Published: 26 July, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
Is it a global advert for London, a cheap way of doing up the East End, a moneymaker for a stagnant economy, and the chance to celebrate the physical achievement of our species...?
Or is it a corporate profit binge, a crack down on diversity, the theft of common land, a celebration of multinational companies selling us rubbish food, a mirage of a public event, as only those with their snouts in the trough can get tickets...?
Whatever your views on the Games, the Olympics is good for one thing: fostering public debate.
While we are being urged to enter into the spirit of things, it is hard to do so when intrinsically we all know there is something very wrong with it. Can we whip up enthusiasm for an event that has accepted money from a chemical manufacturing company which has refused to help those who are still suffering from the Bhopal disaster?
Can we get excited when the Olympic Park has the world’s largest MacDonald’s, and is sponsored by a high-calorie fizzy drink?
Parisian academic Marc Perelman is in the “No” camp.
A professor of aesthetics, his book, Barbaric Sport, is a collection of essays that takes to pieces the Olympic jamboree.
His diatribes against the Games often hit the spot, though his curmudgeonly dismissal of sport in general ignores a global celebration of the things we can tune our anatomies to do.
Perelman’s essays start by pointing out what the capital dictatorships have got from hosting sporting events: he considers Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, and Beijing 2008.
He cites the founder of the International Olympics Committee, Baron Pierre de Courbertin, who saw no issue with the propaganda aspect for the Nazis in hosting the 1936 Olympics.
“What! The Games disfigured, the Olympic Ideal sacrificed to propaganda?
That’s completely wrong!
The grandiose success of the Berlin Olympics served the Olympic ideal magnificently...” Perelman quotes De Courbertin as exclaiming.
He critiques the way the IOC’s hosts use the Olympics to foster redevelopment, yet it is done not to the wishes and needs of the city’s inhabitants, rather for big sovereign wealth funds (in London, it’s Qatari oil money) and venture capitalists.
He cites Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, and finds similarities with London 2012.
Beijing represented a “bald denial of the city’s history”, stating a thousand years of evolutionary place-making was swept away under the harshest working conditions... And before we say well, that’s China for you, we’ve seen it happen to the allotment holders in Stratford and the football teams who play on Hackney Marshes.
Furthermore, he writes, “...Beijing and London were not all that different from Moscow 1980 or Berlin 1936.
“They were framed in the same way as those Games by an omnipresent police force and army hunting down dissidents, its itinerant workers, trade unionists, beggars, prostitutes and riff raff.”
He attacks the way we are bombarded by the event, unable to escape.
“Competitive sport is ubiquitous and permanent,” he states.
“In the cities that organise and mount the events, their streets are invaded by races and marathons, by ad hoc sporting venues, on posters and advertisements, in special transport arrangements, in the media and mass communications, the press pulsating with sports news, giant public screens in city squares, all united to make sport inescapable so that everyday conversation is bloated with the invasive blather.”
Perhaps the most telling essay focuses on something that is not so readily obvious: he dubs it “sporn” – a marriage of sport and pornography. He claims athletes further our obsession with body image: they make us feel weedy/fat, and the use of sporting images goes through “...a spectrum of fantasized neo-fascist carnality...”
But perhaps he protests too much. There are benefits. The Games have highlighted through the G4S debacle that the private sector is not superior to the public. Zil traffic lanes have made people think in a new way about VIP culture: while previously we’ve been encouraged to look in on a celebrity world with envy, the special treatment of the “Olympic family” has made stomachs turn.
Then there is the mantra that the Games means investment in east London, which is a tacit acceptance that a Keynesian economic model of paying for infrastructure is a good idea.
The Olympics is like we’re hosting a massive house party, and has provided an excuse to weed the garden before the guests arrive. If only it could be conducted in such a way that public cash is spent (not begrudgingly) in ensuring there is a genuine legacy.
But most tellingly, the crucial problem with Perelman using sport as a conduit to consider the evils of totalitarianism or global capitalism is to ignore the fact that watching human beings doing something extraordinary, something that takes talent and dedication, can be fun and inspiring.
If only it didn’t require so many corporate hangers on.
• Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague. By Marc Perelman. Verso £8.99