18 May 2012: As the torch relay comes to Britain, Mark Perryman, author of a new book on the Olympics, questions the claim of a Games for all
Beginning its long route around Britain the Torch Relay is one of the few examples of decentralisation and free to watch events that could have transformed the 2012 Olympics into a Games for all. There is little doubt that the sight of the Olympic torch as it passes through a village, town or city up and down the byways, with photo-opportunities at famous landmarks will ignite popular interest and huge media coverage.
But the scale of that enthusiasm reveals the lack of ambition behind the 2012 model for the Olympics. I propose Five New Rings for the Olympic symbol. The first, and most important, of these is decentralisation. As a mega-event football’s World Cup has its problems too with new stadia sometimes built with no obvious future likelihood to be full again once the tournament is over. But the singular advantage for the hosts of a World Cup over the Olympics is it is spread all over the country, and sometimes more than one. In this way the global spectacular becomes not only a national event but a local event too. The Olympics is an entirely different model, apart from the yachting and the football tournament every single event is London-based, most of Britain will have no contact with the Games except a fleeting glimpse of the Torch relay as it passes through.
Decentralisation could have changed all of this, and saved enormous amounts on new builds too. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester, the North-East, Yorkshire and the Midlands all posses world-class stadia and arenas with huge capacities and multi-use possibilities. North Wales, the Lake District and parts of Scotland have the natural landscape perfect for events, including the canoe slalom and mountain biking. Badminton is one of the finest three-day event venues in the world, it’s not in London so it’s not being used for 2012.
Avoiding those costly new builds by using existing facilities would not only magnify the Olympics’ local appeal but vastly increase capacities too. With imaginative reconfiguring ,Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium could have hosted the show jumping, Manchester City's Etihad Stadium and the MEN Arena the boxing, between Glasgow and Edinburgh share the Hockey tournament, the Midlands Stadiums host the Beach volleyball, the North-East already hosts the Great North Run, why not stage the Olympic Marathon there, give Yorkshire the Football tournament and so on.
Decentralisation enables this spread of venues with far bigger capacity than many hosting the events in London. And with Scotland, Wales, regions and cities hosting entire parts of the Olympic programme, an effective campaign combining civic pride and participation in the adopted sport could have been mounted.
Decentralisation could also afford an extension of the Olympic programme to include events that are both nation-wide and free to watch. Why not an Olympic Tour of Britain multistage cycling race, and a Round Britain sailing race? The potential for crowds lining the streets and the quaysides to watch, for free, as the Olympics comes to their town or port would have been huge.
I am neither anti-Olympics nor against sport, I am a fan of both. But I am opposed to what the Olympics have become, the false promises made on their behalf and the chronic lack of ambition in the way they have been organised. My argument is that a different Olympics isn’t only possible, but better. If our only experience of the Games in this much hyped once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host them is watching them on the TV, well they might as well be anywhere else but here, and a lot less costly too.
Mark Perryman’s ‘Why the Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be’ is available at a pre-publication 15% discount from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/
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