Olympics: the taking part

In Mark Perryman’s latest piece on the Olympics he questions the claim that that Participation will be a main legacy of the London 2012 Games. 

The Olympic Motto “The most important thing is not the winning but the taking part” represents many of the finest ideals of any model of sport as democratic, participative and accessible. As the Jubilee hoopla fades away the forthcoming summer of sport – Euro 2012, a serious British challenger to win the Tour de France, Wimbledon fortnight, overseas rugby tours to the southern hemisphere, a domestic test match series and the first, and last home Olympics for most of our lifetimes – will no doubt test those sentiments  to the full. A nation that invented a decent proportion of the world’s team sports has a perhaps not wholly unforgivable difficulty coping with the countries which it exported those games to, promptly defeating the inventor-nation. However adding in a martial and imperial tradition, and CLR James’ famous maxim ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket knows’, indicates the need for a social and political context in which to understand the British as not the world’s best losers.

Now well into its second week the Olympic Torch Relay on the surface would seem to represent all that is good about sport, something for all to be part of, producing a tidal wave of enthusiasm for the Games and largely minus this pumped-up jingoism. Criss-crossing the country, coming to a city, town, or village near you. Isn’t this what the Olympian ‘taking part’ should be all about? Not exactly, instead this venture reveals the flimsy populism combined with chronic lack of ambition that London 2012 has come to symbolise. The Relay has of course proved popular; almost any event with this scale of publicity and coverage would surely attract inquisitive crowds. And the passion is entirely genuine. But how is that energy being connected to participation. Beyond waving a flag, cheering from the kerbside, providing a backdrop to the sponsors’ branding and celebrity torchbearers, what opportunities are there to take part?

A Torch Relay for all would have started off with popular participation as its organising principle. Each 10k leg the roads and pathways closed for the torchbearer to be followed by fun runners and active walkers, London Marathon or Great North Run style. Both of these events admirable and effectively combine elite competition with mass participation. Using these as a model the Relay could have been the biggest venture ever in participative sport. Yet none of this gets a look-in because it might deflect, quite literally overrun, the sponsors message instead. Villages towns, localities within a city each given their stretch of the route to run or walk down, other legs given over to cyclists, canoeist, ramblers and fell-runners, yachts and any other mode of human powered, or human steered transport. All of this would have amounted to involving far more than the really quite limited numbers in the London 2012 version of the Torch Relay and directly connected to initiatives that provide the vital access to participation in sport the Olympics at its best can provide.

Translating even such a grand project as this though into the Olympic promise of boosting participation however remains no mean feat. Sport, as CLR James indicated, is socially constructed. The popularity of sport as a TV spectacle, fashion statement and branding target for sponsors since the late twentieth century has been accompanied by a headlong decline in participation in organised sporting activity. Those sports which have enjoyed any kind of growth have largely been individual, as a source of recreation rather than competition. The irony of the Olympics is that not only does its structure forcefully limit the possibility to participate but also its model of what constitutes meaningful sport is as likely to discourage participation as encourage it.

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is the author of the forthcoming book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Available at a 15% pre-publication discount from www.orbooks.com

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.