a culture amongst football’s upper echelons of bribes, backhanders and favour-trading. And this is certainly not the image that FIFA wants to portray.

In June Sepp Blatter (who considers FIFA's ethical standards to be "exemplary") gave his presidential address to the 64th annual FIFA Congress, during which he outlined this vision:

“Football should be a force for positive change in the world, not an obstacle to it. And so should FIFA … Large institutions must set the right example because we shape society. We make decisions that impact lives. We cannot expect others to act in the right way if powerful organisations like FIFA do not. My vision for FIFA in this changing world is this: We must become one of today’s pioneers of hope – just like those seven original pioneers who started everything for us. We must carry that flame of honesty, responsibility and respect. If we do not, we will betray the true spirit of this game we all love.”

Unfortunately for Blatter few people regard FIFA as “a force for positive change in the world”. And nowhere was this more apparent than in Brazil. During last year’s Confederations Cup and again at the World Cup, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest at the expense of the two tournaments. In the spiritual home of football people carried placards that read “FIFA Go Home”. Whenever Blatter was introduced to supporters or his image appeared on the giant screens inside the stadiums he was roundly booed.

While millions of poverty-stricken people live in the favelas of Brazil, the 2014 World Cup generated more than $4 billion in total revenue for FIFA. Regardless of how much Blatter talks about his mission or how much FIFA may busy itself with debates over goal line technology or player suspensions, it cannot hide the fact that its role as football administrator is nothing more than a secondary concern. As a transnational institution it wields alarming power and influence. It can pressure nation states into granting it tax-exempt status. It sits on cash reserves of nearly $1.5 billion. It sits at the centre of a global web of television deals, marketing rights and corporate sponsors. The real business of FIFA is business.

With all that has gone before it is little wonder that people believe there is something rotten in the world of football. But to think that tinkering with procedures or changing personnel can deal with the corruption at the heart of FIFA is to misread the situation. The problem is not simply one or two bad apples; it is systemic, woven into the very fabric of the organisation, a prime sporting example of crony capitalism at its very worst. Those of us who would like to see a transparent, responsible, democratically accountable world of football should not seek to reform FIFA; we should find a way to smash it. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hull City AFC - A Club Not A Brand

This piece originally appeared on my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voom Football website. 

What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”. So wrote Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a shame that there was no professional football in the time of the Bard. If there had been he would have learned that in some love affairs names matter an awful lot.

Take for instance the continuing trials and tribulations at Hull City AFC. For a year fans have been fighting proposals put forward by the club’s owner, Assem Allam, to change the team’s name. The plan was that they would be known nationally as the Hull City Tigers and internationally as Hull Tigers. Allam’s reasoning was simple to the point of foolhardy: rebranding the club would mean greater appeal in the potentially lucrative, Premier League-loving markets of the Far East. If that little piece of marketing genius meant sacrificing 110 years of history in the process, then so be it.

Whether Allam realised or not this was a decision destined to draw the ire of Hull fans. And it did. Big time. Supporters moved quickly, forming the campaigning group City til we Die. Banners were dropped, petitions were signed, a full page ad appeared in the Hull Daily Mail, and protests were staged with placards proclaiming: “Hull City AFC: A Club Not A Brand”. The group put out a statement saying: “We, as representatives of a wide spectrum of Hull City AFC supporters across the UK and beyond, call on the Allams to put a stop to this. We are Hull City AFC, there is nothing wrong with that name and it should stay put.” In a wonderful display football fans and supporters groups across the country offered their solidarity.

The fans views were, however, dismissed out of hand. “Nobody,” said Allam, “questions my decisions in my business.” Thankfully the Football Association disagreed and in April rejected the bid to change the name of the club. This decision prompted the mother of all millionaire hissy-fits from Allam, the sort of tantrum you might expect to see from a toddler having just been told to get in their bath or from MPs who had been informed they wouldn’t be getting a pay rise.

Allam said: "We stated earlier this year that the club would be for sale if our attempt to globally promote Hull Tigers as a brand name and playing name be blocked," he said in a prepared statement. As a consequence of the FA's decision on April 9 I announced on April 10 that Hull City is for sale. This announcement is in accordance with my decision 10 months ago that I would walk away within 24 hours (if the rebrand was unsuccessful). In actual fact it was 22 hours. I don't call bluffs.”

Despite the relative success of last season’s campaign, some excellent summer signings and the obligatory request from manager Steve Bruce for fans to “get behind the team”, disquiet still persists on the terraces of the KC Stadium. Not only has Allam taken the name change case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, he has also altered the club badge, thereby reneging on a promise to consult with supporters before any such change was made.

The fight of the Hull City AFC fans is a microcosm of the wider argument about football in general. Is it a game of pride, passion and entertainment for fans everywhere? Or is it the plaything of the rich, a way of massaging their egos and boosting their profits? Of course formally, legally, a football club is the property of its owner, but most fans feel a sense of ownership over their club more profound than can be typed on a set of legal documents.

