In Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, Mark Perryman offers a timely reminder that sport and politics are always intertwined, and this has been just as true of the Olympics as other major sporting events. He argues, however, that a significant change began in 1984 in Los Angeles, as sponsorship and product placement started to gain greater prominence. By the time of the 1996 Games in Atlanta – the home of Coca Cola – global corporate interests had completed their takeover and aligned the proprieties of the International Olympic Committee to their own.
The book, a collection of short essays, goes on to explain how little evidence there is for the alleged benefits – everything from tourism and jobs to regeneration and increased participation in sport – of becoming a Host City. In unpicking the fallacies that demolish ‘the entire promise of the Olympics as something socially benevolent’, it provides a helpful summary of arguments familiar to critics of this summer’s Games.
What I find less convincing is the idea that this critique provides the basis for an ‘alternative Olympianism’. Perryman offers ‘Five New Olympic Rings’ to reform the Games. These include decentralising the hosting from cities to nations, and making individual events more open and more of them free-to-watch. The fifth of the new principles is the disconnection of the Games from corporate interests. Perryman is right to argue that the commercialisation of sport is not irresistible, but I see little evidence of a groundswell of grassroots opposition in defence of a genuine ‘Olympic spirit’.
More than other events, the Olympics historically has been the plaything of a tight, mainly European clique, an almost arbitrary gathering together of different, largely minority sports. Perryman’s ideas would undoubtedly make a positive impact on the nature of the Olympics as a participatory event. But he seems unclear where the pressure for change, pressure strong enough to topple the powerful commercial interests that control the IOC, might actually come from.
Nonetheless the book is an enjoyable polemic – and after a summer of relentless hyperbole about the London Olympics, it will come as a welcome relief to many Red Pepper readers.