Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Counter Olympics Network Demonstration

Missiles on top of your home
Yesterday I met a man who lives below surface-to-air missiles. Quite literally below. He lives on the top floor of a block of flats in Bow, London. The government in their infinite wisdom have stationed these missiles on top of residential buildings to deter terrorists from attacking the Olympics – and, no doubt, to make Londoners feel safe and secure. The guy explained how two military bods carrying automatic weapons had woken him up by knocking at his door. They informed him that the hardware was in place and, should it be used, his roof would cave in. They didn’t see fit to say what would happen if he was inside. I also met a man who had seen his house compulsory purchased and subsequently bulldozed to make way for an Olympic training venue. I met another person who had spent an hour running from police who had already knocked him from his bike and taken the banner he was carrying. His crime? To stray too close to the Olympic stadium on the night of the opening ceremony.

These were some of the 500 people who dared to attend the Counter Olympics Network Whose Games? Whose City? No to the Corporate Olympics demonstration in London yesterday. It wasn’t the largest demo I’ve ever been on, but it was lively, vocal and angry. And it felt important. At points it seems as though the whole country has fallen into line in seeing the Olympics as beyond criticism. The fact that anybody dared stick their head above the parapet in opposition is impressive. Somebody had to say that it’s a huge amount of money to spend on a sporting event at a time of recession. Somebody had to point out the hypocrisy and greed of the corporate sponsors. Somebody had to say that we don’t want to see our communities militarised. We made those points, and then some.

The demonstration was a wonderful cross-section of London society. Black and white, young and old, and a host of families gave the event a real community feel. At the head of the protest were a number of disabled comrades, keen to highlight the role played by the Olympic sponsor ATOS. John McDonnell MP spoke at the closing rally; Brian Richardson was the best speaker by a mile.

Thankfully the protest passed without the kind of heavy-handed police response witnessed the night before. The monthly Critical Mass bike ride ended near the Olympic stadium, which triggered the kind of assault from the old bill normally reserved for students or innocent bystanders. Kettling was followed by violence, all under the watchful eyes of uber-surveillance. At one point an officer attempted to pepper spray a guy in a wheelchair, and was only prevented from doing so by a colleague who thought that this might be going just a little bit too far. I know that the police read this blog (as this post demonstrates) so I’d just like to ask… Do you think that pepper-spraying the disabled is right or wrong? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Maybe the police were on their best behaviour because the eyes of the world were upon them. The demonstration may have drawn little (if any) coverage from the UK media, but there were news crews from a whole host of countries. I was interviewed by Dutch, Spanish and Iranian (!) TV, and that was nothing compared to the demands made of the event organisers. It would appear that the further you are from the Olympics, the clearer you can see them.

At the end of the rally, a number of activists involved in the No Sochi 2014 campaign spoke. They will be the next to feel the effects of the Olympics when the Winter Games make their way to Russia in two years time. The Olympic protest torch is passed on. I wish them well.

ps. On a personal note… A huge thanks to all those people who worked so tirelessly to put the demonstration together. In particular, thanks to David for his hospitality and the karaoke. Thanks to Jim for the chat – it’s always nice to meet a lefty with a good (i.e. my) sense of humour. And thanks to the female comrade whose name I never got but who bought me a can of fizzy sugar when all the chanting had left me spaced out!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Anti-Olympic Protest Works – The Berlin Experience

Say that you have a problem with the Olympics and an awful lot of people look at you as if you’ve just suggested a nationwide kitten and puppy massacre. How could anyone possibly be against something so pure and honest and good? This weekend will see hopefully thousands attend the demonstration in London against the corporate Olympics. I urge everyone that can make it to get to this event. The truth is that at various points over the years, often hidden away out of sight, there has been a long history of anti-Olympic protest. One such example is from Berlin in the early 1990s. It is a story in which the people of that city made the IOC feel so unwelcome as to ruin their government’s plans to stage the 2000 Olympics. It is a story that, sadly, far too few people have been told. But before we get to Berlin, we must go to Barcelona.

The Barcelona Games took place in 1992, the first Olympiad after history had been brought abruptly to an end. The fall of Communism meant that the Games were bereft of Cold War rivalry; the world was joined together in competition on the free market and in the sporting arena. Indeed, so fraternal were international relations that the XXV Olympiad was the first for twenty years not to be boycotted by any nation state. The goodwill and bonhomie extended even to those Spanish politicians who were traditionally the deadliest of enemies. The Socialist Mayor of Barcelona, Pascal Maragall, joined together with Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish IOC president and one-time Franco loyalist, to welcome the Olympics in a display of collective amnesia. The Games would take place in the Montjuic Stadium where fifty-six years previous the assembled worker-athletes had gathered to take part in the Popular Olympics. A fascist uprising meant that the Games were over a day before they were meant to begin.

Those Barcelona Games of 1992 were, however, the Unity Olympics. It was even reflected in the medal table. The Unified Team – a collection of states from the former Soviet Union – finished first, the United States second. In third place, just three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was the team of the newly unified Germany. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics looked like a Pierre de Coubertin wet dream. Nation states, wedded to capitalism and secure in their identities, came together to share a love of competitive play. It was not just a symbol of unity, but also of reconciliation.