Every supporter talks about the club they support in terms of the collective. All of us speak of how “we” won at the weekend, or how good “our” form has been, or tell our friends that “their” team is awful. Why? Because players, managers, board members and owners come and go – but we fans are here for life. Cheering on eleven guys kicking a ball around may seem silly to some people – but for so many of us it is part of our identity. We invest our time, our emotions and our money into these clubs. We care. And it matters to us more than they can ever possibly understand.

It is for these reasons that the supporters of Hull AFC continue their protests. And why all true football fans wish them well.


Faster, Higher, Stronger: A Critical Analysis of the Olympics

This piece was originally published in the Irish Marxist Review in the summer of 2012. 

For two weeks this summer London will play host to the Olympic Games. Against a backdrop of austerity-driven public spending cuts thousands of athletes from more than two hundred countries will contest 26 events, competing “in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams”[1] Awash with brands and corporate logos the Olympics have become the quintessential mega-event; a global, neo-liberal, five-ring circus. Those five rings of the Olympic symbol adorn everything from soft drinks cans to aircraft, the product of billion dollar sponsorship deals. To ‘protect’ the games the UK government is deploying 13,500 troops, locating surface to air missiles on the rooftops of residential housing, and stationing the warship HMS Ocean on the River Thames. London can expect a "sporting jamboree of militarized corporate banality".[2]

Yet the popularity of the Olympics remains unparalleled. A combined global audience of 845 million watched the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing games in 2008.[3] The Olympic brand is recognised around the world and marketed as a festival of humanity, blind to gender, creed or colour. As a spectacle the Olympics claim to stand above politics, transcending the divisions and affairs of states. Its history, however, tells quite a different story, one in which the games have long been a site of political, as well as sporting, contestation.

Nationalism, Communism and Fascism

The games of ancient Greece ran for more than a thousand years before the Roman emperor Theodosius I called time on the heathen contests. Although a number of subsequent sporting festivals described themselves as ‘Olympic’, it is Baron Pierre de Coubertin who is commonly held responsible for the ‘renovation’ of the games and the birth of the modern Olympic phenomenon.[4] An educationalist and keen sportsman, Coubertin was born in France in 1863 into a life of aristocratic privilege, growing up in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. These two events were to have a profound effect on the young Baron who set himself the goal of restoring his nation’s status. Coubertin ardently believed that the dominance of British imperialism was founded on the English ‘public’ school system’s dedication to team sports. After all, had the Duke of Wellington not claimed that the Battle of Waterloo was “won on the playing fields of Eton”?  Physical competitive games would help to raise a generation of French children who would never again suffer military defeat. “Sport,” said Coubertin, “can be seen as an indirect preparation for war. In sports all the same qualities flourish which serve for warfare: indifference towards one’s well being, courage, readiness for the unforeseen… The young sportsman is certainly better prepared for war than his untrained brothers”.[5] For Coubertin sports would also play a role in reconciling the contending classes, ensuring no repeat of the Commune, when Paris had been "in the hands of a contemptible insurrection, formulated by cosmopolitan adventurers".[6] While others, such as the right wing sociologist Le Play, had argued that the roles played by religion and the family had to be strengthened if France were to avoid class confrontation, Coubertin stressed the importance of sports.[7]

With his views largely ignored by the French establishment Coubertin, an admirer of classical Greek culture, turned his attention to resurrecting the Olympics. After much wrangling the first modern Olympic games took place in Athens in 1896, an attempt to inspire and educate the youth of the world through sport. However, the invitation extended to only one half of the world’s populace as Coubertin deemed the participation of women "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect", insisting that they “have but one task, that of crowning the [male] winner with garlands.”[8] Although women were allowed to compete in a minimal program of exhibition events in Paris 1900, St Louis 1904 and London 1908 they were again excluded from the games in Stockholm 1912.[9] Such was the intrasigence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that European sportswomen felt compelled to form their own organisation, the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale in 1921, and the first Women’s Olympics were held in Monte Carlo in 1922 with subsequent Women’s World Games in 1926, 1930 and 1934. In his memoirs the Baron would continue to argue for the “suppression of the admittance of women to all competitions in which men take part”.[10]

Coubertin, unperturbed by charges of discrimination and elitism, saw the games as embodying more than mere sporting competition. In a rapidly changing, uncertain time they were an effort to foster mutual understanding between countries, seeking to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”[11] John Hoberman cites Coubertin’s vision as an example of the “idealistic internationalism” running through sections of the ruling class at the time.[12] The resurrection of the Olympics came in an era when numerous attempts were made at international organization, some of which were influenced by the peace movement.[13] Coubertin’s conception of internationalism, as embodied by the Olympics, was based on the inviolability of the nation state, a reflection of his “conviction that patriotism and internationalism were not only not incompatible, but required one another”.[14] As such he saw no contradiction in dedicating the inaugural games of 1896 to both patriotism and world peace. Unfortunately his was an internationalism only in times of peace, and he was to enlist in the French army during the First World War.[15]

The idealistic internationalism of the Olympics did not find universal acceptance or approval. Following the Russian revolution the Bolsheviks refused to send competitors to the bourgeois games, which they viewed as an attempt to “deflect workers from the class struggle and to train them for imperialist wars”.[16] But nor could they simply ignore the fact that sport occupied an ever growing place in the leisure time of the European working class. During the Third World Congress of the Communist International in 1921 the Red Sport International (RSI) was formed, not only in opposition to the cultural imperialism of the official Olympic movement but also as a counterweight to the social democratic Socialist Worker Sport International (SWSI). In comparison to the sports of the capitalist nations the worker sport movement placed a premium on festival-like activities, using sport to build international solidarity that transcended, rather than respected, national divisions.

