For two weeks every few years, the Olympics blot out all other sports coverage in the world to focus on one city. The host cities scramble to earn the right to hold the games, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to construct arenas, event complexes, and lodgings that rarely, if ever, eke out profits. But how did the Olympics become just like every other professional sporting event, covered in Visa and McDonald’s logos? Can they ever get back to simple, popular, spirited competition?
Sports journalist and university researcher Mark Perryman designed Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be as a vision of a radically different Olympics, the games’ Communist Manifesto, with an undeniably noble goal: ditch the corporate-controlled event and make it truly the People’s Games, with an emphasis on mass appeal, accessibility, and increased participation. Using the 2012 Summer Olympics in London as a backdrop, Perryman briefly covers the development of corporatized and commodified Olympic competition since 1984 in Los Angeles. As a possible response, he outlines how to bring the games back to their stated goals as global, unity-focused competition, while also acknowledging their inherent politicization.
While outlining the problems with the current Olympic structure, Perryman cites information that isn’t exactly new, but is still astounding and convincing. To win the right to host the games, cities must rigorously conform to International Olympic Committee restrictions on what the Olympics should be, so that by the time the plans are finalized, no one can question their quasi-state vision. The best-suited city with the smallest economic burden pales by comparison with one promising overly ambitious, brand-new facilities paid for with expansive taxes.
Hosting the Olympics costs far more than any city initially thinks. The London games are more than 107 percent over budget, the highest ballooning total since Atlanta, home of Olympic “Worldwide Partner” Coca-Cola, hosted the 1996 games. Atlanta beat out Athens for the centennial Olympiad of the modern games in a move, Perryman points out, that reeks of corporate appeasement and pocket-lining. Perryman also refutes the promises of increased tourism and surging interest in fringe sports. If anything, non-Olympic enthusiasts avoid host cities, excepting they’ll be overcrowded with athletes, corporate delegations from the many sponsors, and IOC executives shuttled around in limousines.
Many of Perryman’s ideas for revamping the Olympics seem perfectly logical, though sometimes hopelessly idealistic. In response to the vastly different array of events in the modern games, he argues that the games shouldn’t be isolated to one city, but rather distributed around a region or an entire country, like the World Cup. He advocates holding the events in locations with existing venues, and emphasizing grassroots support at those event locations from the time a city wins the bid until the games, in hopes of stirring up youth participation and attendance for some of the traditionally less-popular sports. Even his wilder extrapolations—taken from the London 2012 reusable and collapsible basketball arena—have their heart in the right place. For instance, he suggests the IOC could function as a storage organization responsible for maintaining portable facilities, and functioning more like UNESCO or the World Health Organization instead of a corrupt, shadowy bureaucracy.
Though Perryman’s insights are worthy of discussion, at times he’s too focused on a fantasy reimagining of the London Games, incorporating rowing events inspired by the Oxford/Cambridge race on the Thames, and a yachting race around Britain. These aren’t globally popular events, and the suggestion reveals that Perryman’s idea of a more widely attended games stems to some degree from a strain of ethnocentrism based around events covered by the British sporting press. Perryman occasionally references Marx during his manifesto, and it’s clear that’s where his politics lean, which prevents his ideas from pedaling back from idealistic extremes to plausible solutions. His book isn’t a game-changer, but it certainly meets expectations as a conversation-starter.