This spirit of togetherness would not have been lost on the German government who announced their intention to bid to stage the Olympics in 2000. To see the newly united country stage such a prestigious event at the dawn of a new millennium was certainly a genuine attraction as well as simultaneously being a huge ideological reinforcement. Eberhard Diepgen, Mayor of Berlin, was clear when he spoke to an IOC delegation: "Berlin wants to present an Olympics in the year 2000 that will reflect people's desire for peace and freedom… We want to show the new Germany: democratic, united and unpretentious." The IOC too saw the symbolic value of staging the Games in Berlin, and for a time the city was the frontrunner, ahead of Sydney, Beijing, Manchester and Istanbul. What neither the IOC nor the German government could have expected was that their plans would be scuppered by a wave of popular protest.

By September 1993 anti-Olympic feeling was so strong that a march through the centre of Berlin could attract more than 10,000 people. But this wasn’t the first act of defiance, nor the most militant. Three months earlier anti-Olympic activists had disrupted the opening of the IOC’s self-congratulatory shrine, the $65 million Olympic museum in Lausanne. Eggs were hurled at Samaranch and protesters shouted “No Olympics in Berlin” before twenty of them were led away and detained by police. Demonstrations and attacks on private property continued until it became clear that the IOC, ever desperate for good press, would be forced to look elsewhere. Despite staying in the race to host the Games, Berlin were never really in the running again, and finished a long way behind Sydney, the eventual winners. 

Why did the people of Berlin turn so against the Games? It seems fair to say that the price tag attached to staging the event was a major reason. One anti-Olympic statement read, "The people of Berlin do not favor mammoth projects which the power elite, supported by the police and media, plans and executes without our consent. The Government promises a great deal, but gives only to the rich." Activists also cited other negative effects on the city such as disruption and pollution. Sound familiar?

Later protest movements against staging the Olympics in Sydney, Athens and Vancouver were charactersied by how heavily they drew inspiration from the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement which began in Seattle in 1999. What is fascinating is that the movement in Berlin began not just before this time, but before the other great events that gave lie to Francis Fukuyama’s claim of the end of history – the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and the public sector strikes in France in 1995. People power was alive and well in Berlin in 1993. It was as though the people of the German capital said, “We have already brought down the Berlin Wall. Why shouldn’t we stop the IOC?”

The Berlin experience is a timely reminder that anti-Olympic protest works. Here in the UK we may not be in a position to stop the country wasting billions of pounds on a sporting event at a time of terrible economic crisis, as our brothers and sisters in Berlin were able to do. But it remains the case that protest is necessary. It will show to the corporations that they cannot profiteer and bully without opposition. It will demonstrate to the IOC that not everybody buys into their phoney ideals and spin. And it sends a message to the ConDem government that no matter how much they bully and restrict our right to protest, people will always be prepared to stand up and be counted. I hate to quote Seb Coe – I really do – but we really do have “a once in a lifetime opportunity”. Be there this Saturday to say No Limos! No Logos! No Launchers! And be part of the demonstration against the corporate Olympics.

Playing Political Games With Sport

I have a guilty secret. One I have shared with very few people. And today I bare my ashamed soul to the world. I was a huge fan of Bob Monkhouse. Oh come on! Who wasn’t? The man was a comedy genius, producing one-liners like an athlete produces sweat, or the International Olympic Committee produces corruption and scandal. Of course his undoubted gold medal winning gag was: “When I was a child I told people that I wanted to be a comedian and they just laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now.” He also did a fine line in puns – people who know me will be well aware that this is a particular comedic genre of which I am quite the connoisseur. The one piece of word play that springs readily to mind is his definition of politics: “Poly means many, tics are blood sucking creatures. That about says it all.”

Certainly we can now look forward to the assembled establishment politicians sucking all the pleasure out of sport for the next couple of weeks. Whenever a British athlete turns in a truly Olympian performance you can expect Dave or Boris or Nick to be sidling up to them like the unpopular person at a party trying get in on a conversation. They’ll grin inanely, wave their flags and no doubt witter on endlessly about a country united by sporting achievement. When it comes to seeking a little popularity it would be fair to say that politicians see sport as war minus the shooting.

Where sport is concerned the ruling class historically have changed course more often than a driver with a faulty satnav. Edward III and Henry VIII both banned certain sports during their reigns deeming them detrimental to the war effort. Then along came the Puritans and banned just about everything (except cricket!). The idea of poor people playing and having fun, especially in large and potentially dangerous numbers, was just too much to stomach.

The development of capitalism was more effective than any diktat at curtailing the sporting pleasures of the rowdy mob. Enclosures took away the open spaces; factories sapped the time and energy of the new working class. Denied the opportunities to play, workers were transformed into spectators as soon as they had money to spare. But sport was and is popular with large amounts of people. As such people in power have long associated themselves with it in order to carry favour with populations and electorates.

In the 1720s Frederick Louis arrived from Hannover to take his, ahem, rightful position as the Prince of Wales. Keen to ingratiate himself with the English he developed a passion for cricket. For more than twenty years he patronised and played the game, badly by all accounts. He died in 1751 from a burst abscess in his lung, which, legend tells us, was the result of being struck by a cricket ball.

Jump forward 250 years and we witness Tony Blair playing the same game but without any of the delicious and fatal irony. Already attempting to ride the wave of Cool Britannia hype, Tony jumped on the bandwagon of football frenzy playing keepy-uppies with Kevin Keegan like an embarrassing dad at a wedding reception. Then in an eerie portent of things to come he combined cringe-worthiness with outright bullshit, proclaiming his love of Newcastle United, and reportedly saying that he sat behind the goal at St James’ Park watching Jackie Milburn play. Not bad since Milburn retired when Blair was only four years old and that at that time there were no seats. Two lies in a single sentence? Who’d have thunk it?

