River Wissey Lovell Fuller

September 2008 Newsletter

September 2008

Keith looks at the Beijing Olympics with a professional eye

The Olympics are well under way - will be finished by the time you read this - although the Paralympics may be in progress. What is it really all about? Many journalists and commentators in recent weeks have made it clear how fed up they are with all this sport, thrust down our throats every hour of the day on the TV and in the papers. If you really are uninterested in every form of sport it must make you want to emigrate to Mars for the month. For those who are fascinated by all such endeavours, then it is so frustrating not to be able to watch ALL of it, just getting results without knowing what happened to produce them.

For the competitors, their coaches and families, there are really only two feelings - elation at success or despair at failure. Success and failure are almost universally measured by performance, not by effort or personal sacrifice and pain. This is, of course, partly why sport is attractive. The winner is the winner is the winner, subject only to the discovery of cheating. One of the other attractions of sport is to see just how much can be achieved by sufficient training and natural talent. So many of us question the validity of the breaking of records every year in GCSE success rates, but we simply, without question, howl with pleasure at seeing Usain Bolt totally destroy the 100m world record. In sport little is grey, everything is black or white. There is little questioning of motives, just pleasure in performance.

In real life, it really is not so simple. Performance is often difficult to measure or even to observe. It is multi-dimensional - what looks good today in a certain situation may be awful tomorrow in a different situation. When we see Mr Putin watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics and egging on his national sportsmen and women to beat all their rivals, we are relaxed and probably appreciative. When we see him the next day on the border between Russia and Georgia, congratulating his military on their performance, we have much more fixed feelings. We are not persuaded or pleased by the success of a bigger and better army, in the way that we are appreciative of the success of the biggest and strongest runner in the 100 metres!

The unappreciative commentators referred to in my opening sentences would happily see all sport banned, other than by consenting adults in private! Do the Olympics achieve anything other than pleasure for its fans? Is the massive expense of each of these four yearly festivals remotely justifiable, when we look at the misery and deprivation suffered by the majority of the world's population?

Addressing the first question first, there is no doubt that China (to take the immediately relevant example) has had to drop some of its barriers to the investigative nose-poking of foreigners. It will be almost impossible to put those barriers back. Trade has been doing this for years. Easy and cheap travel and communication have been pushing away these barriers for years. The Olympics have given that process a jerk of acceleration. Although local, tribal and historical rivalries (as for example in South Osettia) may result in warfare and violence, the blurring of the edges in international relations does reduce the potential for the violent method of solving disputes. Although Russia was ready to dive into the Georgian situation, it was to support resistance to an unbelievably ill-judged invasion of South Osettia by the Georgians, trying to override real local loyalties. There was never a risk of this becoming an international war. When NATO went into the Balkans to pull apart the warring parties in Bosnia, there was never a real risk of Russia or others coming in to make it an international war.

It is a whole host of activities, in the arts, literature, music, tourism, etc , etc and the Olympics that make war unlikely and resolution of arguments by words more likely. No one can say how much effect any one Olympics may or may not have, but they are part of the whole process of the focusing of rivalries into non-violent forms of resolution.

If the Olympics cost nothing, it would be easier to accept the conclusions that I have drawn above. The problem is not that there is cost, but that the cost seems to be astronomical and rising fast - actually to verge on being obscene in amount. Much of the cost is not measured, or if measured is only accounted for at local levels and not accumulated into the published figures of the cost. Those local costs are probably effective in improving the health - social and medical - of the athletes and communities involved. It is not so obvious that the cost of the Birdcage in Beijing is going to do much good. Was the enormous cost of bringing in thousands of military personnel into the clearing of algae from the sea to permit the Olympic sailing regatta to go ahead really justified for two weeks of rather specialized activity? It might have made more sense to solve the sewerage problems that resulted in the algae growth in the first place.

There are world championships of one sort or another in most sports, which cost a lot, but nothing like the orgy of expenditure of the Olympics. Because the Olympics is a sort of World Championships for all the sports you can think of in the same place and at the same time, the logistics (eg Olympic villages for the athletes) are extraordinary, whereas the world championship tiddlywinks contenders can find accommodation relatively easily, without a special town being built for them. Maybe the Olympics would be justifiable but only once every 20 years or so. Unfair of course to those athletes whose effective athletic life fell wholly between Olympics, rather than bridging the Olympic year. There is no simple answer. Much of the detailed expenditure could be criticized. Overall, the totals seem to be just too big.

Moreover no one can measure the beneficial results, if any, over subsequent years. There can be little doubt that Wembley Stadium was, for decades, a fabulous investment for London and the country. Whether the 2012 London Olympics will really revitalize East London we will only be able to judge (though never accurately or certainly) in the many years that follow. Whether the heavy investment in British cycling in the past 8 years or so has done more than simply enable a small group of activists to become remarkably successful, who can yet say?

My own belief is that the Olympics is a GOOD THING, but I would improve the whole process in all sorts of ways. My choice of ways would be different to anyone else's. In a complicated world, we go off at tangents, do things bizarrely, getting nothing wholly right, but so long as we are heading in approximately the right direction, we should be pleased. We should never stop trying to get it more right, but we don't stop because we are only partially successful. Moreover in looking at the Olympics as a whole, we have to behave differently that looking at a particular sporting competition. The Olympics is more like real life that the 100 metres final.

At all stages we have to question our motives and we have to audit our procedures and costs. If we do A, what damage do we do to B and C and D, etc. Do the potential benefits of the Olympic investment in East London outweigh the psychological and community costs of killing the current economy of that area. We probably all think that the slums of the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century needed to be dealt with - but we are all also pretty equivocal about the 1960s tower blocks that replaced them. Have we solved anything or just created alternative problems?

It's not easy. We know who won the 100 metres final in Beijing. It was glorious (or boring depending on your point of view). But was it worth all the hoo-haa that surrounded it?

Licensed Lay Minister

Keith MacLeod

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