This is my ninth Olympics, not as a competitor, but as a whinger. Ever since 1980 I have managed to persuade at least one outlet to publish or broadcast my tiny little counterblast, my “He’s got no clothes on” shriek against Olympic propaganda. That takes one back to 1980, the Moscow games and the accession of “His Excellency” the late Juan Samaranch to the Presidency of the International Olympic Committee. He was a former Falangist helping a bunch of Communists in their propaganda purposes, which is historically a typical Olympic alliance. My original outlet was dear old New Society.
In 1980 the Olympics ceased to be what they had been for most of their modern history and even remained a little in Montreal in 1976, which was a great festival of amateur sport intimately linked to the grass roots of sport and became a curious combination of the Soviet and the commercial. Since then they have failed to fit either of the two justifiable models of modern games because they are neither amateur activity done for the love of it nor are they entertainment organised commercially. The overwhelming majority of Olympic sports have no spectator following of any substance and in the case of those which do (such as tennis, basketball and football) the event is peripheral and a nuisance to the normal calendar. Olympians are no longer the outsiders who make it in their own way — as Harold Abrahams was or Don Thompson who won a walking medal in 1960 training on his own, using his own methods. Nor are they genuinely commercial stars like Lewis Hamilton or Didier Drogba. They are Soviet-style, state-subsidised creatures, competing for the benefit of their political masters: “Team GB” with the PM as skipper.
So what is in it for politicians and for the state? The Third Reich, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China are only the most notable examples of states which have abandoned an initial hostility to the Olympic movement in favour of trying to succeed within it. If David Cameron is looking for a “feel-good factor” from the 2012 games, which he surely is, he treads in the footsteps of Nazis and Communists. There is a kind of mirrored perception factor which can be generated either by winning a lot of medals or by holding a successful games because these things generate a national perception that one is admired elsewhere. They let you strut on the global village green. And this effect comes pretty cheap. The USSR chose the Olympics rather than the development of a world-beating F1 car or football team because it offered soft targets: not very many Western women felt a mission to emulate the likes of Tamara Press, the great Soviet shot putter. In the past I have calculated that a sports programme could deliver medals at around £100,000 each — currently three days pay for a top-class Premier League footballer like Wayne Rooney. Subsidising sport in the Soviet style has allowed China to rise to the top of the medals table without much in the way of sporting culture, tradition or infrastructure. And it has allowed the UK to go from one gold medal (+ 14 others) at Atlanta in 1996 to 19 gold (+ 28 others) at Beijing in 2008. And that was during a period in which participation in sport has declined steadily.
But even if one is happy with the idea of creating athletes for the purposes of state propaganda, there are plenty of other reasons why a sportsman — or any citizen — should be sceptical about the Olympic movement. It has been, historically, extremely corrupt in the classic manner of international organisations. There has been corruption in the allocation of games, in the covering up of breaches of rules (including doping) and in the judging of events. The latter includes marking cartels to rival those of the Eurovision Song Contest. I won’t dwell on the idea that £12 billion spent on hosting the games is a ridiculous way of spending money, much of it taken from sources that would have gone to grass roots sport and from places that needed money a lot more than London did. Also the “beneficial legacy” argument doesn’t really get off the ground in terms of historical examples: the Athens site from 2004 is already derelict and the Barcelona site from 1992, which is considered the most successful and which I visited a few weeks ago, is a minor tourist attraction, but essentially a white elephant. Unless used for other sports, the core problem here is that a stadium with an athletics track is something for which there is demand only three weeks in every four years. There may be some hope that the legacy of London 2012 will be better than that of predecessors, but there isn’t much to beat.
All of these criticisms of the games seem to me, at least, rational and informed, but rationality and information have little to do with reality. What is real is what the American sports sociologist Rick Gruneau calls “fairy dust”, which turns dross into glamour. The overwhelming majority of people would not normally cross the road to watch gymnastics, weight-lifting or synchronised swimming if they were free — and even track and field athletics is essentially a small and declining sport, but give them the Olympic magic and there is a scramble for tickets, a longing for the chance to say “I was there”. It is live attendance that matters; during previous games I have sat with cricket teams many a time in pubs when there has been Olympic sport on television and, although everybody present was interested in sport, nobody even bothered to turn their head to watch. Since this is the first Olympics in England in the television age it will be interesting to see the pattern of viewing figures.
In this context we should attribute a touch of genius and perhaps a bit of luck to the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin, who insisted on the Olympiad, but eschewed Olympia. Often accused of “Anglomania”, he originally wanted his world games to be a tribute to the English public school system. The classical Greek reference proved to be a strong selling point, but it also threatened a kind of ownership by the modern Greeks, whom de Coubertin didn’t much like. So after the opening games in Athens in 1896 one of his firmest principles was that they should circulate, even if that meant the games were fairly marginalised as they were, in different ways, in Paris in 1900 and St Louis in 1904. The Greeks held their own (now unacknowledged) games in Athens in 1906. Every four years in a different city means that most people have one chance a lifetime to attend an Olympics.
The Greek project for a permanent site for the games would have made much more economic sense than the system of circulating the games. When the IOC was essentially bankrupt after Montreal in 1976 and lacking potential hosts the Greek version was right back on the agenda. As envisaged by Constantin Karamanlis, then Greek Prime Minister, it would have involved an international sovereign territory with analogies to the Vatican and the United Nations. But in the end Peter Ueberroth’s “free enterprise games” in Los Angeles in 1984 proved to be a decisive change of direction. Samaranch embraced the commercial and media potential of the games and now the world’s leading cities compete to host and subsidise the games.
But fairy dust is not just a naturally-produced cultural substance. A good deal of effort goes into its manufacture. The BBC may be a balanced broadcaster interested in wide and challenging debate on some issues, but in its proud role of “the Olympic Broadcaster” it is anything but. The rest of our communicators aren’t much better. We’re all to become Soviet citizens now, if we aren’t already, proud to see our men and women up on that podium, symbolising the superiority of our way of life. But though fairy dust is powerful magic, it does not last forever. The question is not what we will make of London 2012 in 2012, but what we will make of it in 2013 and thereafter.