And on to today. Who can forget Boris riding into the closing ceremony of the Beijing Games in 2008 on top of a double decker bus? The blonde buffoon then went on to wax lyrical about the triumphs of ‘wiff-waff’ helping to cement his status as the most loved and harmless upper-class twonk that ever there was. Except this is nothing like the truth. The man is a vicious class warrior of the old school, a Tory wolf in a rambling sheep’s clothing. For Boris the Olympics isn’t a festival of sport, it’s a PR opportunity. Ditto Dave. Cameron has appeared at all kinds of sporting events over the past year, desperate to be associated with anything even mildly successful. This time last year he took time out from his busy schedule of organising exemplary sentences for people nicking bottles of water during the riots to spend an afternoon at the Oval watching the cricket. When Jonathan Agnew gently enquired whether the PM thought a test match was the best place to be, Cameron responded that he had had a busy morning talking to Barak Obama on the phone…

For centuries – ever since Poor Fred - the ruling class have tried to turn the people’s games into the ruler’s tools. The fun and excitement of sport is manipulated, twisted and spun as politicians bask in the reflected glory of sportsmen and women. Expect more of the same as the summer of flag waving draws to its conclusion. But it need not be this way. Does anyone have any cricket balls?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

(Racist) Insult to Injury

GUEST POST: Inside Left is delighted to carry a guest post from Richie Moran. Rich is an ex-professional footballer who left the game sick at its endemic racism. He is now an author and anti-racist campaigner. Here are his thoughts about the acquittal of John Terry from charges of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, and more generally about the state of the 'beautiful game'.

As former professional footballer who made a conscious decision to leave the game as I was simply not prepared to accept the overt, covert and institutional racism I was subjected to, I ask every footballer from the parks to the pro game to remember Friday 13th 2012. That was simply the date that magistrate, Howard Riddle gave anybody carte blanche to use the most vile of racist insults and walk away scot free.

I have just read the summing up and I also saw the YouTube footage before it was removed. Having had those words mouthed at me at every level of football from other players, managers, crowd members and sadly closer to home, I know what I saw and as the aforementioned magistrate states on several occasions "there is no doubt that John Terry clearly directed the words "black cunt" at Anton Ferdinand. Yet until the last couple of paragraphs of said summing up, which also questions Terry's integrity and affirms Ferdinand’s, it would seem that Teflon John was guilty.


Yet as I had predicted, he has somehow walked away an innocent man, with Riddle stating that he may not have uttered those words as an insult. Maybe like Ron Atkinson when he called the multi-lingual, World and European champion Marcel Desailly "a lazy fucking thick nigger" he was merely being ironic!!!

Terry's assertion that he was merely repeating what he thought he had been accused of was as laughable as the day I saw Michael Jackson deny he had had any plastic surgery in an interview. This verdict merely enhanced the fact that most premier league footballers can behave exactly as they wish with little or no fear of redress - legal or otherwise. Indeed had he been found guilty multi-millionaire Terry would probably have had the maximum £2500 fine in loose change in the ashtray of his car.

What this whole case demonstrates is that racism in football is as ever merely a microcosm of society itself. Despite the magnificent work of the likes of Kick it Out and FARE and the smug platitudes of Lawrenson, Hansen, Shearer et al, society's most insidious evil is still ever present. During Euro 2012, many of the England management, officials and players went to visit Auschwitz (scene of one of history's most racist crimes) and a factory run by Oskar Schindler.

Terry was one of those pictured looking suitably sombre, knowing what he had said and how it was intended. Roy Hodgson stated that everyone should visit such places. The same Roy Hodgson who in season 97/98 dismissed Eyal Berkovic’s claims that he had been subjected to anti-Semitic remarks by one of Hodgson’s Blackburn players as “a storm in a teacup”. The self same Roy Hodgson who was happy to take the apartheid rand earlier in his career!

Did the attendant Liverpool players who disgracefully wore t-shirts defending Luis Suarez’s racist rant at Patrice Evra (my Spanish is passable and again I was sent the transcript of what was actually said and it was racist in the extreme) reflect on the enormity of their actions at such a venue.

Ashley Cole as ever (his wife was once charged with calling a nightclub worker a black bitch, although the black was later dropped) was true to form with his selective hearing and indeed his post match brokering role to ensure things went no further.

Sir Trevor Brooking was I believe also present. The same Sir Trevor Brooking who told me when I shared a speakers platform with him in Brixton in 1999, who told me that when he played with Clyde Best in the 60’s and 70’s at West Ham that he never once heard him get any racial abuse from the crowd!

Before anyone (Robert Kilroy-Silk in particular at me on his show) uses that tiresome question of semantics, whereby they say abusing someone for the colour of their skin is no different from people being abused because they are overweight, have red hair or wear glasses; I will tell you what I told him.

The use of derogatory racist language is the first step in the dehumanising process that leads to slaughter and genocide. Millions of people were not taken from my ancestral homeland and forced into slavery because they were overweight, had red hair or wore glasses. The Nazis did not systematically slaughter 6 million Jews for those reasons, nor did successive Afrikaner governments deny my brethren their most basic human rights for any of those reasons. To actually equate that with the victims of humanity’s greatest crimes is a gross insult to millions of people.

