President of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge (centre) has followed in the commercially obsessed footsteps of his predecessor Juan Samaranch
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.
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