Editor of the new book London 2012: How Was It For Us?, Mark Perryman reviews the contradictory impact of last summer’s Games
London 2012 How Was It For Us is published by Lawrence & Wishart.Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, David Renton, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and others. Available as a pre-publication, exclusive Mark Steel signed edition, £2 off, just £12.99, and post-free from Philosophy Football
For two and a bit weeks, not forgetting the gloriously anything but an afterthought the Paralympics proved to be, the London 2012 Olympics were absolutely impossible to ignore.
It is likely that a fair few of us won’t be around long enough to witness another sporting event on the scale of London 2012 ever again. Even for teenagers and twentysomethings the biggest single sporting event on this island in their lifetimes may have already taken place. How depressing.
As last summer’s Games came to a close the comedian Paul Sinha had a neat riposte to the naysayers:
‘I was not alive in 1966. The last 17 days are comfortably the greatest achievements of British sport in my lifetime. I have screamed, roared, wept, jumped up and down, punched the air with joy and I have loved every moment. I know many people who have refused to engage with these Games for their own reasons. That is of course their own choice. But instead of feeling smug, they should perhaps reflect on the fact that they have sleepwalked their way through the most astonishingly dramatic sport this nation has ever known.’
I’m with Paul on this. Of course in the grander scheme of global justice and world peace how fast you can run, how far you can chuck something, how high you can jump hardly matters. But that isn’t the point. Sport engages the public on a global scale. No other cultural form, with the possible exception of Web 2.0 comes close to its international reach.
Few faiths, or ideologies can mobilise emotions and passions of the kind of scale sport can. Sport matters. Super Saturday, Wiggins in the Time Trial, Team GB round the Velodrome, Nicola Adams winning Olympic Boxing’s first gold for women, Jade Jones punching, and kicking her way to Taekwondo Gold too. Not just Team GB either. Witnessing Usain Bolt’s magnificence in the sprints, Marianne Vos cycling to Gold on the road, Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps dominating in the pool, David Rudisha’s incredible world record-beating run in the 800m.
All of this, and more meant so much to so many. To dismiss it all as a distraction, a deviation even, from ‘real politics’ is a crassness that betrays the disconnect of some sections of the Left from the people, and the class, they would claim to represent.
But in remaking that connection we also need a critical politics of sport. When CLR James fifty years ago this year wrote the finest book on cricket ever published Beyond a Boundary he opened with the words ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know ’. This should be the special contribution of the Left to sport, embrace the action, understand it’s social construction as a means to enrich its enjoyment not haughtily discard.
One starting point is the neat observation that academic John Sugden makes, ‘Perhaps it is time we got used to the fact that rather than watching the Games, for the foreseeable future, it is more a case of the Games watching us.’ He is describing a process, dating back at least to the hostage-taking of Israeli Athletes by the Palestinian Black September group at the 1972 Munich Olympics and accelerated in the more recent period by all matters post 9/11. This produces what John describes as ‘ the climate of fear that surrounds contemporary sporting events, but also encourages vast expenditure on an intrusive security apparatus that violates principles of civil liberty and human rights and blurs the distinction between political and civil society.’
Cities under siege
Fear, a security apparatus, intrusive or otherwise, civil liberties abandoned, the politicisation of civil society, not quite the ‘moment of utopia’ most of us will remember London 2012 for is it? Yet all of these were part and parcel of the Games, not forgetting the infamous East End missiles crisis when local residents objected to Surface to Air Missile Launchers being put on the roof of their blocks of flats. Stephen Graham, author of Cities under Siege, had an equally neat way of summing up the securitisation of the Games, ‘ society on steroids.’ Which he explained as the way the scale and status of the Games legitimises pre-existing law and order agendas, in particular ‘the rise of the homeland security complex, and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.’
While Los Angeles ‘84 shaped the commercialisation of the Olympics it was the human tragedy of Munich ‘72 which determined the securitisation of the Olympics. In Gaza and the West Bank immense problems remain, the lethal consequences of Israel’s war on the Palestinians only too obvious. Yet in all the commentary on the security threat to London 2012 scarcely anyone observed that at these Olympics, unlike at Munich, Palestine competed as a nation-state, its athletes marching into the Opening Ceremony behind their own national flag. This would have been almost impossible to imagine 40 years ago. The lesson should be that the threat of terror can never be defeated by military means, the root causes can only ever be solved via a political solution.
Of course the Games organisers could not afford to wait for a political settlement to the cause that framed the main terror threat they identified facing London 2012, the fallout from the Iraq war and the continuing occupation of Afghanistan. But recognising there is a reason behind these acts of violence should at least be the starting point for understanding the securitisation of the Olympics. A point almost entirely absent from all the breathless reporting on London 2012 security and why it was claimed all these tens of thousands of security staff were required in the first place.
Militarisation of sport
Such a process of understanding is masked by the creeping militarisation of our national culture, particularly via sport. Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the extension of the occupation of Afghanistan football and rugby internationals have seen members of the armed services carry the flag of England round the pitch where before this was done by young fans. At the FA Cup Final the trophy is now brought on to the pitch by servicemen and women. There’s the annual hoo-hah of embroidering the poppy on to every football club’s shirt, another innovation since the Afghanistan mission began. At Wembley and Twickenham the stands are filled with servicemen given free tickets ‘Tickets for Heroes’. Richard Williams was one of the few sportswriters to raise any kind of concern about what this all meant :
‘ There is something disquieting about this gradual blending of sporting and military culture, with its underlying assumption that all the spectators at any given event involving an England international team necessarily share the government's view of the rightness of what our forces are doing overseas (as opposed to simply honouring their courage in doing it). My thoughts on that matter – which may involve perfectly legitimate reservations – are my own affair. And I resent the way such concerns are being dragged into sport, linked with it, somehow equated with it.’
The Olympic discourse was dominated by the issue of ‘legacy’ but this can take all kinds of forms. When Doreen Lawrence, Shami Chakarabarti and others carried the Olympic flag into the Opening Ceremony to be hoisted on its pole high above the stadium, who did they pass this flag to? Medalled and uniformed members of the four armed services. Legacy? Richard Williams called this process two years prior to the Games the increasing convergence of the military and public sporting events, he labelled its purpose ‘quasi-propaganda’. Of course it is the sheer scale, audacity and imagination of the Danny Boyle extravaganza that the Opening Ceremony is best remembered for. The volunteers kitted out in purple and a weird shade of orange who ushered us around the Olympic venues are quite rightly given the credit for their selfless and unpaid efforts to help. And once the Gold Medal rush began the performance of Team GB is what for most of us will be the grandest memory of all to savour. But none of this should be allowed to undermine the significance of less welcome ways in which the Games impacted too. A surveillance society presiding over the seeping militarisation of our national culture. Olympic Legacy, be careful what you wish for.
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 Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.