My beautiful son was subjected to racist abuse in his first ever 11 a side game when he was ten. This season just gone he rang me after a game I had not been at to tell me that the referee (the coach of the opposing side) had squared up to him. The ‘man’ in question, one Steve Clarke of Havant and Waterlooville under 15’s, was subsequently discovered to be a member of the English Defence League who had posted racist and homophobic comments on his Facebook page. In time honoured fashion he of course claimed someone had accessed his file.

Owing to the persistence of my sons club and one parent in particular, Angie Napolitano, he has subsequently been banned from football for 2 years with one year suspended. I received an e-mail confirming this, this morning from Mark Ives of the FA (that’ll really teach Clarke a lesson, eh?) despite the fact that I firmly believe many people on various bodies wanted this brushed under the carpet.

For many years I was asked to speak at various anti-racism conferences until many of the powers that be in the football world decided I was just a little bit too outspoken for their liking. This case with Terry has sickened me so much that I am actually now prepared to reveal the former England manager who told me to my face that he was called in by the FA (he would not name the members and told me I would be sued if I revealed his identity as he would deny it) and told in no uncertain terms not to pick too many black players for the national side!!!

The only thing that has given me some hope is that even the likes of Garth Crooks (who I fell out with when he defended Peter Schmeichel for alleged racist abuse of Ian Wright) are demanding that the FA (a very appropriate acronym) take action against Terry.

Somehow I can’t see it happening. So for all those who sent Anton Ferdinand death threats, for all those players at Chelsea (especially the black ones who defended their captain, knowing as has been clearly stated that he used those words and lastly for the man himself, John Terry, you are a complete c***!!!!

Richie Moran

Richie played for Fujita of Tokyo and Birmingham City. Disillusioned by the racism he was subjected to and the reluctance and refusal of those in authority to take action, he left the game and toured the country as a vociferous and outspoken anti-racism campaigner. Kickboxing black belt, Richie has written a book, “It Really is a Small World”, about his experiences travelling the globe and contributed chapters to "The Ingerland Factor, Home Truths from Football” and “Soccer and Society”.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Games Of Two Halves - Mark Perryman Replies

With his book offering a blueprint for a better Olympics published this week author Mark Perryman explains his Five New Rings. (and replies to my review of the book as well!)

Seb Coe and the London Olympics Organising Committee, Cameron and his hapless Minister of Culture, Jeremy Hunt, their predecessors, Brown, Blair and Tessa Jowell. All of them cling to a bipartisan consensus that everything to do with the Olympics is fine, nothing the International Committee and their sponsors demand needs to be questioned. It was a consensus which in London managed to unite those otherwise polar opposites, Boris and Ken, too, in solid agreement that the Olympics would be without doubt a good thing for the city.

Add the sports media, led by the BBC, which appears to have had all critical faculties surgically removed in the cause of Olympic cheerleading, amplifies this all-embracing mood of agreement. Yet the discontent outside the parliamentary and media bubble is very obvious. Not an organised campaign of resistance  but on issues ranging from the lack of tickets to the privileges enjoyed by the IOC and sponsors there is a mood of discontent. Whilst more broadly there exists a deep-seated popular cynicism that the Games won’t be the benefit that they they are claimed to be. It is a discontent that is barely reported upon yet it basis is well-founded. There is scarcely a scrap of evidence from any previous Games of economic regeneration or a sustainable boost in employment. Not one recent Olympic host nation can point to an increase in sport participation levels as a result of the Olympics. And as for tourism, the Olympics leads to a decrease in visitors not an increase as the Travel Industry, which has no reason at all not to be one of the Games’ biggest supporters, has repeatedly pointed out.

Despite all this not one politician, nor a single sports administrator, none of the well-resourced think-tanks, and no journalist or broadcaster has come up with a  plan for a better Olympics for all. This is what my book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, uniquely sets out to do. If a popular Left politics is to mean anything surely it is not just about pointing out the inadequacies of what we are against but constructing in our imaginations what an alternative might look like. A Games of Two halves, critique and vision.

I love sport, my book is not in any sense anti-Olympics, and I joyfully admit I will be amongst the first o be consumed by the excitement of the Games once they begin. But I also firmly believe that they could have been so much better and the discontent with how they have been organised to the effective exclusion of the many who could so easily have have been part of them is far too important to ignore as the Gold Medals are hung around Team GB athlete’s necks.

My ‘New Five Rings’ are really quite simple, they re founded on the core democratic principle that to make a ‘home’ games worthwhile they must be organised with the objective that the maximum number of people must be able to take part. If not then its the remote control and the sofa for most of us, and thus the Games might as well be anywhere else but here, minus both the expense and the inconvenience.

Ring One, a decentralised Games, taking place all over the country, a local Games for the large parts of the population, if such a structure is good enough for the World Cup, why not for the Olympics? This one change would at least make major parts of the Olympic programme geographically accessible.

Ring Two, a games with the objective of maximum participation. Across the country we have huge stadiums, mainly football grounds, yet capable of being used for a vast range of Olympic sports. But virtually none are being utilised, centralising all events in London venues with much smaller capacities that would otherwise be available slashes the size of audience who can attend and increases the ticket price for the few, instead of lowering those prices for the many.

Ring Three, shift the bulk of the programme outside of stadiums entirely for large scale free-to-watch events. A cycling Tour of Britain, A  Round Britain Yachting race, a canoe marathon, open water swimming events in our Lakes and Lochs. The true measure of London’s chronic lack of ambition is the scrapping of the Marathon route, one of the few current free-to-watch Olympic events. The 26.2 London Marathon route which is lined each year with hundreds of thousands of spectators has been  replaced by 4 six mile laps, reducing the potential audience by a 75% , yet this has scarcely been commented upon by media commentators too busy with their LOCOG cheerleading.

Ring Four, Olympics sports that are universally accessible. The same countries always win the Equestrian, Yachting and Rowing events while entire continents have never won a single medal in these events . The same goes for cycling, fencing, modern pentathlon and large parts of the whole programme. These are sports that require vast investment, specialist facilities and except cycling have next to no mass appeal.  Compare the breadth of countries which have won boxing, football, middle and long distance running distance medals. These are sports requiring no expensive kit or facilities,  use simple rules,  and have massive appeal,.  Sports should be chosen because of their accessibility and then given targets to prove it. If they fail to do so, drop them and replace them with others.  My favourite candidate for reintroduction is the tug-of-war, which last featured at the 1920 Games. It is one of the most basic sports imaginable, all that is required is a length of sturdy rope, the teams could be mixed which is another plus, and in a packed stadium a tug of war competition is a potential crowd pleaser too, at least as much if not more than some of the privileged sports currently enjoying Olympic status.

Ring Five. A symbol of sport not a logo for the sponsors. Reverse the priorities, the only use permitted for the precious Olympics Five Rings sport should be by voluntary and community groups on a not-for-profit basis to promote sport, The sponsors banned from any use of the Five Rings. They need sport just as much as sport needs their millions yet sport over and over again sells itself short bending over backwards to accommodate the sponsors ever-escalating demands. The biggest sponsor of London 2012? You and me, the taxpayer.

In his excellent review of the book for lives;running Gareth Edwards raises two important issues.

First, are the Olympics capable of being reformed, short of a revolution?  The answer to that one is likely to be found in debates a tad broader than the chances of getting a ticket to the 100m final. But my broad response is that the fittest task of critics is to highlight the contradictions in a system of the sort the IOC has put in place in order to preserve its own, and associated corporate, interests. All the claims made for the Games benefits are funded on the flimsiest of evidence. The way London 2012 has been organised for the few, not the many, makes the idea of a 'home' games a nonsense for most fans. Push at the boundaries of these contradictions, and if a revolutionary moment is required to effect the kind of changes I describe, then I won't lose any sleep over that eventuality.

Second, how about constructing an alternative outside of the structures of the official Games. Gareth points to the excellent example of the Workers' Olympics of the 1930s, there wee both socialist and communist versions, which on occasion were bigger than the official version. Again its not a position I reject, not at all. BUt I would say that the global movements which framed these Games in the 1930s, whatever their undoubted flaws, simply don;t exist today to provide the kind of all-embracing narrative for such a project. I would begin closer to home, if the Trade Unions and broader progressive movement was to start to create sports festivals of an alternative, pre-figurative, type centred on the virtue of play that Gareth has also eloquently described then the building blocks towards something bigger may at least become evident. The signs so far, sadly, of efforts in this direction are not good.  

As the Olympics has grown the the Games have come to represent far more than just sport. For some critics that means they with to demolish everything they now stand for. Not me, I want to build a new Olympics, to take the best of the Games I first fell in love with and have the sticker albums to prove it and reimagine with the help of principles founded on equality, diversity and access I hold dear. This should surely be the substance of politics, why then we should be asking has no such alternative, to date, been offered? Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, looks to redress that balance. Let the debate begin.

Published this week, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be costs £8 (£6 kindle edition) and is exclusively available from www.orbooks.com   

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Alternative Opening Ceremony Party

Friday 27 July, a proudly unofficial night of comedy, music, art and ideas with excerpts of the 'official' Opening Ceremony' on the Big Screen.
 
Presented by Philosophy Football in association with the TUC and the 'Playfair' campaign. With not a sponsor's logo to be seen nor a Gold Medal to be won, enjoy the Alternative Opening Ceremony Party at one of East London's finest arts venues, Rich Mix in Bethnal Green.
 
Headlined by comedy from Isy Suttie of Peep Show joined by comic Paul Sinha exclusively performing material from his Radio 4 Show The Sinha Games.
Be amazed by the extraordinary juggling skills of Rod Laver and closing the evening the brilliant Tricity Vogue and her All-Girl Swing Band. Plus dancefloor-fillers provided by a DJ set from Melstars:Music.
 
Opening the event a visual introduction with Martin Polley author of The British Olympics. A debate on the Meaning of the Olympics chaired by Mark Perryman author of Why The Olympics Aren't Good For Us, And How They Can Be with Olympics experts David Goldblatt co-author of How To Watch the Olympics and Alan Tomlinson co-editor of Watching the Olympics. Plus a photographic, musical and runner's tribute to Stratford before the Olympic Park was built introduced by environmental writer Bob Gilbert.
An unforgettable mix of ideas and entertainment on a 'once-in-a-generation' night. Doors open at 6pm to eat and drink, show begins at 7pm.
 
Tickets from www.philosophyfootball.com or call 01273 472 721 to pre-book.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be

This review of Mark Perryman's new book, Why The Olympics Aren't Good For Us, And How They Can Be, was originally published on David Renton's excellent lives; running blog.

The Olympic Games are a contradictory affair. They are a product of spectacle and at the same time a spectacle of products, a festival of sport and a fortnight-long marketing extravaganza, they are used as a barometer of national strength and as a call for international respect and understanding. Jules Boykoff considers them “somewhere between multinational corporation and global institution”. The Games are a contradiction wrapped in a sponsorship deal wrapped in an ideal. And, overwhelmingly, they are political.

