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/