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Analysis: How to fix the Olympics
Does hosting the Olympics do for a city what we say it does? Mark Perryman's modest proposal for fixing the great games.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) claims in its 2008 Global Television and Online Media Report that 3.6 billion people, or 53% of the Earth's population, watched at least one minute of the action from the Beijing Games. Quite how such a statistic can be verified with any precision is unclear. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the Games are one of the biggest shows on Earth.
In terms of attracting a global audience the Olympics have a number of advantages over football and other major sporting events. First, the Games have the longest history, predating football’s first World Cup by almost 40 years, and the World Athletics Championship by just under a century. Second, there is no lengthy qualifying campaign to reduce the number of countries taking part to just 32 as is the case for the World Cup – practically every nation on the planet is represented at the Games. Some 205 national teams competed in Beijing; 216 are expected at London 2012. Third, unlike rival sporting attractions, the Olympics incorporate a wide range of different competitions: there will be 26 different sports on show in 2012. While, obviously, not all events are of equal interest around the world, together they offer something for everyone. Finally, despite the medal-winning positions in too many events being dominated by too few countries’ athletes across the Games program as a whole the… Olympic victors’ podium is shared by an enormous diversity of medal winners. Competitors from Panama, the Dominican Republic and Estonia were among those collecting Gold in Beijing, while representatives of Mauritius, Moldova and Venezuela each picked up a Bronze. In the total 86 nations appeared in medals table at Beijing 2008, compared to just 39 at the 2011 World Athletics Championships.
The significance of the Olympics, however, extends beyond its history, range of participants and vast global reach. This occurred to me with particular force when, in the summer of 2005, I found myself on a tour of Berlin’s Olympiastadion. Being an optimistic sort I’d decided to try to get a feel for the place where I fully anticipated England would be playing in the World Cup final twelve months later. I was of course disappointed in this expectation after England made their customary early exit, losing out in the quarterfinal to Portugal, following the misery of a penalty shootout. But my visit to the Olympiastadion turned out not to be a complete waste of time.
The stadium had been the main venue for the 1936 Olympics, forming part of the vast Reichssportfeld, the Nazi name for the Olympic Park, the construction of which was a pet project of Hitler’s. Although, with typical German ingenuity it had been extensively rebuilt from the inside for the 2006 Word Cup finals. Much of the original outer structure which had survived Allied bombing and remained intact. As we completed our tour we were shown a stone plaque honoring those who had won medals in 1936. The name at the top of the list, with details of the four Golds he had won, was that of the black American runner Jesse Owens. Owens’ victories had been an emphatic answer to the theories of racial supremacy propagated by Hitler and his followers. Accounts conflict as to whether the Führer stormed out of the stadium in a fit of anger as the American repeatedly defeated the finest specimens of Aryan athleticism that could be found. But one thing is certain: the most enduring story of the Nazi Games is, ironically, that medals are won by athletes, not races, master or otherwise. Despite the immense power of the Nazi leadership, Owens’ name, chiseled into that plaque, was never removed and remains to this day a statement of hope and resistance. Just seeing it there made my visit entirely worthwhile and underscored the magical power of the Olympics to shake established orders.
My Five New Rings, or five ways to fix the Olympics, are an effort to engage with the Olympics and more especially with all those who share an emotional and physical attachment to sport, as fans or participants or both. But to do this requires not just the practical proposals I’ve advanced but something more. It needs a transformation of the ideology behind the Olympics, often referred to as Olympism, and the organization that embodies it, the IOC.
The version of the Olympic Charter adopted in 2011 opens with a noble-sounding definition:
‘Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’ It goes on to list a number equally uplifting objectives: a harmonious, peaceful society, the practice of sport as a human right, the fight against discrimination. But after this promising start, the vast bulk of the document, a full 103 pages, is taken up with an instruction manual of how every Games should be organized. Symbols, mottos and emblems are all provided with strict image-rights protection. The role of the local organizing committee is rigidly circumscribed. Each host city is expected to follow the charter's diktats to the letter. The IOC's interests are treated throughout as paramount, with little or no concern for the cost to the host in terms of independence and expenditure. In this way the worthy values that frame Olympism are thwarted by the interests of the very bureaucracy that is supposed to protect them. This is typical of a technocratic managerialism that becomes all about delivery rather any original purpose.
As I neared the completion of my new book I took a day off writing. In the morning I joined an Easter fun run; at lunchtime was at the local pool with other parents looking on nervously as our little ones learned to swim; I spent the afternoon watching non-league Lewes FC, now under community ownership, battle their way to victory over Hastings United in the East Sussex derby. All across Britain hundreds of thousands of people are doing something similar every weekend and Bank Holiday. All involved – players, coaches and managers, fundraisers, referees, course marshals – engage in such activity out of a love for sport and a commitment to their community. How can this vast constituency in any way connect to a body like the IOC that has more in common with a huge multinational big business than a grassroots sports organization? Marketing, PR, sponsorship and event management are all important skills but they should be used to serve sport, not run it. When these priorities become reversed what is produced? A faceless, all-powerful, self-perpetuating and self-interested clique. How many of us know who serves on the IOC, how they are elected, to whom they are accountable or what their responsibilities comprise? Very few.
Finding ways to connect the IOC to grassroots sport should be the first objective in reimagining Olympism. This is about more than simple reorganization. It entails a total change in Olympism’s priorities. The World Health Organization (WHO) monitors and reports on health issues around the world, UNESCO defends the world’s heritage sites, UNICEF speaks out for the world’s children. The IOC needs to become a body more like these, one that focuses on the promotion of access to and participation in sport globally. And it needs to make this objective central to the organization of the Olympic Games.
In pursuing these objectives the IOC would have considerable leverage. Many critics have noted how the IOC has acquired powers and privileges that accord it the status of a quasi-state. This is because of the unique authority the IOC has in selecting host cities and appointing official sponsors. If changes in the IOC’s priorities were linked to the bidding and sponsorship process the impact would be instant and considerable. No longer would cities compete on the basis of how grand were the facilities they promised to build, how dramatic was the backdrop they provided or how generous were the tax concessions they had on offer. Instead the bid would be assessed on the basis of their past achievement in levels of sports participation and access, the use-value of existing facilities, the proven record of support for sporting activities. To host the Games, bidders would be required first to prove that sport is accorded the priority it deserves in the range of overall social provision. Those cities and nations that were good for sport would be deemed to be good for the Games. The same principle would be applied to candidate sponsors: their corporate responsibility record in terms of proven support for participatory sport would be the critical factor rather than simply the scale of the deal on offer.
As construction work got underway at the Olympic Park my curiosity about what was taking shape steadily increased. The office of the company, Philosophy Football, I co-founded was at the time based on the third floor of a book distribution warehouse in Hackney Wick, and from there I had a panoramic view of the entire site. At one end of the development the stadium gradually emerged, big but nothing special compared to many in which I’ve watched international football around the world. In the far corner from my vantage point the Westfield Stratford City shopping center sprouted. This always seemed a risky proposition, even more so with the onset of the recession. I regularly wondered at my window why, if a shopping center really was the key to regenerating the East End of London, it was necessary to host the Olympics there at all. The West London Westfield seems to attract the shoppers without a stadium, velodrome and swimming pool in its backyard. At another end of the park I could just about see the unusual shape of the cycling velodrome, nicknamed ‘the Pringle’ in an unintended stroke of ambush marketing because of its roof design. Compared to the open green spaces of Victoria Park, just a javelin throw away on the other side of the A12, dual-carriageway the remainder of the park was occupied by so many office and other buildings that I could only foresee the area in the wake of 2012 resembling an up-market industrial estate. And despite having a business located just on its edge I wasn’t seeing much evidence of the widely touted economic trickle-down in the area, unless you count the fast-food shops doing a bit better thanks to the passing trade of construction workers and the shiny new train station.
