4 June 2012: According to the organisers, encouraging participation in sport is one of the main benefits of the London 2012 Olympics. Mark Perryman examines the evidence
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/
After Woolwich – Stand together against the politics of hate Michael Calderbank says nothing excuses the Woolwich killing - but the hands of our political classes are no less besmirched with blood
Dawkins vs democracy Leigh Phillips looks at Richard Dawkins’ proposal to put scientists instead of bishops in the House of Lords
The Spark of learning Morten Thaysen Laurberg previews a week of workshops, skill shares, organising, and talks in London in the lead up to the G8
Right-to-buy in the great rip-off economy On the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney, all the council homes are being demolished in a £1billion regeneration project. It is a perfect illustration of why we have such a housing shortage says Koos Couvée
Fasting to support Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers We spoke to Maya Evans during her fast over the weekend in solidarity with Guantanamo Bay hunger-strikers
A new party of the left comes one step closer Salman Shaheen of Left Unity, the group supporting Ken Loach’s call for a new left party in Britain, reports from its first national meeting
Diary of a ‘wannabe MP’: local elections, UKIP and the left Davy Jones is Green Party parliamentary candidate for Brighton Kemptown at the next general election and a member of Red Pepper’s board. This is the second of a series of regular blogs on his campaign
South Africa’s poor resist home attacks Amid Britain's decision to cut aid for South Africa by 2015, Caroline Elliot hears from poor shack dwellers who vow to resist the destruction of their homes.
Open House begins this weekend in London A nine-day event bringing together people facing the housing crisis across London to organise and take action around our collective housing needs
Call to protect Colombian human rights defender On 10 October 2012, a man pushed a gun into the chest of Alfamir Castillo and told her that both she and her lawyer were going to die.
Confronting the Climate Crisis: Graham Petersen interview On Saturday 8 June the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group is holding a conference bringing together climate scientists, trade unionists and environmental activists. Red Pepper's environment editor Kara Moses speaks to Graham Petersen, UCU environment and Greener Jobs Alliance co-ordinator
Tapping the resistance in Greece A combination of opposing privatisation and putting forward practical alternatives is helping water campaigners mount an effective challenge to austerity in Greece. Hilary Wainwright reports
The seven faces of Michael Gove Mike Peters looks at how the Tory education secretary uses the words and ideas of the left to win support for his policies
The Brighton pay dispute: the union view GMB union organiser Rob Macey puts the workers' side of the argument
The pay dispute at Brighton council: a Green view Davy Jones, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Brighton Kemptown, gives his view of a dispute that has caused huge debate among Green Party members in the city and across the country