Monday, 30 July 2012

An open letter to Proctor and Gamble

Hi Guys,
How’s it going?  Enjoying the Olympics?  I think it’s very noble of you to support the International Olympic Committee’s goal of “building a better world through sport”.  That was your reason for getting involved as an Olympic sponsor for the first time, right?  I mean, your decision couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with the $500 million you’ll rake in through extra sales this year alone on the back of that sponsorship, could it?

Most of this is built on your “Thank you mum” campaign which tells us you are a “proud sponsor of mums” and which also brings me to my point:  What about dads?  You’ll have to forgive me, but as a single parent of two little girls it rather pisses me off that so many people’s default opinion seems to be that as a man, my involvement in their lives must be minimal (I assure you it’s anything but) yet your adverts perpetuate that lazy stereotype.

Paula Radcliffe has been one of the stars of your campaign in this country (I know you’re using the same playbook all over the world).  Unfortunately she’s had to withdraw from this Olympics due to injury but she was always an ironic choice for you.  Why?  Well because her father Peter has played a key part in her success.  It was by joining him on his marathon-training runs that she became involved in the sport in the first place and he went on to chair the athletics club of which she is a member.

Victoria Pendleton’s mum Pauline also features in your campaign.  Predictably there’s no mention of her dad Max though, despite the fact it was his interest in cycling which influenced Victoria when she was a youngster.  He used to take her out training, riding ahead of her and making her catch him up thereby laying the foundations which helped her win gold in Beijing four years ago.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Pierre de Coubertin and the Olympic origin myth

We all like a nice origin story, right?  Take The Amazing Spiderman for example, it’s the fourth instalment of the franchise to swing into the cinemas in ten years and just like the first one way back in 2002 it’s a re-hash of how Spidey became Spidey.  Hollywood’s spewed out a bucketful off these stories recently including Batman Begins, Ironman, the Incredible Hulk (twice), Fantastic Four, Thor, Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, Avengers Assemble (shit title, but hey it’s about how the Avengers assembled) and just in case you’ve been living on Krypton next year we’ll have Superman: Man of Steel detailing how the Blue Boy Scout fell to earth and became one of the least reliable journalists around (which is saying something).  Hell, even the Dark Knight Rises is an origin story of sorts (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it).

Not only do all these films demonstrate a staggering lack of imagination among Hollywood’s film-making fraternity but they also perpetuate the need for simple explanations.  Everyone thinks they know how Peter Parker became Spiderman – he got bitten by a radioactive spider.  Bingo!  Well, it’s a little more complex than that.  Sure the bite gave him his superpowers, but it was seeing his uncle killed by a mugger who Peter had earlier failed to apprehend that taught him that “with great power come great responsibility” and all that teenage angst stuff contributed too.

What’s more there are all the reboots and multi-verse versions, so trying to work out what’s cannon and what’s not is a nightmare.  Was Spidey’s first girlfriend Mary Jane (as per the 2002 film) or Gwen (as per the 2012 version).  Meh, who cares about the details?  When you look you find there’s rarely one simple explanation for anything although that doesn’t stop people from trying (something an academic might call reductionism).

This stuff doesn’t just happen in comic books, it happens in real life too.  Take the Olympics™ for example.  We all know the origin story, don’t we?  Barron Pierre de Coubertin, was the Frenchman with the plan.  In the shadow of his country’s defeat by Prussia in 1871, de Coubertin thought sport was a way of strengthening France militarily before being influenced by the English public school amateur ethos and believing that physical education could have a strong moral influence.

It’s a myth perpetuated by the IOC today in various documents, Press releases and speeches.  Take just one; the Olympic Museum’s book How Well Do You Know the Olympic Games? Which asks “Who created the modern Olympics?” before giving the unequivocal answer “Barron Pierre de Coubertin”.  Similarly, IOC president Jacques Rogge told athletes at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games four years ago that “these Games were created for you by our founder, Pierre de Coubertin”.  Er, sort of but this conveniently glosses over more than 50 years’ work by a host of other people in both Greece and England as well as a long tradition of Olympic games before even that.
The first modern Olympics?

