An Alternate Olympics Manifesto

Joanne Sheppard reviews Mark Perryman’s book, released ahead of London 2012: ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be ‘.

I’m very excited about the London Olympics. In fact, I get excited about any Olympics, regardless of the host city. I even get excited about the winter ones where we only stand a chance in curling and that event where people slide down a hill on their bellies while lying on a tea-tray. I’ll happily sit for hours watching people I’ve never heard of compete in a sport I know nothing about. Taekwondo? Archery? Fencing? Bring ’em on.

Consequently I was a little apprehensive before reading Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. I’m already a little fed-up with the endless sneering cynicism about the event from certain quarters, and I did rather worry that Mark Perryman’s book would be more of the same. Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Perryman, you see, also likes the Olympics, and has done ever since he filled his Panini album with Munich Olympics stickers in 1972. It’s just that he doesn’t think that London 2012 – or any other Games staged according to the modern Olympic model – will fulfil its potential, and he has some fascinating ideas on how that could be changed.

As well as pointing out the misconceptions about the supposed benefits of the Games – studies suggest that it doesn’t, for example, boost tourism, neither does it increase participation in sport, and as it turns out, the manner in which the London Olympics are to be staged isn’t even particularly conducive to increasing the spectatorship of sport – this is a constructive, thought-provoking manifesto for the future of the Olympics, setting out a vision for future Games that would truly embody the so-called ‘Olympic spirit’.

Focusing primarily on the Olympics after and including Los Angeles ’84, which he convincingly argues marked the start of the Games as we know them today, Mark Perryman outlines the reasons why the so-called ‘legacy’ of the Olympics for its host cities has consistently been overstated and points out the problems inherent in holding the entire event in single city. Then, he proposes five principles – one for each of the famous Olympic rings – that would make for a more inclusive, unifying Olympic Games, putting forward suggestions for having games hosted, World Cup-style, by entire nations or groups of nations instead of single cities, using existing venues with higher capacities instead of smaller purpose-built arenas, staging more events outside traditional sporting venues where everyone can watch free of charge and selecting sports that provide the most opportunity for universal participation. Finally, he points to the Olympic logo itself. Rather than reserving the Olympic rings for the exclusive use of sponsors, Perryman turns this principle on its head: in his Olympics, the only people who couldn’t use the Olympic rings would be those exploiting it for commercial gain.

While I can’t say I necessarily agree with the detail of all Mark Perryman’s suggestions – I think it unlikely he’ll ever convince me that darts should be an Olympic sport, for instance – the general gist of his argument is powerful and thought-provoking. Moreover, he steers refreshingly clear of simply regurgitating the horror stories we’ve all heard about things like the insanely rigorous enforcement of Olympic sponsors’ branding ‘rights’ (I’m still waiting for an elderly man in a dapper summer suit to be turned away from the McDonald’s-sponsored stadium for bearing a passing resemblance to Colonel Sanders) and his tone is never ranting, never bitter. His proposals are calmly, elegantly and succinctly expressed, making this slim volume an engaging and entertaining read as well as enlightening one. Find time to read this book between now and the opening ceremony: it shouldn’t taint your enjoyment of the sporting spectacle to come, but it will give you a renewed hope for the potential of the Olympiads of the future.

Joanne Sheppard

‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How they Can Be’ is available from Philosophy Football for £8 with free post.

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords, documenting high-level football and the journey of travelling around Europe in a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.