Modern sport isn’t simply a contest between teams or individuals. It is also increasingly an arena which corporate power seeks to exploit. During this summer of major sporting events it’s clear that the governing bodies behind the European soccer finals and the Olympic Games are following a strikingly similar agenda, one shaped by drive of business to make money out of people’s love for sport. That generally starts with top down control.
Here are two examples from Euro 2012, from where I’m writing:
First, consider the so-called ‘Fan Zones’, introduced at the World Cup in 2006 and a feature of World Cups and European Championships ever since. These large privatised spaces are all about regimentation and commerce. Whatever the individual characteristics of the country you are in, the environment in the fan-zones is more- or-less the same. When it comes to refreshments, only fast food, soft drinks and beer provided by the authorised sponsors are available. Here in the Ukraine, the chances of sampling local fare in the fan zones are next to zero. Every available space is taken up by corporate catering. And the big screens, constantly relaying sponsors’ messages, are the most prominent advertising platform of all. It’s not easy to discover the country beyond these sanitized arenas but significant numbers of us have been making the effort. Getting out on the local tourist trail, or even better beyond it, and soaking up the atmosphere in local pubs and cafes while taking in the odd game on television with a commentary we can barely understand, is well worth it.
The situation is not much better inside the soccer stadiums . Prior to kick off the PA systems are turned up to such a high volume that you cannot hear yourself think, let alone cheer or jeer. Two announcers, one stationed at each end of the ground, broadcast separately to the fans of the two teams involved. Their pronouncements are accompanied on the pitch by the frenzied dancing of opposing groups of female cheerleaders, each in the team’s colours. For more than an hour ahead of the start of the game those of us in the crowd re implored by these over-amplified antics to cheer our side. This is something no group of England fans who have made it all the way out here needs to be told to do – it merely drowns us out. Fortunately the barrage from the PA does not extend to the game itself when the speakers are finally turned off and the noise we make ourselves can at last be heard.
The resistance to the top-down regimentation of corporate control at the Euros finds a corollary in the rising, if still largely unexpressed, discontent at the direction in which the London Olympics is heading. Not much of this takes any kind of formal political shape: the bipartisan parliamentary consensus that London 2012 is unquestionably a good thing, reflected by the unanimity between Boris Johnston and Ken Livingstone in the recent London Mayoral election, remains firmly in place
But, alongside Euro 2012 and the Olympics, a third major event of this sporting summer provides an alternative model that lies beyond the stranglehold of the sponsors. After Mark Cavendish’s success last year in winning the Green Jersey, and with Bradley Wiggins a serious contender this year to win the coveted Yellow, the Tour de France (Le Tour) will be followed more closely than ever before in Britain. Raced for almost a month along the public roads of France and neighbouring countries, the crowds that line the route are huge - and entirely without tickets. Stretched out over tens of kilometers each day, this is a crowd impossible to control but there is rarely a hint of trouble and disruptions are rare. Of course Le Tour is heavily sponsored, but the scale of the event represents a major shift towards popular participation in place of corporate control.
An Olympic Games which took Le Tour as its inspiration might have added to the Marathon, Race Walks and Triathlon (the only three un-ticketed events in the current programme) a multi-stage cycling race which could be watched from the nation’s roadsides , a yachting Round Britain race for the coastal communities to enjoy, or even a canoe marathon to be followed from the banks of the country’s canals and rivers. Perhaps a knock-out rowing competition along the Oxford and Cambridge boat race course could also have been included. All these events would be free to watch with spectators beyond the reach of the sponsors. If such crowds can be accommodated for the Diamond Jubilee, why not for the Olympics?
A programme shaped around these kinds of events wouldn’t need the construction of expensive new facilities, of questionable use after the Games are over. The money could instead be allocated to encouraging popular participation in sport, during the Games and after. Of course any such reimagining is too late for London 2012. But as the barrage of self-congratulatory hoopla from the London Games organisers and their media backers intensifies, the need for some critical perspective is greater than ever. This once-in-a-lifetime occasion could have directly involved many more people, at thrilling, free-to-watch events around the nation, and with lower costs to the taxpayer. Now who’s going to argue with that?
Mark Perryman is the author of Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How they Can Be available here.