Through the 1920s both organisations attempted to influence workers across Europe; the SWSI organised three Worker’s Olympics and the RSI held their first Spartakiad in Moscow in 1928. The most famous, and tragic, example of such events came in Barcelona in 1936. Five years previously the Catalan city had been defeated by Berlin in the bid to host the 1936 Olympics. Their response was to organise the Barcelona Popular Olympics. A day before the People’s Olympics were due to begin Franco’s military uprising signalled the start of the Spanish Civil War. Many of the worker-athletes who had gathered from across Europe stayed in the city, effectively forming an advance party of the International Brigades.

Two months after fascist guns brought the People’s Games to a premature end, the Olympics began in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had at first been hostile to the idea of staging the Games, taking the position of Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg who had previously denounced the Olympics as a crime on the grounds of their international character.[17] It was only the intervention of Josef Goebbels that persuaded the Fuhrer of the enormous propaganda potential involved with hosting an event of worldwide interest. Echoing the rhetoric of Coubertin, Hitler proclaimed his conversion to Olympism:

“The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That is why the Olympic Flame should never die.”[18]

It soon became apparent that the Nazi regime was discriminating against Jewish athletes, barring them from competition and the possibility of qualifying to represent Germany at the Games. The IOC dispatched representatives to investigate, meeting with Carl Diem, a historian and administrator, who had for many years played a leading role in German sports. Although not a party member, Diem was a nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis, setting aside whatever misgivings he may originally have had to persuade the IOC that the Berlin Games would in no way contravene the Olympic commitment to equality.

Avery Brundage, an American IOC member who would later become its president, was one of those who visited Germany to assess the situation. Not only was he satisfied there was no evidence of anti-Semitism, he also eulogized about the organizational zeal of the Third Reich. Others were not as convinced. Ernest Lee Jahncke, like Brundage an American IOC member, told the New York Times that it was a “plain and undeniable fact that the Nazis have consistently and persistently violated their pledges.”[19] Consul General George S. Messersmith concluded:

“Should the Games not be held in Berlin it would be one of the most serious blows which National Socialist prestige could suffer within an awakening Germany and one of the most effective ways which the world outside has of showing the youth of Germany its opinion of National Socialist doctrine”[20]

A campaign in the United States to boycott the Berlin Olympics quickly gathered support and the Amateur Athletic Union collected over half a million signatures in support, though it was dismissed as the work of Communists and Jews. Brundage used increasingly anti-Semitic language in his private correspondence, claiming criticism was “obviously written by a Jew or someone who has succumbed to the Jewish propaganda”.[21] In public he went on the counter-offensive, repeating the mantra of Olympics neutrality:

“all the real sport leaders in the United States are unanimously in favour of participation in the Olympic Games which are above all considerations of politics, race, colour, or creed”[22]

Eventually the USA would compete in Berlin, as would the half-Jewish German fencer Helene Mayer, whose selection amounted to little more than a cynical attempt to placate international opinion. The undoubted star of the Games was African-American athlete Jessie Owens who took gold in four events (the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay), and demolished Hitler’s theories of Aryan superiority in the process. His success is often used as evidence against those who would have boycotted the Games, but it is worth bearing in mind that contemporary opinion was far from unanimous. The Nazis pointed to the fact that Germany topped the medal table, ahead of a USA team larger than any that had before competed at an Olympiad. W.J. Baker records, “The Olympic Games held at Berlin in 1936 were an unprecedented success: as a sporting spectacle as much as a triumph of propaganda for the National Socialist regime. Such were the opinions at the time”.[23] This was certainly the feeling of Coubertin who claimed Hitler had “magnificently served, and by no means disfigured, the Olympic ideal.”[24] The IOC was equally impressed by the Nazi Olympics. The format of the Berlin Games - with its opening and closing ceremonies, its Olympic torch, its two week duration, its pageantry and spectacle – have served as a template for all subsequent Olympiads.

Cold War, Boycotts and Protest

After the Second World War the Games resumed, staged in a war-ravaged London, in what is often dubbed the ‘Austerity Olympics’. The IOC once again attempted to position itself at the head of a movement based on “redemptive and inspirational internationalism”.[25] The IOC’s official film of the London Olympics urged: “V for victory, not in war, not in wealth, but in sportsmanship and peace.” The appeal to a common humanity without political division was an aspiration to which many could subscribe. Yet it was destined to fail as the realities of the Cold War ensued. It was inevitable that the relative success of East and West would be measured in gold, silver and bronze, no matter how much the IOC might protest that the “Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries”.[26]

Although initially ambivalent in their relationship to the IOC in the immediate post-war period the Soviet Union was increasingly drawn into international sporting competition - on the strict understanding that defeat was unacceptable. Nikolai Romanov, the chairman of the Committee on Physical Culture and Sport, recalls: “To gain permission to go to international tournaments I had to send a special note to Stalin guaranteeing victory.”[27] A Soviet resolution of 1949 recognized the propaganda value of victories over competitors from the West:

“The increasing number of successes achieved by Soviet athletes… is a victory for the Soviet form of society and the socialist sports system; it provides irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the moribund culture of capitalist states.”[28]

In their first foray into Olympic competition, at the 1952 Helsinki Games, the Soviet Union finished second in the medal table behind the United States. In Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960 these positions were reversed. It was a situation that did not go unnoticed by politicians in the United States. In July 1964, in the run up to the Tokyo Games, Attorney General Robert Kennedy highlighted the increasingly important political role of the Olympics: “Part of a nation’s prestige in the cold war is won in the Olympic Games. In this day of international stalemates nations use the scoreboard of sports as a visible measuring stick to prove their superiority over the ‘soft and decadent’ democratic way of life”.[29] Senator Hubert Humphrey, soon to be Vice President, preferred more hyperbolic Cold War rhetoric, warning: “Once they have crushed us in the coming Olympic battle the Red propaganda drums will thunder out in a worldwide tattoo, heralding the ‘new Soviet man and woman’ as ‘virile, unbeatable conquerors’ in sports – or anything else.”[30]

The Games continued as a proxy for the Cold War, culminating in tit-for-tat boycotts of Olympic proportions. The US led a 62-nation boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, ostensibly in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union reciprocated by refusing to participate at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. This was far from being the first or only time that that the Games had been used to register a political protest. In 1976 twenty-two African nations boycotted the Montreal Games in protest at the New Zealand rugby union tour of apartheid South Africa. The 1956 Games in Melbourne witnessed three separate boycotts from seven nations, including Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon refusing to participate following the Suez crisis.[31] At the same Olympiad, Hungary met the Soviet Union in the men’s water polo semi-final, less than a month after the crushing of the Hungarian revolution. The infamous contest, remembered as the Blood in the Water match, ended as the pool turned red. Hungary won 4-0.

It is the Mexico Games of 1968, however, that will long be remembered as the moment when sports and politics collided. In a year of protests stretching across the globe, ten thousand people had gathered in the Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City ten days before the Olympics were scheduled to start. Demonstrating against the cost of the Games and for democratic change they carried banners proclaiming, “We Don’t Want Olympic Games, We Want Revolution!” Within half an hour the army moved in and opened fire. 325 protestors were murdered.[32]

In the United States the civil rights movement resonated inside the sporting world, finding its organizational expression in the shape of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). Spearheaded by Harry Edwards, an African-American academic, OPHR sought to highlight the issues of racism faced by black athletes and attracted a number of high profile supporters, pushing strongly (though ultimately fruitlessly) for a boycott of the Mexico Olympics. They also called for the removal of IOC president Brundage, who they quite correctly labeled a racist. He responded by dismissing the group as “irresponsible publicity seeking agitators” and issued one of the most comically ill fated injunctions in the history of sports:

“We must never permit the Olympic movement to be used as a tool or a weapon for any ulterior cause nor the Olympic Games to be a forum for demonstrations of any kind.”[33]

Black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the men’s 200m final respectively. On the rostrum at the medal ceremony both men bowed their heads, and raised gloved hands in black power salutes. Muhammad Ali, no stranger to either the Olympics or racism, described it as “the single most courageous act of the century”. Smith explained the symbolism of the gesture:

“The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power within black America. The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right hand and his left hand also to signify black unity. The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty.”[34]

The pair were censured by the US Olympic committee and expelled from the Olympic village before being vilified by the press and receiving death threats on their return home. Other black American athletes would also use their Olympic success as a platform to make political statements. Bob Beamon wore black socks and Ralph Boston went barefoot at the medal ceremony for the long jump. Lee Evans, Larry James and Rob Freeman, who completed a clean sweep of the medals in the 400m all wore black berets when collecting their medals. But it is the iconic image of Smith and Carlos, captured in a moment of dignified rage, which remains “arguably the most enduring image in sports history.”[35]

The Neo Liberal Games

The IOC likes to talk of the Olympics as being a ‘family’ or a ‘movement’, as though, to borrow a wretched phrase, we are all in this together. Yet its elitism is evident from the people it has placed at the head of its organization. Christopher Shaw notes: “Of nine actual or acting presidents, the IOC has put three barons, two counts, two businessmen, an overt fascist and a fascist sympathizer in its top job.”[36] The overt fascist of whom he wrote was the Spaniard, Juan Antonio Samaranch. As a teenager Samaranch had joined Franco’s National Movement, later becoming the President of the Barcelona Regional Council. Following Franco’s demise, Samaranch attempted to reinvent himself as a statesman in the world of international sport. As the investigative journalists Simson and Jennings describe:

“like the astute politician he was for twenty-five years, Samaranch has not only re-invented himself, he has refashioned the Olympic movement in his own style of politics: the leader grants and accepts audiences with heads of state; the leader issues orders; the leader selects new IOC members and imposes them on the movement; the leader knows best; the leader’s will is carried out; the leader appears at press conferences flanked by the banners of the movement.”[37]

