Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

It’s the taking part

According to the organisers, encouraging participation in sport is one of the main benefits of the London 2012 Olympics. Mark Perryman examines the evidence

June 4, 2012
5 min read

The Olympic motto, ‘The most important thing is not winning but taking part,’ represents some of the finest ideals not only of Olympism but of any sporting event aspiring to be democratic, participative and accessible. After this weekend’s Jubilee hoopla fades away, the coming summer of sport – Euro 2012, a serious British challenger to win the Tour de France, Wimbledon fortnight, overseas rugby tours to the southern hemisphere, a domestic test match series and the first, and last, home Olympics for most of our lifetimes – will no doubt test such sentiments to the full. A nation that invented many of the world’s team sports has, perhaps forgivably, some difficulty in coping with repeated defeats by the nations to which it exported them. Add in a lengthy martial and imperial tradition, and CLR James’ famous maxim, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know,’ can be seen as essential to understanding why the British are not the world’s best losers.

Now well into its second week the Olympic Torch Relay would seem, at first sight, to represent all that is good about sport. Crisscrossing the country, coming soon to a city, town, or village near you, it appears to epitomize what ‘taking part’ should be all about. But looked at more closely, it reveals the flimsy populism and chronic lack of ambition that London 2012 has come to symbolise. The Relay has undoubtedly proved popular; any event with this scale of media coverage was likely to attract large, inquisitive crowds. And the passion of those turning up is evidently genuine. But how is that energy connected to participation in the Games beyond waving a flag, cheering from the kerbside, and providing a backdrop to the celebrity torchbearers and sponsors’ branding? What opportunities does the Relay really present for taking part?

A Torch Relay for all would have made popular participation its organising principle. For each 10k leg, the roads and pathways could have been closed for the torchbearer to be followed by fun runners and active walkers, in the style of the London Marathon or Great North Run. This could have been the biggest venture ever in participative sport. But such opportunities have been spurned because they might detract from the all-important messages of sponsors. Villages, towns, localities within a city, each could have been given their stretch of the route for thousands to run or walk along. Other legs could have been given over to cyclists, canoeists, ramblers and fell-runners, sailors and any other mode of human powered, or human steered transport. And why, on most nights, does the Relay stop with the Olympic flame transferred from the evening’s finishing point to tomorrow’s starting line by car? What an experience it would be for club runners and cyclists to venture through the night, taking the torch to every part of the land. In this way many more than the limited numbers now talking part could have been involved

But even with these changes the Relay would still leave most parts of the country with only a fleeting glimpse of the Torch as their solitary direct experience of the Olympics. This reality has been dutifully accepted as fact by almost every media cheerleader for London 2012. It is as if the removal of all critical faculties is a condition of highly-valued journalistic accreditation. An Olympic programme which included a multi-stage cycling Tour of Britain could have covered all parts of the country, and perhaps neighbouring nations too, as a thrilling contest throughout the duration of the Games. And why not hold a Round Britain yacht race visiting the ports of coastal Britain? Add a half marathon and a 10k road race to the running events, a canoe marathon and a multi-stage mountain bike race, and you begin to build a genuinely participatory Olympics, free-to-watch, decentralized, and with routes that are capable of accommodating enormous crowds from the sidelines. In this way we can begin to re-imagine what the Olympics might look like.

Such changes, which would accommodate the widespread appetite of millions who want to take part, will not be easily achieved inside the existing framework of the Games’ organization. Sport, as CLR James also insists, is socially constructed. The late twentieth century popularity of sport as a TV spectacle , fashion statement ,and branding target for sponsor has been accompanied by a headlong decline in participation in organised sporting activity. Those sports that have enjoyed growth have largely been individual ones, a source of recreation rather than competition. The irony of the Olympics is that its current ethos, with an emphasis on the enormous gap between professional top-flight athletes and everyone else, sharply limits the possibility of popular participation. The challenge is to come up with a Games that breaks with this tradition to create a People’s Games in which all can take part.

Mark Perryman is the author of the forthcoming book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, available at a 15% pre-publication discount from www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced