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August 15, 2008

What has become of the Olympics? Lincoln Allison on why the Olympics don't matter

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Olympics don't matter as a sporting event - or so argues Lincoln Allison, Visiting Professor in the Politics of Sport at Brighton University and author of Amateurism in Sport and The Global Politics of Sport.

The Olympic Games are the world's premier sporting event, are they not? So it is odd to report that among the sportsmen and women with whom I spend a great deal of my time they are scarcely ever mentioned. People talk about why England can't produce a decent leg-spinner and about whether Lampard and Gerrard can play together. They talk about what a good thing Lewis Hamilton is for motor sport and until recently they talked about whether Nadal could win on grass.

But I've never met anyone who gave a damn about where Great Britain will finish in the medals table unless they were paid by the state to care and I've often seen sports fans in pubs, who would instinctively turn to watch any cricket or football, turn their backs on a screen carrying Olympic coverage.

Track and field athletics are the jewel in the Olympic crown, but most people I know confirm the gloomy market research of the various athletics authorities because they run out of the names of contemporary athletes before they run out of fingers on the first hand. Interest has plummeted since the Indian Summer of athletics in the 1980s and the only athlete I ever hear people talking about is Paula Radcliffe. And in her case the conversations are about a single embarrassing and distasteful incident seen on television or about whether 34-year-old mothers should be flogging themselves through 26 miles of polluted air.

Yet the Games are what academics now call a "global mega-event". In reality they are the only such event. Sport reaches the places and parts which other aspects of culture cannot reach and the games are so structured as to have something for everybody: witness Thailand's national celebrations when a Thai boxer won the country’s first ever gold medal in 1996! Football's World Cup may be bigger in several different respects, but the finals only directly involve 32 of FIFA's 205 members and, in any case, large parts of South Asia and North America have no interest in the sport.

But the distinct sporting image and role of the games has gradually dissolved over the last thirty years. In Montreal in 1976, despite boycotts and the Cold War and shamateurism there was something of the distinct "Olympic Spirit" about the event.

There was still at least a powerful legacy of why Pierre de Coubertin had wanted to convert the world to organised games and to found a "Jeux Arnoldien" because he thought he had discovered the revived spirit of European chivalry located in the heart of a commercial society. His conversion to Ancient Greek imagery for his world games has proved a marketing masterstroke. Montreal was certainly not a commercial event and it was for young people at the peak of their avocation for sport who would then go off to be lawyers or missionaries or army officers rather than for career competitors. It was an alternative to everyday sport, but also had a claim to be the pinnacle of sporting achievement.

All of this was lost during the period, 1980-2002, when Juan Samaranch was President of the IOC. The Games are now commercial as well as professional, though given the power of television, the bankruptcy of the Olympic Movement after Montreal and the end of the Cold War there may have been no alternative.

What is left - in purely sporting terms - is no longer either alternative or major. Olympic sport falls into two categories: it is either minor sport or it is a minor event in a major sport. Interest has declined in a range of what I will ball the bio-chemical sports including track and field, swimming, weightlifting, cycling and so on.

Part of the reason is competition: commercial televised sport offers a lot of more interesting alternatives. But the main reason is doping. It doesn't matter whether you believe that the athletes you are watching in 2008 are "clean" or not because you know that the legacy of records and champions is "dirty" and you know that a weak character on a good and well-disguised steroid regime can put a shot further than a hero who hasn't taken anything.

In popular and skilled sports like tennis and football the Games are simply a minor event; like the Davies Cup or the Ryder Cup they may challenge you to put your patriotism and public image ahead of your career plans.

In short, the Games are the global mega-event, but essentially a sham sporting event. While they are on there are powerful forces trying to persuade us otherwise. One is the BBC which retains coverage of the Games though it has lost rights over most popular sports.

Another is government: not only have governments always tended to see Olympic performance as a reflection on themselves but ours, like most modern states, has spent a good deal of our money on securing games and enhancing performances. This is largely because Olympic sport is something they can hope to influence whereas real big-time global sport is beyond their remit.

And finally journalists, who make up more than a quarter of the Beijing audience and for whom attendance at the games is an important C/V issue, will also be telling us it's the real thing.

But are we being convinced? And, more importantly, will we remain convinced as we approach London 2012?

Lincoln Allison is the author of several books on sport including Amateurism in Sport (2001) and The Global Politics of Sport (2005), both currently available from Routledge. He is Visiting Professor in the Politics of Sport at the Chelsea school of Sport and Leisure at Brighton University.

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