The IOC was transformed into the nerve center of a rapidly developing corporate monolith, commanding an extraordinary budget. Jules Boykoff records that “the IOC made a profit of $383 million on the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, after routing a very substantial share of the $2.4 billion total revenue to other parts of the ‘Olympic Movement’.”[38] Unsurprisingly the IOC has made tax dodging into an art form. The Host City Agreement stipulates that the IOC should pay no tax on money made through the Olympics, and in their Swiss base they are recorded as being a “non-profit” organization![39] Like so many other corporate entities its members have been embroiled in bribery and corruption scandals, most notably prior to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics when members of the IOC were found to have accepted ‘gifts’ from potential host cities in return for their votes. Despite assurances of reform, the IOC remains a singularly unaccountable group. In 2008 the British think tank, One World Trust, ranked the IOC the least transparent of the thirty transnational organizations in its survey, below such luminaries of democratic accountability as the European Central Bank, Halliburton and Goldman Sachs.[40]

It was Samaranch who oversaw the explosion of Olympic sponsorship in the 1980s. In the previous decade the sale of television rights had been the IOC’s main source of income, amounting to 98% of their operational budget. The television rights for the 1968 Mexico Games, the first to be broadcast around the world via satellite, were sold for $10 million. By the time of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 the cost of purchasing the TV rights had skyrocketed to $225 million. As the sums involved grew ever larger, Samaranch was eager to ensure that the IOC’s revenue streams were not exclusively bound to the whims of television executives. To do that the Olympics had to be transformed from a mere sporting event into a global industry. The estimated 2.5 billion people who had watched the LA Games represented a monumental captive market, as Michael Payne, former IOC marketing director, explains, “nothing has provided sponsors with a stronger or more powerful unified global platform to connect with their customers than the Olympics.”[41]

Paradoxically, Samaranch fulfilled his mission of Olympic profiteering, through The Olympic Partners (TOP) program, by reducing the number of official sponsors. The TOP sponsorships have generated massive revenues, $279 million in 1993-1996, $579 million in 1997-2000 and $663 million from 2001-2004.[42] It was inspired by the event in Los Angles. In 1976 there had been 628 official Olympic sponsors and suppliers. The LA Games – the first purely privately financed Olympiad – cut these numbers substantially, to 34 sponsors, 64 suppliers, and 5 licensees. For the duration of the Games the five ring Olympic symbol features on TV programs and advertisements, products were licensed and endorsed, for the first time, corporate hospitality centers were introduced. It was the perfect example of the fusion of international sport with Reaganomics. However, not all of the IOC were enamoured by the corporatised vision. Sir Reginald Alexander, an IOC member from Kenya, rounded on Peter Ueberroth, head of the Los Angeles Olympic Committee:

“You, Mr Ueberrroth represent the ugly face of capitalism… and its attempt to take over the Olympic Movement and commercialise the Olympic Games.”[43]

The LA Games represented a watershed moment in Olympic history producing a profit in excess of $232 million. At a time when many people, including some of those in the IOC, feared for the future of the Olympics, the success of Los Angeles once again made the hosting of the Games an attractive proposition, with governments motivated by the lure of the ‘P’ triad: publicity, pride and profit.[44] Prior to the 2008 Games Chinese, marketing officials concluded, “the Beijing Olympics will not be about sport, it will be about creating a super brand called China”.[45] In somewhat more circumspect fashion, Prime Minister David Cameron says:

“We’re going to show that Britain is one of the very best places to live, to work, to invest, to do business and we’re going to show that ours is a proud, forward-looking and confident country”[46]

The costs of London 2012 have already increased from an initial estimate of £2.4 billion to a figure of £11 billion. Both the Athens and Beijing Olympics ran over-budget, and the 1976 Games in Montreal resulted in a deficit of more than $1 billion. Before the opening of those Games, the city’s mayor, Jean Drapeau, had said, “the Olympics could no more produce a deficit, than a man a baby”.[47] In fact, it took Montreal thirty years to clear its eventual $2 billion Olympic debt. In order to legitimize hosting an event that effectively nationalizes organizational and infrastructure costs whilst ensuring maximum profitability for multinational corporations governments have turned to the narrative of ‘legacy’. In response to those dissident voices who have raised concerns over the cost of the London Olympics, the organizers have repeatedly claimed that not only will the Games ‘inspire a generation’, they will also result in inward investment and job creation.

In fact the effects of staging the Olympics have proved disastrous for the poor and “threaten the basic rights and freedoms of residents in host cities, with particularly serious impacts on the lives of low-income and homeless people”[48] The promised employment opportunities have been temporary and poorly paid, while the urban regeneration has been little more than the gentrification of urban areas housing prime real estate that would, in normal times, be off limits to property developers. Estimates suggest that the between the late 1980s and 2008 the Olympics have been responsible for the displacement of 2 million people.[49] This figure rises to 3.5 million with the inclusion of the Beijing Games.[50] At recent Games every effort has been made to ensure that ‘undesirables’ are removed from sight, in particular targeting ethnic minorities and the homeless. The Atlanta Games of 1996 saw 9000 arrest citations written for the city’s homeless population, while the Vancouver authorities made sleeping rough illegal before the Winter Olympics in 2010. London has engaged in its own program of social cleansing, targeting prostitutes and relocating residents in Newham to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, over a hundred miles away. It is little wonder that every recent Olympiad has witnessed groups springing up in host cities in protest at the intrusion, effects and cost of the Games. As Helen Lenskyj observes:

