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A People’s Games on the roads of Surrey

Mark Perryman sees the potential for a different Games at Wednesday’s Cycling Time Trial

August 2, 2012
4 min read

Photo: anton falls/Flickr

No expensive and hard-to-come-by ticket required. A front row seat guaranteed. Precious little commercialisation, bring your own barbecue. And a Gold Medal performance. Wednesday’s Cycling Time Trial had all the components of the better Olympics I have made the case for in my book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be.

Stretched around the single 27 mile circuit for men, 18 miles for the women, huge crowds lined each side of the road. Packed in at any hairpin bend to catch the cyclists as they slowed down, and for the final few hundred yards before the finishing line, nevertheless an early start meant it was easy enough to get a front row space, up and close to the fast-moving action. Churches, community centres and more than a few enterprising householders had set up sandwich and cake stalls in their front gardens, with the more ambitious stoking up a barbecue too. This is an enterprise impossible for the corporate sponsors to dominate, and with the only roadside branding permitted, the Olympic Five Rings and ‘London 2012’, this is also an event where the visual backdrop belongs to sport, not the advertisers. The sometimes oppressive securitisation of the main Olympic Park was also almost non-existent with just volunteers and fluorescent jacketed crowd marshals in the main present. This is one of the Olympic events most vulnerable to disruption yet for long stretches not even a crowd barrier separated us from the action. If the risk is considered so low here of a protest, or something much worse, why the thousands of security staff everywhere else? And best of all the crowds were able to witness Wiggo’s Golden ride.

This is the kind of 2012 Olympics we deserved to have. Two cycling time trials, two cycling road races, the men’s and women’s marathons, the race walks and parts of the triathlon course are the sum total of the free-to-watch programme. A decisive shift towards expanding the number of events of this sort would entirely change the nature of the Games, opening it up to many more millions to take part in. Estimates for the crowd at Saturday’s cycling road alone are around the million mark. Imagine if the Olympic cycling programme had included a Tour de France style multistage event, nationwide over seven to ten days, what might have been the numbers turning out for that? Or lining the beaches and quaysides of coastal Britain for an Olympic Round Britain yachting race?  In both cases such races already exist, so organising an Olympic version would have certainly been feasible. There are other possibilities too, the canoe marathon is an existing race that could have been added to the Olympic programme with crowds lining the riverside. Or one of our biggest live attendances every year for a free-to-watch sporting event is for the Oxford vs Cambridge boat race. Couldn’t a week of Olympic rowing races, tides and width of the Thames permitting, have been organised along this route to watch for free, alongside the regatta programme at Eton Dornay?

The Olympic Time Trial proved the potential and popularity for a different Olympics. Though why did all four cycling races have to take place in leafy Surrey with not a single one through the Olympic boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney? Such a route would have transformed the complexion of the crowd and given something back to those who live on the edge of the Olympic Park, yet are singularly underrepresented amongst its thronging crowd. And given the huge turnouts for Saturday and Sunday’s cycling road races why not hold the Time Trials at the weekend too, or at least in the early evening, to open the events up to those who have to work through the Games.

Once again it isn’t Seb Coe and LOCOG’s scale of ambition that is the problem, it is the lack of ambition, with little or no thought given to how to create a Games of the people. Celebrate Wiggo’s magnificent Gold Medal-winning ride, but let’s not ignore the opportunities this race provided to reveal the possibilities of another, better, Olympics, for all.

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be, £8 (£6 kindle edition) exclusively available from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

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