How to Fix the Olympics

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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.

Adapted from the author’s new book, by O/R Books

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 34 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 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.

What’s Wrong With the Modern Olympics?

The Atlanta Games marked the centenary of the first Olympics of the modern era, at Athens in 1896. The logical host one hundred years on would have been Athens again. Many believe the reason the city had to wait a further eight years for the privilege can be summed up in two words: Coca-Cola. The fizzy drink is one of the grandly titled ‘Worldwide Olympic Partners’. I know this because it’s printed on every can of Diet Coke that I knock back. And where is Coca-Cola’s headquarters? Atlanta. Amongst those who shared the sense of surprise at Atlanta’s victory over Athens, many felt this had been a major factor in deciding which city should host the centenary Olympics. What is certain is that these were the first Games where the intrusion of unsavory business practices into the IOC bidding process attracted sufficient public attention for the Olympic Movement to at least take some notice. It is an association the IOC has been forced to live with ever since.

Sport, unlike almost any other cultural form, can hurdle barriers of culture, language or politics, giving it an unrivalled position as a means of promoting goods to a global audience.

The process that began in Los Angeles in 1984 deepened in Atlanta in 1996, with the  corporatization of the  Olympics becoming  a  defining  characteristic as  sponsors  established themselves as one of the  most powerful components of an Olympic Games. Staging the 1996 event in Atlanta was in large measure a recognition of this accelerating phenomenon.

Sydney in  2000 offers perhaps a more cheerful picture-postcard Olympic memory. A sporting moment  can sometimes crystallize social or political changes within a nation. As Cathy Freeman, the Australian Aboriginal sprinter, streaked around the track to win the 400-metre Gold medal, kitted out in an all-in-one skintight green-and-Gold Lycra suit complete with hood, she was chased every inch of the way by the light of thousands of camera phones flashes capturing her moment of glory. This was more than an instant of supreme sporting achievement. For Australia’s Aboriginal community it represented both recognition from the majority white population and acceptance, however temporary it ultimately proved to be. Inequality, discrimination, racism and disputes over land rights didn’t disappear just because Cathy was a national heroine. Her success was the exception, not the rule, but for a moment it pointed to a different version of Australia.

Greece today symbolizes the Eurozone in crisis: a country in catastrophic debt with a population facing unimaginable levels of austerity for decades to come. But before the financial meltdown hit the Greek economy the dereliction and disrepair of virtually all the 2004 venues demonstrated the failure of the Olympics to provide the promised regeneration to the city. Almost every Games of the past three decades has been accompanied by the claim that it would give a boost to investment, infrastructure and tourism, and in almost every case the prospectus has been false. But in Athens the failure could not have been starker as the Olympic legacy crumbled against a backdrop of out-of-control Greek national debt, caused largely by the 2008 international banking crisis.

The year of the financial collapse was also the year of the Beijing Olympics, and once again the political message of the Torch relay was in the spotlight. On a London High Street in April 2008, during the buildup to the Games, the diminutive five-foot-nothing former BBC TV children’s show Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq was almost knocked to the ground by a  protester as she completed her stretch of Torch  carrying. Those protesting wanted a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over China’s invasion and mistreatment  of Tibet. Stopping the  torch in its tracks was a highly effective way of getting this message across, and it was not an isolated incident. The worldwide opposition to the 2008 Torch relay was so huge that leg after leg had to be either scrapped or policed so heavily that the Torch was removed from view. For this year’s Games the London 2012 organizers mindful of similar protests possibly sparked by Britain’s  role in Afghanistan or Iraq, decided to drop the international part of the relay entirely and keep proceedings to good old Blighty alone.

All of this should be enough to establish a common-sense understanding that the Olympics have always been political.

Will hosting the Olympics, as is often claimed, boost participation in sport?

Investigative journalist David Conn examined the evidence and reported in the Guardian newspaper: ‘No previous Olympic Games or other major tournament has ever led directly to an increase in people taking part in sport. If anything the opposite seems to happen. Sport England research has shown that ordinary mortals watching, from their sofas, “models of perfection” performing on the elite stage can actually be put off trying to do more exercise.’