“most anti-Olympic groups had well-developed analyses of the links between Olympic sport and global capitalism, most notably the complicity of Olympic corporate sponsors in environmental destruction and human rights abuses, and the problem of the widening gap between rich and poor countries.”[51]

It would be fair to say that the protests in London have not, as yet, reached the levels seen prior to the Sydney or Vancouver Olympics, perhaps understandable given the unanimous support of politicians and the uncritical coverage the event has received in the media. The IOC, however, is not one to leave these things to chance. Rule 61 of the Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas”.[52]  In practice these ‘areas’ are not restricted to sporting venues but stretch across the entirety of a host city. Vancouver saw the banning of any posters that did not celebrate the Games, with the police given the right to enter homes in order to remove any offensive material. Resistance, however, has not been entirely silenced. Occupy London set up camp on Leyton Marsh, the site of a proposed Olympic training center, before being forcibly evicted by police. Meredith Alexander resigned from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 in protest at the increasingly cavalier attitude the organisers were taking in their responsibility towards the environment. Without a hint of irony BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 that saw 20 millions gallons of oil pour into the Gulf of Mexico, have been selected as the chief sustainability partner of London 2012. Equally controversial has been the choice of Dow Chemicals to provide a wrap for the Olympic stadium. As the owners of Union Carbide, Dow has failed to take responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India that killed 25,000 people. Campaigners have shown that the inclusion of such companies makes a mockery of the IOC’s claim to see the environment as the third pillar of Olympism, behind sport and culture. London transport workers have threatened industrial action over the Olympic period, despite the offer of a derisory ‘bonus’ for the extra work the event will entail. This comes after Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, had refused to rule out strikes during the Games. Meeting universal condemnation from all the main parties, McCluskey was derided as unpatriotic. The coalition government in the UK is invoking its own version of the Olympic Truce – the temporary cessation of hostilities between city-states for the duration of the ancient Games – by attempting to suspend our side of the class war in the national interest. Yet the Olympics is in itself a site of confrontation having become both the justification and mechanism for the pursuit of a barely disguised neo-liberal agenda. As Ashok Kumor succinctly summarizes:

“Any reading of Olympic history reveals the true motives of each host city. It is the necessity to shock, to fast track the dispossession of the poor and marginalised as part of the larger machinations of capital accumulation. The architects of this plan need a spectacular show; a hegemonic device to reconfigure the rights, spatial relations and self-determination of the city’s working class, to reconstitute for whom and for what purpose the city exists. Unlike any other event, the Olympics provide just that kind of opportunity.”[53]

Countries of the World Unite – You Have Nothing to Lose But the Race

How may we explain the undoubted popularity of the Olympics? Strangely the answer has little to do with its profile as a sporting event. Of the most watched sports on a global scale (soccer, cricket, American football, baseball, Formula 1, athletics, rugby) only athletics and soccer appear at the Games – and very few people take the men’s football seriously, although the women’s competition is another matter entirely. The popularity of the Games cannot be explained by virtue of the inclusion of sailing, table tennis or Greco-Roman wrestling. Part of the explanation lies with the mass marketing of the Olympics which, as we have seen, has become one of the most recognisable global brands. In addition, our rulers eagerly encourage the petty nationalism that is part and parcel of the Games. But neither of these factors can be said to apply exclusively to the Olympics.

To fully understand the appeal of the Games it must be recognised that the Olympic ideals of mutual understanding, respect and solidarity strike a chord with millions of people around the world – no matter how flawed and hypocritical these ideals may be under scrutiny. In a world stained and scarred by poverty, war and bigotry the Olympic Games has become an event that “nullifies political and social realities, creating a dream world, if just for a few moments, an illusion of peace, goodwill and harmony”.[54] John Carlos recalls how, as a child growing up in Harlem, the Games had a huge impact on his life:

“When I first learned about the existence of the Olympics, my reaction was different than anything I ever felt… The sheer variety of sports, the idea of the finest athletes from around the globe gathering and representing their countries: it was different, and the fact that it only happened every four years just made it feel like an extra kind of special.”[55]

Combining spectacle and myth the Olympics invoke a spirit of internationalism that, although never challenging the structures of capitalism, hints of a world in which people come together in shared humanity and culture. Fleetingly they touch on a human aspiration that transcends the mundanities of everyday life, but simultaneously they are subsumed within a tidal wave of flag-waving nationalism. It is this tension, reformist and idealistic in character, which lies at the heart of Olympic Games.  It goes without saying that the internationalism of the Olympics is far removed from the internationalist tradition of revolutionary socialism, and was understood by Coubertin himself. After the carnage of the First World War, and in the light of the Russian revolution, he wrote:

“There are two ways of looking at internationalism. One way is the way of the socialists, of the revolutionaries and in general of the theorists and utopians. They think of a gigantic egalitarianism, which will turn the civilized world into a state without borders and barriers, and transfer the organization of society into one of the dullest and most monotonous tyrannies. The other way is the way of those men who know how to observe objectively and who take reality into account instead of following their own favorite ideas. They have realized for quite some time that national peculiarities are an indispensable prerequisite for the life of a people and that contact with other people will strengthen and enliven them.”[56]

The Baron’s description of socialism may be pure caricature but the division he highlights is nevertheless real. Yet, much of the criticism leveled at recent Olympiads, has revolved around its accompanying neo-liberal circus; its over-commercialization, the woeful environmental and human rights records of the sponsors, the lack of democracy and accountability. It is a most valid and useful critique but all too often its proponents leave the Games themselves unchallenged. A socialist critique must not only rage against the corporate takeover of the Olympics but also the premise on which they rest. It is a critique that was at the centre of the workers’ sport movement, which rejected the artificial divisions of imagined communities to emphasise the common bonds of workers in all countries.

Professional sports - competitive, aggressive and so often seen in a national (indeed nationalistic) context - are well suited to function as a transmission belt for capitalist ideology. The Olympic motto, Faster, Higher, Stronger, could easily be the slogan of a major corporation. And, of course, it is. Sports are shaped by and reflect the society in which they are born, so it comes as no surprise that the Olympics have assumed an increasingly neo-liberal visage over the past thirty years. Similarly it is inevitable that the political struggles of nation states and competing ideologies will manifest themselves in sporting contests - no matter how much IOC presidents may preach the supposed non-political purity of their Games. Crucially, as Mike Gonzalez explains, “sport, like every other cultural activity, is a contradictory space where there is a struggle for appropriation. Sometimes, our side can take it back.”[57] When the struggles of the oppressed and exploited erupt then they too can overflow and find expression in the sports stadium, as the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos demonstrated at the 1968 Olympics. The London Games will take place in a period of global dissent, protest and revolution rivaling the famous year of the Mexico Olympiad. What chance is there at these Olympics, a Games of illusory ideals decked out in dollar signs, that we might witness an athlete climbing the medal rostrum to reveal a t-shirt proclaiming, “OCCUPY”?


Robert K. Barney (2008) “Some Thoughts on the General Economies of Cities/States/Provinces after Hosting the Olympic Games”, paper delivered at the Ninth International Symposium for Olympic Research, http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/ISOR/isor2008t.pdf

Adrianne Blue (1988) Faster, Higher, Further: Women’s Triumphs and Disasters at the Olympics, Virago: London

Jules Boykoff (2011) “The Anti-Olympics”, in New Left Review, 67

Maynard Brichford (1998) Avery Brundage and Racism, conference paper delivered at the Fourth International Symposium for Olympic Research, available at: http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/ISOR/ISOR1998o.pdf

John Carlos & Dave Zirin (2011) The John Carlos Story, Haymarket Books: Chicago

Pierre de Coubertin (1900) France Since 1814 available at: http://www.archive.org/stream/francesince00coubgoog#page/n262/mode/2up 

Pierre de Coubertin (1979) Olympic Memoirs, IOC: Lausanne

Mike Gonzalez (July 2002) “Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game” in Socialist Review

Allen Guttmann (1984) The Games Must Go On, Columbia University Press: New York

Chris Harman (1988) The Fire Last Time: 1968 And After, Bookmarks: London

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T. Hunt (2006) “American Sport Policy and the Cultural Cold War: The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Years”, in Journal of Sports History, Vol 33, 3

Damien Johnstone and Matt Norman (2008) A Race to Remember: The Pete Norman Story, JoJo Press: Australia

S Kronick & D Dorne, “Going for an Olympic Marketing Gold” https://www.chinabusinessreview.com/public/0501/ogilvy.html

Arnd Kruger (1993) “The Origins of Pierre de Coubertin’s Religion Athlete” in The International Journal of Olympic Studies, Vol II

Ashok Kumor, “Want to cleanse your city of its poor? Host the Olympics”, http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/olympics-opportunity-cleanse-city/

Helen Lenskyj (2002) “International Olympic Resistance: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally”, paper delivered at the Sixth International Symposium for Olympic Research,
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Helen Lenskyj (2008) Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda, State University of New York Press: Albany

John J. Macaloon (1981) This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympics, University of Chicago Press: Chicago

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WJ Murray (1992) “France, Coubertin and the Nazi Olympics: The Response” in The International Journal of Olympic Studies, Vol.1, 46-69

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The Olympic Charter – Fundamental Principles, IOC Lausanne, p10 2011