You may well have heard about the Much Wenlock Games.  They’ve gained a certain foothold in Olympic lore, not least because the Games are being held in London this year and one of the mascots is called Wenlock.  However, you have to go a lot further back in English sporting history to find the earliest revival of the Olympics.  It was in the 1600s that wealthy landowner Robert Dover was given permission to hold a multi-sport event on his Gloucestershire estate by James I.  Dover called them the Olimpick Games and they were held every year on the Thursday and Friday of Whit Week before dying and being revived several times over the next few centuries.  No one’s exactly sure when the games were first held but the British Olympic Association plumped for 1612 when bidding for this year’s games.  There’s nothing like a convenient origin myth, hey?

That brings us to Dr William Penny Brookes and the Much Wenlock Games.  Penny Brookes had started the Agricultural Reading Society in the village in 1841 in an attempt to promote intellectualism.  From this group sprung, nine years later, the Wenlock Olympian Class which held its first annual games in 1850 in an attempt “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants” of Wenlock”.  The events had many of the ingredients we can see in today’s Games, including a procession of competitors into the field of play and the games were more than just a quaint country pageant with cash prizes and competitors travelling from all over the country. 

The Olympic games thing was catching on and not just with competitors.  Penny Brookes wasn’t the only one organising them.  In 1862 a chap called John Hulley organised the 1st Grand Olympic Festival in Liverpool which was held at the city’s Mount Vernon Parade Ground in front of 10,000 spectators.  Two years later Hulley was given honorary membership of the Wenlock Olympic Society along with a silver medal as recognition of his services to physical education.  He would organise five more annual festivals with the final two being held in Llandudno in Wales.

These two early British Olympians came together with several like-minded colleagues in 1865 to form the National Olympian Association (NOA).  Hulley was elected chairman and it was agreed that their competitions be international and open to all comers.  The NOA and its motto were absorbed by the National Physical Recreation Society (NPRS) in 1885/1886 which was in turn the founding body of the British Olympic Association in 1905.  Furthermore its articles of foundation were used as the basis of the International Olympic Charter providing clear lines from those British Olympians to what is now considered the modern Olympic movement.

The NOA organised the first international Olympic Games in 1866 at Crystal Palace in front of several thousand spectators.  These were significant because they were the first sporting festival to make use the Olympic title and be open to international competitors.  More than 200 athletes took part in a range of events including track and field, gymnastics, fencing, swimming, boxing and wrestling.  Gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded to competitors who came in the top three places and there was a trophy for the most successful athlete overall.  One of the gold medallists was a certain W G Grace who won the 440-yard hurdle race in a time of one minute 10 seconds.  He took time off from his innings of 224 not out for England against Surrey at the Oval on the same day (a match England would go on to win).  The following year the second international Olympic Games were held at Birmingham’s Portland Road Ground and there would be another four such events around the country before 1883.

So, the creation of the modern Olympics, as with the modern version of many sports and sporting bodies owes a significant debt to Britain.  However, we shouldn’t forget Greece and I’m not just talking about Ancient Greece.  Some considerable time before Penny Brookes and his colleagues were doing their thing, so were a group of Greeks.  It was a journalist called Panagiotis Soutos who first mooted the idea of a revival of the ancient Olympics in a poem called Dialogue of the Dead in 1833.  Two years later he took the idea further by writing to the Greek Minister of the Interior suggesting March 25th – the date of the start of the Greek War of Independence - should be declared a national holiday and that the festivities should include a revival of the Olympic Games.  The games didn’t make it out of the starting blocks but the holiday got the go ahead (well, everyone likes a day off).  Twenty one years later a philanthropist called Evangelis Zappas inspired by Soutos’ ideas wrote to the Greek king offering to pay for the event and after a bit of diplomatic back and forth they were held in 1859.

The games were only open to Greek-speaking competitors but they were a start.  Penny Brookes, who had established contact with the organisers a year earlier offered a £10 prize to the winner of the seven-fold foot race (the longest running event) and in 1881 he wrote to the Greek King proposing the idea of an international Olympic sports festival to be held in Greece on a regular basis.  Zappas died in 1865 but he left a huge financial legacy to pay for both the renovation of Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium and future Olympiad and there were two more in 1870 and 1875 before legal wrangling over his estate put the games into hiatus.  It would not be until 15 years later that Pierre de Coubertin, the ‘father’ of the modern Olympics would actually appear on the modern Olympic scene and it was only after a visit to Penny Brookes in 1890 that he would start talking and writing about reviving the Olympics.