There appears to be little correlation between hosting major sporting  events, or achieving success in them, and popular levels of participation in sport. Take the case of Finland. An estimated 55% of Finns exercise three times a week compared to only 21% of Britons. The country can boast being among the healthiest in Europe. Yet Finland last hosted the Olympics in 1952, and the most recent global sporting event that took place there was the inaugural World Athletics Championship in 1983. At the Beijing Olympics the country finished a lowly 44th in the medals table. Finland’s position as the healthiest nation in the developed world is related to factors that have little to do with high profile sports jamborees, as Mika Pykko, executive director of the Finnish Center for Health Promotion, explained to David Conn: ‘We are a more equal society. We have a high level of education and generally, educated people exercise more. We still have a challenge but historically have always been close to nature and so the culture of walking is still there.’

What about the claim of putting a destination on the map, or boosting local business?

The city hosting this year, London, is already a world-famous tourist destination; none of its landmarks are likely to be unfamiliar to the global media attending or the global audience following the Games on TV. And any boom in budget airline travel is long past.

One of the best critiques of the Olympic promise comes from the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA).  A trade organization for European travel companies, the ETOA  is not a hotbed of anti-corporate campaigners or an encounter group for rosy-eyed sports romantics. It’s hard to imagine that if there were any evidence that the Games would boost tourism they wouldn’t be among the Olympics’ biggest cheerleaders. But the ETOA  states in its authoritative Olympic Report published in 2006: ‘The audiences regularly cited for such events as the Olympics are exaggerated. Attendances at the Games displace normal visitors and scare tourists away for some time. There appears to be little evidence of any benefit to tourism of hosting an Olympic Games, and considerable evidence of damage.’

One  point  is particularly well made. Picking  on four of London’s  most well-known destinations for football, tennis and  cricket they point  out  that  ‘Wembley,  Wimbledon,  St John’s Wood  and Kennington have not become major non-sporting resorts.’ A cursory wander around the  streets surrounding Wembley Stadium, the biggest location of the four, would quickly confirm this. Fast-food bars do a decent trade on match days and thus proliferate, pubs take on extra staff, but that’s about it. The sort of structural urban renewal which London 2012’s supporters promised is almost entirely absent.

Five Rings—Or How To Fix The Games

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.

RING 1: Decentralize the Olympics by Hosting Them in a Nation, Not a City

Each Olympics is hosted in just one city, not an entire nation, despite the close and necessary involvement of national governments and other national bodies. Compare this to the football, rugby or cricket World Cups, in which games are played all over a country and sometimes in more than one nation. These versions of sporting mega-events can have their problems too. On occasion stadia are built with no obvious post–World Cup use and capacities increased to levels that will never be filled again. But in the case of all of Great Britain, not just London, hosting the Olympics this most certainly wouldn’t have been the case.

Such a process at least begins to place popular participation in the Games at the center of the Olympic vision. The Olympics would be brought closer to the people. The model would be flexible to local circumstances – other Games might be  hosted by regions, or even a mix of countries, such as a Benelux or Balkan Olympics. Abandoning the centralization that underpins London 2012 and all other recent Olympics would provide a much bigger opportunity for people to be part of the Games, to share in its benefits and spread its costs. A decentralized model for the Games is the first essential New Ring to help us imagine the better Olympics that  London 2012 might have been.

RING 2: Use Venues that Maximixe the Number of Tickets Available

Unless live participation is adopted as the core organizing principle of a ‘home’ Games it loses most of the special impact it might have had on the host nation’s population, and the Olympics might as well be taking place anywhere in the world. The fact that TV coverage will be even more blanket than usual and giant screens will be erected all over the place is a poor substitute for the opportunity to be there, in the stadium, the velodrome or beside the pool, watching the action.