[1] These words are taken from the Olympic Oath, which reads in full: “In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”
[2] China Mieville (2012) London’s Overthrow
[3] Initiative Sports Futures (2009) Viewer Track: The Most Watched Sporting Events of 2008, London
[4] Given the differences between the ancient games and those modern times, it is commonplace to refer to Coubertin as the 'renovator' of the Olympics.
[5] Quoted in Arnd Kruger (1993) “The Origins of Pierre de Coubertin’s Religion Athlete”, p93
[6] Pierre de Coubertin, (1900) France Since 1814 
[7] Considerations of class also brought out a distinctly paternalistic streak in the Baron. By his mid-twenties he had attempted (unsuccessfully) to establish Workers’ Universities, which were to be run by workers themselves.
[8] Quoted in Adrianne (1988) Blue, Faster, Higher, Further: Women’s Triumphs and Disasters at the Olympics, p1
[9] Unsurprisingly the women who contested these events were drawn from the upper classes of society.
[10] Pierre de Coubertin (1979) Olympic Memoirs, p721. Athletic contests for women were not included in the Olympics until 1928. The attitude that female athletes would not be able to cope with the rigours of physical competition persisted throughout the twentieth century, the women’s marathon, for example, was not included in the games until 1984. To this day it is evident in the disparity between the men’s decathlon and women’s heptathlon.
[11] The Olympic Charter – Fundamental Principles, IOC Lausanne, p10 2011
[12] John Hoberman (1995) “Toward a Theory of Olympic Internationalism”
[13] The Red Cross had been formed in 1863 while the International Peace Bureau (1891) and Scouting and Esperanto (1908) all appear in this period.
[14] John J. Macaloon (1981) This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympics, p112
[15] In fairness to Coubertin, he was not the only person preaching internationalism who would succumb to the chauvinism of imperialist war. Large sections of the Second International infamously betrayed their internationalism to lend support to their respective ruling classes. The International Peace Bureau fell apart after many supporters felt they could not support peace at a time of war! However while one may characterise the latter examples as cases of betrayal or confusion, Coubertin enthusiasm for the war was a logical conclusion of his bourgeois internationalism.
[16] J. Riordan (1993) “The Rise and Fall of Soviet Olympic Champions”, p25
[17] John Hoberman, “Toward a Theory of Olympic Internationalism”, p24
[18] quoted in Chris Weigant (2008) The Olympic Torch Relay’s Nazi Origins
[19] quoted in Guttmann, The Games Must Go On, p74
[20] quoted in George Eisen, “The Voices of Sanity: American Diplomatic Reports from the 1936 Berlin Olympiad”, p68-69
[21] Guttmann, The Games Must Go On, p72
[22] Guttmann, The Games Must Go On, p72
[23] WJ Murray, “France, Coubertin and the Nazi Olympics: The Response”, p46
[24] quoted in WJ Murray, “France, Coubertin and the Nazi Olympics: The Response”, p53. The Nazi Foreign Office had spent much time courting Coubertin and had even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
[25] John Hoberman, “Toward a Theory of Olympic Internationalism”, p1
[26] Olympic Charter, Chapter 1, section 6
[27] quoted in J Riordan, “The Rise and Fall of Soviet Olympic Champions”, p26
[28] quoted in J Riordan “Russia and Eastern Europe in the Future of the Modern Olympic Movement”
[29] T Hunt  (2006) “American Sport Policy and the Cultural Cold War: The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Years”, p275
[30] T Hunt (2006) “American Sport Policy and the Cultural Cold War”, p275
[31] Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland all boycotted the games on account of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. China boycotted following the inclusion of Taiwan who at that time were competing as the Republic of China.
[32] Chris Harman (1988) The Fire Last Time, p129
[33] quoted in Maynard Brichford (1998), “Avery Brundage and Racism”
[34] Damien Johnstone & Matt Norman (2008) A Race to Remember, p44
[35] Dave Zirin (2005) What’s My Name Fool: Sports and Resistance in the United States, p73
[36] Christopher A Shaw (2008) Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, p67
[37] Vyv Simson & Andrew Jennings (1992) The Lord of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in theModern Olympics
[38] Jules Boykoff, (2011) “The Anti-Olympics”, p42
[39] Christopher Shaw, Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games pp71-72
[40] One World Trust, 2008 Global Accountability Report
[41] Michael Payne (2005) Olympic Turnaround, p95
[42] Christopher A Shaw (2008) Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, p70
[43] Michael Payne (2005) Olympic Turnaround, p11
[44] Robert K. Barney (2008) “Some Thoughts on the General Economies of Cities/States/Provinces after Hosting the Olympic Games”
[45] S Kronick & D Dorne (2008) “Going for an Olympic Marketing Gold” https://www.chinabusinessreview.com/public/0501/ogilvy.html
[46] Taken from David Cameron’s speech to mark the opening of the Olympic Stadium in 2010
[47] Michael Payne (2005) Olympic Turnaround, p9
[48] Helen Lenskyj (2008) Olympic Industry Resistance, p28
[49] Helen Lenskyj (2008) Olympic Industry Resistance, p16
[50] John Harris, “London 2012's Stupendous Insanity Leaves Sport As An Also-Ran”, The Independent, 30 April 2012
[51] Helen Lenskyj (2002) International Olympic Resistance: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
[52] Olympic Charter
[53] Ashok Kumor (2012) Want to cleanse your city of its poor? Host the Olympics.
[54] George Eisen (1984) “The Voices of Sanity: American Diplomatic Reports from the 1936 Berlin Olymiad” p56
[55] John Carlos & Dave Zirin (2011) The John Carlos Story, p13
[56] quoted in D. Quanz (1993) “Civic Pacifism and Sports-Based Internationalism: Framework for the Founding of the International Olympic Committee”, p18
[57] Mike Gonzalez (2002) The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game