Who's the daddy?
Following that visit and his observation of the Much Wenlock Olympic Games de Coubertin wrote an article Les Jeux Olympiques à Much Wenlock – Une page de l’histoire d l’athlétisme it was the first time that de Coubertin had used the word “Olympic” in his writing.  He wrote to Penny Brookes the following year about his idea for a sports festival but didn’t use the word “Olympic” and it was not until the 1894 congress of the Union des Sociétés Francaises de Sports Athlétiques (the French equivalent of the Amateur Athletics Association) that de Coubertin first called for the revival of the Olympics.

The idea got the thumbs up and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed.  De Coubertin wanted the first of these Olympics to be held in Paris in 1900, however following an impassioned speech by Greek delegate Demetrios Vikelas he was out-voted and the games were awarded to Athens in 1896.  Vikelas, who became the IOC’s first president, did much of the organising also, as de Coubertin focused on another event – his wedding – and most of the cash came from Zappas’ legacy (the legal issues having been resolved).  De Coubertin may have taken the credit but it was Zappas who (posthumously) footed the footed the bill and Vikelas who made sure things happened but that didn’t stop de Coubertin from claiming that he and he alone, was responsible for the idea to revive the Olympics in his 1908 book Une Campagne de Vignt-et-Un Ans.

What is true is that de Coubertin was one of the founding members of the International Olympic Committee however as far as the founder of the modern Olympics?  Well the cigars quite clearly belong elsewhere.  It’s worth remembering that the so-called founder of the modern Olympics was born in 1863.  That’s 30 years after Soutos first suggested a revival of the ancient Olympics and 28 years after he formalised the idea in a letter to the Greek government.  De Coubertin was born 13 years after the Much Wenlock Games had first been held, four years after the first Zappas Olympics were held in Greece and a year after Hurley organised his first Olympic Festival in Liverpool.  De Coubertin was just three when the first international Olympics were help in London and just seven when the first games were held in Greece at the newly-refurbished Panathenaic Stadium.

Does any of this matter?  Well, if you’re talking about Spiderman, no not really but for the Olympics it is a little more important.  Despite what the likes of Jacques Rogge, Lord Coe and David Beckham might tell you the Olympics is a political movement.  There is no way that you can scientifically prove your political movement is the “right one” or the “best one” or even “better” than any other but creation myths along with symbols such as the torch relay (a wholly modern tradition created by the Nazis prior to the 1936 Games) help sell the movement by providing the crucial emotional foundation upon which its ideology is built and perpetuated.

And as we all know, he who controls the past controls the future.

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Thursday, 19 July 2012

The case for drugs in sport

The Olympics are just over a week away and among the concerns about the omni-shambles that is G4S, the rows over the opening ceremony and problems with the athlete’s village water supply the issue of drugs is on the agenda again, more-often-than not in articles and documentaries about the 1988 100m final the most recent being on BBC4 a couple of nights ago.  It would be easy to think drug use is a thing of the past but as recently as February, David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) said that fewer than one in five athletes taking drugs is being caught and just last month he said the agency’s effectiveness was being undermined by budget cuts.

That doesn’t sound too good does it?  So, here’s a suggestion: Let’s just be done with all the fuss and make doping in sport legal.  Once all the faux outrage has disapated, the counter argument to that tends to sound something like: artificially enhancing performance through drug use is wrong because it’s not fair, it’s dangerous and it’s against the rules.  In fact that pretty much is Wada’s code which states that for a substance to be prohibited it must meet two of the following three criteria: (1) it enhances or has the potential to enhance performance; (2) it is an “actual or potential health risk” to the athlete taking it; and (3) it’s contrary to the “spirit of sport”.

But let’s think about this rationally for a moment (a) there are many unnatural things which enhance performance (b) sport is full of health risks; and (c) it’s also full of inequality.  To that I’ll add: (d) the rules are so inconsistent as to be laughable.

Doping’s a horrible, modern phenomenon, we’re told, you’d never get this in the ancient Olympics.  Well, no.  Ancient Olympians competed for huge cash prizes (the equivalent of half a million in today’s terms) and so everything from magic mushrooms to crushed-up ox hooves was used in attempts to enhance performance.

“But drug use isn’t fair!” you say.  Well, life isn’t fair and neither is sport – and it never will be.  Why do you think Olympic medals tables read like the Sunday Times rich list of countries, with the wealthiest at the top and the poorest at the bottom?  And have you watched the Premier League or La Liga recently?  Here’s another thing: all the athletes in that infamous 1988 100m final were black, yet not one of them represented and African nation.  How’s that for inequality?