Mark Perryman’s new book, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, starts from the premise that sports and politics do mix. At present, however, the Olympics are governed and structured in such a way as to benefit the sponsors, host governments and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) while the rest of us look over our shoulders to see if the next round of austerity will put us on the dole. But what if they could be different? What if the power and idealism of the Olympics could be harnessed to create a Games that were good for us, all of us, rather than the sporting elite and the 1%?

Mark re-imagines the five rings of the Olympic symbol so that each represents a value for a new Games: decentralization, participation, sport for free, sport for all, and sport as a value not as a commodity. In so doing Mark rages against the corporate takeover of the Games, where companies such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola use the Olympics as “just another means of exposure and branding to shift products”.

But the main thrust of the book is to connect working class people to the Olympics in a way that is presently unthinkable. By having a host country rather than a host city people nationwide would be able to experience the Games. Larger venues would enable more people to watch events – especially if the tickets were free (rather than the exorbitant price they are currently). More events could be held outside of arenas to maximise the possibility of people spectating. The section in which Mark talks about the London 2012 Olympic marathon brought the logic of these suggestions home to me. Instead of running the London marathon course as one might have expected, the organisers have changed the route to include Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament, reducing the possible sites for spectators in the process. The needs of sports fans pale into insignificance against those of the London Tourist Board.

For me, Mark is at his best when dealing with the deleterious effects of the Games. He gives short shrift to the myth of legacy, juggling a host of sources to dispatch the claims of the Olympic boosters. More young people play sport as a result of the Olympics? Actually participation rates fall as armchair enthusiasts are confronted by images of elite athletes with unattainable physiques. Hosting the Games results in a boom for the tourist industry? In fact people stay away from the chaos and congestion, and the event is unlikely to induce people to visit in the future. An opportunity for urban regeneration and renewal? Nothing could be further from the truth! Prime real estate is handed to property developers at knockdown prices and, if Athens is anything to go by, the city is left with a litany of unused, unwanted and expensive sporting venues.

And what of our experiences of the Games? The assorted heads of states and visiting dignitaries can expect chauffeur-driven limousines rampaging through specially designated lanes, top notch corporate hospitality, seats on the finish line for the 100m final, and complimentary tickets to perv at the beach volleyball. The rest of us can expect sonic cannons, missiles on the roof, a crackdown on dissent, and a huge bill at the end of it all. Even sports fans are excluded. Ticket lotteries have come and gone, touts have moved in to fill the void. The Games could be staged in London, Paris, New York or on the Moon, it wouldn’t matter. The vast majority of us will still only experience them through the images on television.

The Olympics have turned physical activity into something quite removed from our own everyday experiences of sport. In a wonderful passage, the most powerful of the book, Mark illustrates this with recourse to his own running: “I can see myself as part of a popular movement of people who enjoy sport purely for fun and therefore are the antithesis of all that the Olympics has come to represent. I run free, for free. No rules, no sponsors, no entry fee, no national pride, nobody’s stopwatch to calibrate the results except my own. I run because I can.” It is a most beautiful example of how play and sport differ.

But there are problems with the book. Firstly, it is too short. It has obviously been conceived as a small volume, but there was more than one occasion where I wished Mark had more space in which to develop his ideas. The section on universal accessibility, for instance, felt like it needed more time to fully explore the argument and issues it raised.

Equally the brief reference to the nature/nurture debate surrounding the success of the Kenyan distance runners will bring many a knowing nod from track and field followers, but non-sports fans would benefit from a little more exposition (or even a point in the right direction). Philosophy Football describes the book as “an argumentative sprint not a marathon of a thesis”; I would suggest a well-paced middle distance could have allowed for greater exploration without sacrificing any of the reformist zeal. Occasionally it feels as though argument is replaced by listed evidence, sometimes contradictions creep in but are not dealt with. Can you lament the lack of athletes in the Olympic Village and still call for a decentralised Games? Is darts – a professional sport monopolised by the British and Dutch - really the best example of an event that would improve accessibility?

Far more pressing than these minor gripes, however, is the question of how far it is possible to reform the Olympic movement. The IOC is a huge monolithic organisation, with enormous economic and political leverage. A report by One World Trust considered it to be the least accountable, least transparent, least democratic of all the transnational organisations it looked at – and this is no mean feat when you consider that it finished below the likes of Halliburton and Goldman Sachs. Reading the book I found myself often wondering aloud, “That’s all well and good, but HOW THE BLOODY HELL ARE WE MEANT TO DO IT?”

Perhaps I should have been asking, do we even want to? Is there really anything about the Olympics that we can reclaim? To phrase the question in such a way is to suggest that there was once something intrinsically good and noble about the Games that we might wish to resurrect. “I haven’t written this book to bury the Olympics,” writes Mark. “I want to revive them.” And it is on this point that he and I part company. Mark has written a book essentially detailing the neo-liberal Games, despite noting that they were far from perfect prior to the explosion of commercialism at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His suggestions on how to improve them are interesting but at no point does he move outside the framework for the Olympics laid down by that idealistic old aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin way back in the 1890s. For all the lofty talk of bringing humanity together, the early Olympics excluded women, and the Baron extended his bigotry to include racism and anti-Semitism. For all the talk of peace, war brought the Olympics to a halt in 1914 and Coubertin enlisted in the French army in 1916. By 1936 his idealism had led him to praise the Nazi organisation of the Games, saying that Hitler had “magnificently served, and by no means disfigured, the Olympic ideal”. A sporting event bringing together the people of the world may be a wonderful idea, but does it have to be the Olympics?