One building however did catch my eye as it emerged. The basketball arena was in the centre of my line of vision from our office. It is built in the purest white with a curious dimple effect on its outside walls. But its most unusual feature is that it’s portable. That’s right, a 12,000-seat fully enclosed stadium, big enough to stage the Olympic basketball matches, can be folded down and shipped wherever else in the world is hosting an event and in need of something similar. In the Guardian Jonathan Glancey described the potential of such an innovation:
‘Imagine a future Olympics held in temporary and reusable buildings. Not only would this save cities from debt, redundant venues and white elephant awards, it would also mean that the Games could be held in those with precious little money to throw away. A low-cost traveling Olympics could tour the world.'
Glancey’s article appeared in June 2011. Part of my preparation as a writer is to obsessively cut out and keep pieces that might at some stage be of relevance to the argument forming in my mind. Jonathan’s article went on to the ‘legacy’ pile and I was sure I’d use it at some stage. By Christmas 2011 I was already immersed in my research and as a bit of light relief I treated myself to some non-Olympic reading. We Want Falmer is the inspirational tale of the Brighton football fans who, for fifteen years, campaigned tirelessly for a ground to call their own. Denied a stadium, the club was forced to play for a considerable time at a converted athletics track, Withdean, with temporary stands. When I read that, at the end of each season, these seats were stripped down, packed on the back of a lorry and ended up providing the stands at the eighteenth hole of the British Open it reminded me again of the portable basketball arena.
Some months later, Martyn Routledge, from the creative communications outfit Open Agency, emailed me with a brilliant idea to subvertise the official London 2012 branding. But the restrictions imposed by the Olympics are very severe. Just about every conceivable word and relevant image is legally protected, and plenty of noise has been made about the hefty fines to be imposed on anyone offending the IOC’s copyright. Martyn’s idea brilliantly circumvented the restrictions. It read simply: ‘World Sports Day. E20. This Year’. Nothing here was trademarked but the words effectively described the event, the place (the newly minted London postcode for Stratford Park) and the date. They also hinted at the level of sport most of us can realistically attain, the participative and accessible model that I have proposed for a better Games.
From the bottom of my cuttings pile I sought out the basketball arena piece. My imagination was now working in overdrive. In the 1990s, when concerns started to be raised about the mounting debts incurred by Olympic host cities stuck with facilities of no obvious continuing use, one idea was to give the Olympics a permanent site, with somewhere close to Mount Olympus in Greece being the most widely favored contender. Nothing came of the proposal however and the fate of host cities and their unfulfilled promises rolled on. Martyn’s subvertising idea with Jonathan’s vision of a flat-pack Olympics together suggested to me something entirely different.
Imagine the IOC as not just a global guardian of access to and participation in sport but as a kind of giant global hire shop too – an enormous holding bay of fold-up arenas and stands full of seats, roll out AstroTurf pitches and other mobile playing surfaces, portable floodlights and even the Portaloos and signage that every Games needs. With a staff made up not of super high-paid bureaucrats but architects, civil engineers, landscape designers and event organizers, all trained to help facilitate the Games wherever they take place in a way that best suits the needs of the host. And why have just one host city, or even one host nation? Why not have a month of Olympic sport, taking place all over the world to include not only the Paralympics, but also youth and veterans’ Games too?
Imagine: a month of world sports days with the marathon in Addis Ababa; surfing on Bondi Beach, Australia; mountain biking in Orange County, California; the basketball in Chicago; taekwondo in Seoul; beach volleyball in Rio; judo in Tokyo; the football, yes please, in England. And these suggestions would just be for starters; over each quadrennial cycle new places would be found for each particular part of the Games. Imagine the greatest sporting event on earth as a thirty-day Olympiad held at sites across the planet in August once every four years. The whole world would not only watch together, but take part together too. Host Nation? The world. How long might it take – the 2024, 2028, 2032 Games maybe? That’s my Olympic dream, and if I’m still around to see it happen I’ll be first in the queue for tickets.
Mark Perryman is a research fellow in Sport and Leisure Culture at the Chelsea School, University of Brighton, a regular media commentator on the politics of sport, and the co-founder of Philosophy Football. This article is excerpted from his new book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be.