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Faster, Higher, Stronger, or More extravagant, distanced and pointless?

July 29, 2012

As far back as I can remember, I have been interested in athletics. Among my earliest television memories are the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and, if pressed, I could still sing you the BBC’s theme for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: ‘Good morning, Tokyo!’ Mexico 68 was our introduction to colour viewing and, iconically, Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute from the medals rostrum.

And my interest wasn’t just as a spectator. I was Captain of Cross Country at school, in a time when there was no glamour at all attached to the sport. A common experience would be as follows: leave school at 12.30 on a Wednesday; take a train journey of 25 minutes into Liverpool, walk to the Mersey, take the ferry across the river; take a 20 minute bus ride; run a 5 mile race across mud and rough ground. Without any showers, do the return journey, plus 25 minutes to arrive home around 7.30. Shower, eat, and then start two hours homework. On one occasion when I was too tired to do the homework, despite the fact I had been representing the school and we’d won the race, I was given four of the belt for not handing in homework on time.
This was in addition to giving up every Saturday morning, and frequently afternoons, as well as at least an hour’s training four days a week.

I’m not looking for sympathy in recounting this, merely to set up a background of my commitment to the sport. Every Friday night I got stomach cramps with pre-race nerves; at every start line I felt physically sick. But I loved it all and was proud to represent the school. My attraction to running, as well as other sports, was lasting, and led to a London Marathon in 1982 and an ongoing love affair with running still. In Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Games in 1986 I was a proud volunteer and drove the team bus for the Hong Kong squad.

Likewise, my enjoyment as a spectator continued. Dissect the athletics memory part of my brain and it’s like a history of running: Zatopek, Bannister, Brasher, Elliott, Snell, Hill, Stewart, Clements, Viren, Walker, Pirrie, Ovett, Brightwell, Packer, Foster, Board, Golden, Rand, Hyman, McColgan, Cram, Delaney, Coughlan, Tulloh, Moorhouse, Bedford, Radford, Hemery, Wells, McNeill, Slaney, Weitz, Radcliffe, McConnell, Child, McDonald, Sharp and on and on and on. These folk have inspired me throughout my life; sometimes it seems like all my efforts have received a soundtrack from Coleman, Pickering, Weekes and Foster: I can still recall snatches of commentary years after the event.

A couple of years ago, on a visit to Oxford, I was moved to tears when standing on the Iffley Rd track where Roger Bannister achieved his sub 4 minute mile. I think you get it – since childhood, athletes have been gods to me and the sport, especially as represented by the Olympic Games, has been one of my great excitements.

From a young age I was aware that the amateur status of athletics was not exactly pure – but the fact remained that most athletes pursued their dreams at great personal cost and with little expectation of financial riches. The sacrifice involved, the doing of something for the proof that you could do it, reaching peak physical perfection for its own sake – all of this was what made them so admirable and so inspiring.

I’m not sure when my disillusion set in – possibly with the sudden proliferation of sponsorship at Atlanta, but the destruction of thousands of poor Chinese families’ homes to build the stadia for the Beijing Olympics was what finished me off. How could the pursuit of being the best be thus separated from basic human rights?

Perhaps the closeness of a London Olympics brings home the reality more strongly than if this Olympiad were being held in Asia or the Antipodes, but, really, since the announcement of the bid’s success, it seems that the two most important elements of the Olympic Games – the athletes and those who watch and support them – have had a very low priority. Certainly it appeared from the start as a Tony Blair legacy vanity project and politicians – of all parties – have struggled to ride on the back of the Olympic commercial tiger. In addition, whilst the economic crash was not being predicted at the time the bid was made or won, there was certainly the opportunity to downsize in appreciation of the hardship being faced by so many when the details for the games were being finalized.

The need for each Games to be ‘bigger and better’ than the last should have no place in Olympic thinking. Equally, the notion that the Games belong to ‘a country’ rather than a city is a classic example of mixed up thinking. Spreading the events over large areas is an admission that, for sporting political reasons, the event has become too large. Part of de Coubertin’s vision was that the games could be contained by one city, that athletes and community could share the Olympic feeling.

As a result of over extension, organizers are more and more beholdant to commercial sponsorship and have to peddle the line that, in paying for the infrastructure, somehow ‘the whole country’ will benefit from forking out for the Games. This has not proved to have been the case previously and there is certainly no suggestion that areas outside of London will benefit to any degree from the current Olympiad.