There is a long history – when the left has been weak, when no other alternative looks viable – of trying to reform institutions for the better, even when this is quite obviously impossible. Trying to reform the Games and the IOC would be like trying to get David Cameron and George Osborne to take out subscriptions to Socialist Worker. But there is another history – when the left has been strong – of building alternatives ourselves. In the 1920s and 1930s the left (both reformist and revolutionary) boycotted the Games and instead held their own sporting events, the Workers’ Olympics. Thousands of worker-athletes from a host of countries came together to participate and play, not as members of a nation but as brothers and sisters who shared the common identity of class. It was an internationalism that did not rest on national boundaries; it transcended them. This is a history far more attractive than anything available in the official annals of the IOC.

Nevertheless, Mark’s book is a welcome addition to the bookshop shelves full of Olympic titles this summer. While many fawn over the prospect of London 2012 it is a timely reminder that the empty promises of a Games that will “inspire a generation” come at a huge price. And it is an attempt to put the mass of people – not the corporate logos – centre stage.

Mark Perryman’s Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us, and How They Can Be can be ordered from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

Thursday, July 5, 2012

'Allo, 'Allo. 'Allo - Don't Touch That Torch!

This morning I took a phone call from the police. “Mr Edwards, have you got a couple of minutes to answer some questions?” Automatically I thought, “Shit, they’ve caught me.” Funny how the fuzz always make you feel guilty irrespective of your innocence. The thoroughly charming DS Burrows (long time reader, first time caller) wanted to know if I had any plans to disrupt the Olympic Torch relay when it passes through Portsmouth in a couple of weeks. Sadly I could only tell him that as time was against us there were no plans for any protest.

For me this raises two important questions. Firstly are the old bill the only people that read this bloody blog? Because if they are then I’m not sure I can be bothered to carry on. Alternatively I might lace every post with keywords such as “bomb” or “semtex” or “giant supersoaker” just to get my stats up. Or perhaps I should try and include meaningless phrases that sound like the code words out of ‘Allo ‘Allo: “After the paper sale the fox and the badger will meet by the river at midnight”. That should keep Special Branch busy for an hour or two.

Secondly, where did they get my phone number? It’s not as though I’ve filled in the personal details section on the Hampshire Constabulary website, asking to be kept informed of upcoming crackdowns on dissent. I don’t put my number on leaflets, or online, hell there are even members of my own family that don’t have it. Which means that they have either been given it by somebody in the movement (was it you? WAS IT?!) – which seems unlikely; obtained it from my phone network (possible); or  hacked my emails (would they sink that low without a Murdoch pay-off?). Not that it really matters. It’s just nice to know that they’re paying attention.

What was most striking, however, was the tone of the conversation. My boy Burrows was the height of polite enquiry, all sweetness and light, couching everything in terms of “our duty to facilitate your right to peaceful protest”. Compare this to the experiences of other people who have dared speak out against the giant corporate roadshow. Two plain-clothes cops visited Dave Coull, a 70-year-old pensioner from the tiny village of Edzell, after he sent a letter to his local paper, The Courier, pointing out that the torch’s origins lie in Nazi Germany. Pre-emptive arrests have been touted and, as this video shows, the police have gone into surreal training overdrive to prevent protests.

At the end of our conversation, DS Burrows said that if anyone was planning a protest around the torch they should be persuaded to call him immediately. All in the interests of public safety, you understand. So I consider that my civic duty done. Unfortunately I didn’t get a number for him, so if you need to get in contact just put your name on the internet or start a blog. I’m sure they’ll find your number somewhere. Keep ‘em peeled.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Dave Zirin - The Olympics Interview

The latest issue of the International Socialism Journal carries my interview with radical sportswriter Dave Zirin. Dave is the sports editor at The Nation, the co-author of The John Carlos Story, and you can find a collection of his work at Edge of Sports. In the interview he discusses the history of the Olympics, their effect on host cities, and, most importantly, how they have become a site of political struggle. You can read the full interview, Resistance: the best Olympic spirithere.

GE: With the Olympics rapidly approaching, what does history tell us London can expect over the coming months?

DZ: You will get displacement, you will get an incredible police crackdown and you will get one hell of a bill when the party is over – which then has to be paid for. Wherever the Olympics go they act as a neo-liberal Trojan horse, showing up festooned in a kind of celebratory bunting and there is an effort to marshal the nation behind it. Some people have dubbed it “celebration capitalism” insofar as you are meant to celebrate the excess and greed. Yet when all is said and done you are in some financial trouble. The explosion of debt after the 2004 Athens Games is one of the least discussed aspects of the current crisis in Greece. These Olympics were roughly a thousand per cent over budget! The budget for the 2012 Games has already increased from £2.4 billion to £11 billion and I have no doubt that the eventual figure will be far greater.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Mario Balotelli Enigma

Finals of major competitions are often far from memorable matches and tonight’s Euro 2012 final between Italy and Spain may well turn out to be a rather dour affair. A congested midfield, both teams playing possession football for long periods, the fear of losing stifling creative play, and more sideways passes than a Ray Wilkins Appreciation Society benefit tournament. The one reason to tune in is Mario Balotelli.

Of course there is no knowing which of the many faces of Balotelli’s talent will be on show. The Man City forward has been an Etihad enigma this season with fans never knowing if he would be a match winning genius, an arrogant anonymity or a positive liability. His boss Roberto Mancini seemed to exist in a state of perpetual infuriation at the antics of the colossal man-child, on more than one occasion saying that if he played with Balotelli he most certainly would have given him a slap.

