With his book offering a blueprint for a better Olympics published this week, author Mark Perryman explains his Five New Rings
Seb Coe and the London Olympics Organising Committee; Cameron and his hapless Minister of Culture, Jeremy Hunt; their predecessors Brown, Blair and Tessa Jowell. All of them cling to a bipartisan consensus that everything to do with the Olympics is fine, nothing the International Committee and their sponsors demand needs to be questioned.
It was a consensus which in London managed to unite those otherwise polar opposites, Boris and Ken, in solid agreement that the Olympics would be without doubt a good thing for the city.
Add the sports media, led by the BBC - which appears to have had all critical faculties surgically removed in the cause of Olympic cheerleading - to amplify this all-embracing mood of agreement.
Yet the discontent outside the parliamentary and media bubble is very obvious. Not an organised campaign of resistance, but on issues ranging from the lack of tickets to the privileges enjoyed by the IOC and sponsors there is a mood of discontent.
More broadly there exists a deep-seated popular cynicism that the Games won’t be the benefit that they are claimed to be. It is a discontent that is barely reported, yet its basis is well-founded. There is scarcely a scrap of evidence from any previous Games of economic regeneration or a sustainable boost in employment.
Not one recent Olympic host nation can point to an increase in sport participation levels as a result of the Olympics. And as for tourism, the Olympics leads to a decrease in visitors not an increase as the travel industry, which has no reason at all not to be one of the Games’ biggest supporters, has repeatedly pointed out.
Despite all this not one politician, nor a single sports administrator, none of the well-resourced think-tanks, and no journalist or broadcaster has come up with a plan for a better Olympics for all. This is what my book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, uniquely sets out to do. If a popular Left politics is to mean anything surely it is not just about pointing out the inadequacies of what we are against but constructing in our imaginations what an alternative might look like. A Games of Two halves - critique and vision.
I love sport. My book is not in any sense anti-Olympics, and I joyfully admit I will be amongst the first to be consumed by the excitement of the Games once they begin. But I also firmly believe that they could have been so much better and the discontent with how they have been organised - to the effective exclusion of the many who could so easily have been part of them - is far too important to ignore, as the gold medals are hung around Team GB athletes’ necks.
A New Five Rings
My ‘New Five Rings’ are really quite simple. They are founded on the core democratic principle that to make a ‘home’ games worthwhile they must be organised with the objective that the maximum number of people must be able to take part. If not, then it’s the remote control and the sofa for most of us, and thus the Games might as well be anywhere else but here, minus both the expense and the inconvenience.
Ring One, a decentralised Games, taking place all over the country, a local Games for large parts of the population. If such a structure is good enough for the World Cup, why not for the Olympics? This one change would at least make major parts of the Olympic programme geographically accessible.
Ring Two, a games with the objective of maximum participation. Across the country we have huge stadiums, mainly football grounds, yet capable of being used for a vast range of Olympic sports. But virtually none are being utilised. Centralising all events in London venues with much smaller capacities slashes the size of audience who can attend and increases the ticket price for the few, instead of lowering those prices for the many.
Ring Three, shift the bulk of the programme outside of stadiums entirely for large scale free-to-watch events. A cycling Tour of Britain, a Round Britain Yachting race, a canoe marathon, open water swimming events in our Lakes and Lochs.
The true measure of London’s chronic lack of ambition is the scrapping of the Marathon route, one of the few current free-to-watch Olympic events. The 26.2 miles London Marathon route which is lined each year with hundreds of thousands of spectators has been replaced by 4 six mile laps, reducing the potential audience by a 75%, yet this has scarcely been commented upon by media commentators too busy with their LOCOG cheerleading.
Ring Four, Olympics sports that are universally accessible. The same countries always win the Equestrian, Yachting and Rowing events while entire continents have never won a single medal in these events . The same goes for cycling, fencing, modern pentathlon and large parts of the whole programme. These are sports that require vast investment, specialist facilities and - except cycling - have next to no mass appeal.
Compare the breadth of countries which have won boxing, football, middle and long distance running distance medals. These are sports requiring no expensive kit or facilities, use simple rules, and have massive appeal. Sports should be chosen because of their accessibility and then given targets to prove it. If they fail to do so, drop them and replace them with others.
My favourite candidate for reintroduction is the tug-of-war, which last featured at the 1920 Games. It is one of the most basic sports imaginable: all that is required is a length of sturdy rope, the teams could be mixed (which is another plus), and in a packed stadium a tug of war competition is a potential crowd pleaser too - at least as much if not more than some of the privileged sports currently enjoying Olympic status.
Ring Five, a symbol of sport not a logo for the sponsors. Reverse the priorities: the only use permitted for the precious Olympics Five Rings sport should be by voluntary and community groups on a not-for-profit basis to promote sport, with the sponsors banned from any use of the Five Rings.
They need sport just as much as sport needs their millions, yet sport over and over again sells itself short, bending over backwards to accommodate the sponsors’ ever-escalating demands. The biggest sponsor of London 2012? You and me, the taxpayer.
Let the debate begin
Idealistic? Guilty. There’s not enough idealism in politics, hence its ever-narrowing appeal and relevance. Politically motivated? Absolutely. If left politics is to mean anything then when the biggest event in most of our lifetimes comes to GB - and there’s parts of it clearly not working - isn’t it the task of critics to come up with solutions?
Impractical? Not a bit of it. A better Games, for more people, using a greater range of existing facilities, a home Games with a real sense of popular participation, and with much greater scope to inspire towards participation and promote those parts of the country outside the already familiar West End tourist circuit.
As the Olympics has grown, the Games have come to represent far more than just sport. I want to build a new Olympics, to take the best of the Games I first fell in love with (and have the sticker albums to prove it) and re-imagine with the help of principles founded on equality, diversity and access.
This should surely be the substance of politics. Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us looks to redress the balance. Let the debate begin.
Published this week, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be costs £8 (£6 kindle edition) and is exclusively available from www.orbooks.com
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.