A recent Guardian piece suggested that the economic boost is largely illusional:
Professor Stefan Szymanski, a specialist in the economics of sport at the University of Michigan, says the body of academic evidence shows “pretty conclusively” there are negligible economic benefits to hosting a major sporting event although it can be fantastic for a country’s morale.
“Governments want to host these events because they are highly prestigious and hugely popular with the electorate,” says Szymanski. “If you tell me you’re going to have a party, that’s great – but if you tell me you’re going to have a party and get rich at the same time, then I’m not going to believe you.”

The organizers of Glasgow 2014 were very quick to suggest that the Commonwealth Games will bring regeneration to the east end of Glasgow and that there will be a legacy of sports facilities and public involvement. I would love to believe this, but the evidence is weak, judging by previous experience.

Similarly, the infrastructure provided for the Olympic Committee’s demanding requirements is often unsuited to ongoing use on the scasle necessary to upkeep the venues. It is interesting that two of the more successful venues in the recent past – Los Angeles and Barcelona were both centred on refurbished stadia, rather than new builds, but the picture from Athens, who held the games only 8 years ago, shows a more common aftermath.

When we look at the state of Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Commonwealth Stadium, we see that sports facilities and public involvement succeed through ongoing local and national government commitment, rather than one off mega events. Whilst Glasgow’s record on sports facilities is, at least, miles better than Edinburgh’s, it’s not difficult to see how much more impact the Commonwealth Games funds would have had if aimed towards upgrading more widespread lower level facilities, rather than putting all the financial eggs in one basket for a prestige event.

I don’t like being negative about the Olympic Games. As I started out by saying, the Games, and athletics, have been a huge and enjoyable part of my life, but, as the great West Indian, CLR James said: ‘What know they of cricket who only cricket know?” The Games don’t exist in a vacuum; they have their raison d’etre and their traditions, and it’s difficult to see how these are not now being trampled on in the name of commercial gain and political pride.If they take no heed of the world in which they are existing, what is the point?

The London Opening Ceremony was a triumph. It would be curmudgeonly not to recognize its effectiveness as a spectacle. Like most of my generation, I suspect, I was in tears at the sight of Muhammed Ali with the Olympic Flag and even more emotional to see that most noble of women, Doreen Lawrence, as one of the flag bearers. Danny Boyle got that so right – but the impact was almost intensified because it was so unexpected to see that in the midst of all the corporate ligging, the brand police, and the difficulty for ordinary punters to gain access to events. How can we justify £9 billion of taxpayers’money when so many of our children are living in poverty?

For all its emotional effect, we have to reflect that three hours of well directed television, is not really an adequate replacement for the loss of an Olympic ideal, nor has it any genuine effect on our many social problems.

Society, perhaps, gets the events it craves or deserves – and there is certainly a mood about which demands bread and circuses just now. I have no answer to how the prostitution of sport at the highest level can be reversed. Probably it can’t be.

Of course, there will still be parts of the Games I will watch and thrill to – suspending disbelief in the course of the adrenaline thrill of the 100m Final or the 800, the 1500, the 5 and 10k events. The entrance of the marathon leader to the stadium will always be an emotional moment. I still have my Scots and Irish heroes, as well as competitors from other countries; but the thrill has gone, the enormity of the achievement, the connection, the thought that these winners are folk like us who have tried extra hard. There has to be a difference between running for Gold and running for a commercial endorsement for the next four years.

But the Olympics are the stuff of dreams, or should be, and Eric Liddell runs at speed in my sporting beliefs.

Maybe my dream is not so far fetched: that we will let the high earning elite go their own way, hand in hand with the multinationals, a traveling ‘Harlem Globetrotters” circus of highly paid athletes, breaking records and drug codes at will, providing marketing opportunities for satellite television moguls, but at the roots, the amateurs will resurface; local clubs will be strong and an amateur ethos will prevail. The amateur Olympiad will become the true successor of de Coubertin’s intentions. It will meet every four years – in Athens; if necessary without the flummery of television and international press, and those who have talent, ability, and commitment will race and throw and swim and play against each other in the purity of sporting contest.

Greece is the home of the modern Olympic movement, they have facilities they aren’t using, and, maybe, as well as saving the Olympic ideal, the return home of the Games – geographically and spiritually – will provide a boost to the beleagured Greek nation. Their civilization has bequeathed the world so much: maybe this would be a way to pay them back.

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