RING 3: Relocate Sports Outside the Stadia to Create Free-to-Watch Events

Some of the most joyful sporting events don’t take place within specially designed buildings at all. The London Marathon, the Great North Run and other road races around the world, the Tour de France, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race on the River Thames – all are free to watch, with no ticket required. These events engage with an existing environment and in most cases involve a popular participation element. A Games which relocated large parts of the program from private to public spaces would be more accessible and festive than any Olympic Stadium spectacle can be.

Roads and open country, mountains, rivers, beaches and the sea; these are the natural features Britain possesses which could provide the settings for large parts of a refashioned Olympic program. It would mean some changes to what is on offer, I would argue for the better. But it would make a powerful statement about sport as a legitimate and welcome occupant of public space, truly rooting the Olympics in places and communities. Of course achieving this depends entirely on our first New Ring – decentralization – even if all these public events could somehow be held in London the entire city would have to be shut down for the duration of the Games.

RING 4: Choose Sports That Are Universally Accessible

Promoting access to sport shouldn’t necessarily be limited either to the track, the pool, the velodrome and other locations where the athletic contests will take place. In the early twentieth century an Olympic Games would also include medals for architecture, music, literature, sculpture and painting. The modern descendent of this is the Cultural Olympiad, which this year has been rebranded the London 2012 Festival due to the fear that no one would know what something cultural called an Olympiad could possibly be. Headline shows include Leona Lewis, Damien Hirst and a Shakespeare festival. Quite what X-Factor generated pop, dead sharks immersed in formaldehyde and early-modern theatre have to do with sport is not explained. The Olympics could have been the opportunity for a Cannes-style festival to choose the best film inspired by sport from an international entry list, a Turner style Prize for the best art with a sport theme, Booker type prizes for the best sports book, theatre and poetry. Olympic medals could be awarded for these too. If sport is to become truly accessible then culture has a vital part to play in its popularization. A Cultural Olympiad of this sort would be both truly special to the Olympics and could help to fulfil that all-important promise of inspiring participation in sport.

Sports that allow the widest possible access aren’t downgraded competitions. There will still be a Gold medal to hang round the winner’s neck, but the contest will be more equal and meaningful. An Olympic program founded on the basis of the universal accessibility of sport will result in higher levels of athletic achievement. Competition and participation are complementary.

RING 5: A Symbol of the Olympics, Not a Logo For Sponsors

The kind of Games I describe would involve most of civil society. Local government, schools and universities, all manner of community and voluntary groups, sporting, recreational and conservation organizations would all play a crucial part. Through this involvement the Five Rings symbol could be transformed. Instead of its widespread, legally guarded use by the sponsors, statutes would be passed to the opposite effect. Any commercial use of the Five Rings would be banned; only non-profit-making bodies would be permitted to use it in order to promote their involvement in, support for and association with the Games. The Five Rings would be recast as a badge of civic and sporting pride.

It will be objected that the Olympics need the money that corporations provide. But corporations need the Olympics too – negotiations should be much tougher. Selling off the Games to the highest bidder and in return meeting all demands to commercialize and commodify the Olympics isn’t the only way to do business, nor is it necessarily good for each party. And while the interests of the sponsors are at present so jealously guarded, who is protecting the biggest sponsor of all – you and me, the taxpayers? A non-commercial Olympics doesn’t mean one that can’t be profitable – none of the New Rings are proposed with that aim in mind. The issue is how that profit is made and the effect it is allowed to have on the character of the Games. I envisage an Olympics in which the five rings stand for sport’s values and are the sole and authorized property of sport and not of the sponsors.

My new Five Rings remain a symbol of the internationalism of the Olympics – that much stays the same. But they most certainly seek to stand for something else too. Each ring represents a value: decentralization; participation; sport for free; sport for all; sport as a value not a commodity. And all five are interlinked, with the happy consequence that the implementation of each bolsters the others. Five Rings, five colors, five links. No new Olympic symbol is required, just a new purpose behind it.

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 center 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.