All of which is music to the ears of tabloid sport journos who can cast the striker as hero, villain or source of juicy celebrity gossip as needs demand. It is the last of these categories in which we have become accustomed to reading about Balotelli. Powered by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of off-field hi-jinx the Mario rumour mill has been in overdrive since his arrival in the Premier League in August 2010. He has set his house on fire after letting off fireworks indoors, was disciplined by his club for throwing darts at a teammate, and substituted in one match for being allergic to the grass.

It is not helped that Balotelli, who on the pitch can seem the most precocious and egotistical enfant terrible, for the most part eschews the limelight of celebrity. The outcome is that a series of fantastical urban legends have attached themselves to the footballer, who has been in no great hurry to confirm or deny their authenticity. Tales of driving into a women’s prison “just to have a look”, dressing up as Santa to dish out cash in the city centre, and helping a child who was being bullied at school have all added to his aura. (Some of these are cleared up in this slightly surreal footage, where Noel Gallagher interviews Balotelli.) My particular favourite, which I can only hope is true, is the story of Balotelli driving round Manchester in his Maserati. On seeing a black man cruising around in a flash car the local racist police haul over the Man City player, ask him to get out of the vehicle before frisking him. In his back pocket they find a wadge of notes totalling thousands of pounds. Sarcastically they ask, “Why have you got so much money?” Balotelli replies, “Because I am rich.” Priceless.

On the pitch Balotelli can seem distant, arrogant and at times completely uninterested. The question has become what makes this mercurial talent tick? In a series of interviews for the Radio 5 Live programme, The Surreal Mario Balotelli, the former footballer Pat Nevin delved further than most into the life and psychology of the frontman. The child of Ghanaian immigrant parents, Mario Barwuah grew up with three siblings in cramped poverty. It wasn’t long before social services became involved and aged just two he was fostered by the Balotelli’s, a liberal, middle class family.

Was the racism Balotelli faced as a child ameliorated by his new more salubrious surroundings? Possibly, although it is hard to believe that bigotry has left no scars. The closeness to his foster parents certainly shows how important a role they played, and possibly the extent to which his new family not only encouraged his talent but helped insulate him against the worst of the abuse he faced.

Balotelli was one of the first black kids to emerge from the Italian youth system. Giovanni Valenti, Balotelli’s former coach said, “his ability and the colour of his skin provoked a certain amount of jealousy and antipathy, and so I think Mario went through a period growing up isolated because he was black.” As a child he would not celebrate the goals he scored, rather quietly walking back towards the half way line. For Valenti this represented something of a self-defence mechanism, it was the young Mario trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible. The racism has followed him through his career. He was met with racist abuse on his professional debut at the tender age of 15. Roma fans threw bananas; Juventus played games behind closed doors as punishment for the actions of their fans. Only last week a cartoon in an Italian newspaper depicted him as King Kong. They claimed it was intended as a compliment. In the run up to the European Championships Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch if racism came from the stands. More pointedly he threatened to kill anyone who racially abused him in the street.

It is all too easy to see Balotelli as the stereotypical young footballer, brash and cocky and loaded. Inevitably there is some truth to this. Of course this is a young man (he’s still only 21) with time on his hands and way too much money. But his trademark goal celebrations appear in a different light when you know something of his past. What is perceived as brashness and arrogance seems likely to have been misconstrued. Trapped between his talent and society’s bigotry, Balotelli has created a front allowing him to deal with criticism, discrimination, failure and success. A man of sensitivity and insecurity, as well as phenomenal talent and self-confidence, the paradox of Palermo confronts the world in a state of constant defiance.

In England, and particularly in the blue half of Manchester, the popularity of Balotelli the player is in no doubt. Given his inconsistency and occasional disinterest it might seem odd that he has already achieved iconic status. I would ague that these are precisely the reasons why he is popular. In the world of capitalist sport where reliability is prized above all else, Balotelli bucks the trend. Nobody knows whether he will score a hat-trick or get sent off.

Bertie Mee once said, “Some players may be exciting to watch but, in the end, product is what matters. I want a high level of consistency – a man who can produce it in 35 games out of 42.” Today that pressure is even greater as the rewards are higher, the penalties more severe.  Balotelli is the antithesis of this. When asked to describe Balotelli his sister depicts him as shy and also someone who wants to be the centre of attention. Overwhelmingly she talks about his playfulness. If football has become yet another example of a corporatised homogenous product, Balotelli stands out as someone who looks as though they are actually playing the game, rather than merely competing.

Spain, on the other hand, are the height of technical proficiency: unerring close control, pinpoint passes and continuous movement. It is what has taken them to the pinnacle of world football, where they are unparalleled, unsurpassed and now increasingly (if somewhat surprisingly) unloved. Their style of tika-taka keep ball - patient, cautious, essentially defensive – is beginning to lose its appeal. It is football of the highest quality designed to maximise the possibility of victory, but in doing so it removes those variables that make the game so exciting to watch. There are no twirling wingers, no galloping wing backs, and no Lionel Messi to make it all worthwhile. In contrast to the unpredictability and spontaneity of Balotelli the Spanish look as though they are practicing a discipline. Balotelli plays; Spain win. It is why we will look on with expectant glee at Super Mario tonight, and it is why Jamie Carragher can say that a victory for Spain will be “admired but not loved”.