Sunday, 29 July 2012

Mrs Angry's Naked Olympics

Well, see: as you may know, Mrs Angry is not awfully keen on sport.

I say not awfully keen: I mean is deeply bored by it, hates watching it, doing it, hearing other people talking about it. In her view, the sporting instinct represents all that is worst in human nature: the need to show off, compete with others and brag about how flipping wonderful you are. Competitive sport is war dressed up in tracksuits and trainers, and acted out on the playing fields of the Olympic Village, rather than the foothills of some far off country, but a primal act of aggression, all the same.

Yes, sport played at the highest level involves a huge amount of effort, training, dedication: for what, though, in the end? A medal. A personal record. So what? Why not use those qualities for something more useful and creative? And why do we need to spend so much money on promoting such self indulgence? Could we not instead spend the money, which is directed at what is supposed anyway to be an event for, ha ha, amateurs, on better sports facilities for children, young people and disadvantaged citizens? In a context, in other words, where the aim of sport is to empower those who might benefit the most from exercise, diversion, and lessons in self discipline, rather than pursue a highly subsidised career in international sport? No, probably not, because this would not provide an opportunity for global brands to make profit out of us.

Pierre de Coubertin

Defining the ethos of the Olympics is usually left to the father of the modern games, Baron de Courbertin, who famously said, or is believed to have said, that the importance of sport was not in the winning, but in the taking part. In fact, this would appear to be a misinterpretation of what he actually said, which was:

"L'important dans la vie ce n'est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l'essentiel ce n'est pas d'avoir vaincu mais de s'ĂȘtre bien battu".

In other words, in life the important thing is not to win, or rather to triumph, but the struggle, and not to have conquered, but to have fought well ... not quite the same, is it? Rather more confrontational. How do you fight well? Why fight at all?

There is already much discussion about the sexism of so much of the commentary of the London Olympics, and the overly male dominance of the event: not sure why this should be such a surprise. Female athletes are generally regarded with amusement: look at the idiotic remark by Boris Johnson about beach volley ball contestants 'glistening like wet otters' - or mocked for their perceived lack of attractiveness, such as certain swimmers, or one or two of the female weightlifters.

Sport is absolutely steeped in entrenched macho values: and you could argue that the competitive drive itself which fuels these events is inherently male. Which is not to say that women are not naturally competitive, but perhaps it is true that generally they channel their energies into more productive, cooperative and creative activities. And perhaps the dominance of men in the organisation of global sports events has created an environment in which in order to survive, they have been forced to conform to the wrong model of competition.

Certainly watching some of the events, and looking at the rather astonishing physiques of some of the female athletes, it might be a reasonable assumption to make that women are being forced to go way beyond the limits of their ability to compete not just with each other, but with a definition of strength that is male, and - maybe - impossible to achieve naturally, or without real cost to the individual.

Look at the case of the sixteen year old Chinese girl who, rather astoundingly, swam faster than the male medal winner in a comparable event: no suggestion of any doping or other use of banned substances in this case, of course ... but is she winning for herself, meeting the challenges of her own motivation, or is she, selected as a little girl for her suitability by a government scout, the victim of national political ambition, controlled by politicians in Beijing?

Pierre de Coubertin formed his ideas about the social benefits of sport as a result of perhaps two major influences: a overly romanticised view of the ancient Olympic games, and - rather surprisingly, perhaps, the legacy of sporting traditions in the English public school system, particularly at Rugby School, where the famous Dr Arnold presided over a curriculum giving great prominence to physical education. As de Coubertin saw it, thanks to Arnold, 'The cause was quickly won. Playing fields sprang up all over England ...' He also thought that the rise of British power, the foundation of the Empire, and success in military engagements was largely attributable to this form of education. Better physical education would make better soldiers, in short.

A generation earlier had seen Wellington observe that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and how true it is, or was, that the male public school tradition in sport is closer than we care to acknowledge to the militaristic tradition of the ruling classes: the careful management of aggression, and conflict, and the protection of economic interests in far away countries.

De Coubertin's idealised view of the classical games, with well oiled, naked Greek athletes politely grappling with each other in manly contest, encouraged him, somehow, to think of the first Olympics as a model for a new opportunity for the renewal of peaceful cooperation between nations and classes: of course the original games achieved nothing of the sort, and were a series of events hard won by individuals - men, of course, watched only by unmarried women, in case it over excited their mums - taking part for personal and civic reward. Taking part to conquer, and to win, not just for the fun of it.

Clearly this sort of activity has no place in modern Olympic events.

one for the ladies: look, glistening like wet, erm - oh ... make your own jokes

Ruined by the interference of corporate Rome, of course, the ancient games, ending up with Nero insisting on taking a prominent role, water fountains and cultural events laid on to placate the masses, just like Boris and London, 2012 ...

The nineteenth century adoption of physical education as a form of training ground for the Empire may have resulted in a nation covered in playing fields, but the idea of sport as an integral part of the lives of most school children is simply not true, other than in a limited fashion within the curriculum. All around the country free sports facilities are disappearing, and only the privileged few who can afford gym membership have access to such activities. The playing fields themselves are being redeveloped, as speculators move in on easy opportunities for profit. Look at this BBC report from earlier this year highlighting the sales by London councils of parks, playgrounds and greenspaces:

Nowhere could offer a better example of this shameless sell off than our Tory council speculators here in Broken Barnet, as this story from the local Times reveals: here Barnet sold more public land than any other London borough in the last three years, including land attached to Broadfields School, and Northway and Fairways special schools, all right on the edge of the Green belt, and the playing fields at Stanley Road, East Finchley, a site which the authority has allowed to deteriorate nicely to the point where it has become a suitable case for flogging to developers.

And in this Olympic year, our Tory councillors have not only sold off one former local football ground, Hendon FC, in a highly controversial deal, to a lower of two bidders, a move which is now the subject of judicial review, they sat on their hands while the much loved Barnet FC has been forced out of its hundred year old home at Underhill, and out of the borough. In contrast, the Tory councillors have fallen over themselves to assist the fabulously wealthy Nigel Wray, who lives in Totteridge, in his bid to find a new home for Saracens rugby team, from Watford. Our stadium at Copthall, neglected by the authority over decades, has been given to him to use on a peppercorn rent, and Saracens have been allowed to rename the stadium, in a deal worth several million pounds, with a German finance company.

Hendon FC - up for sale to the highest bidder. Oh: ok - the lowest bidder.

Other sports centres and clubs in the borough have been closed: in the borough now there are practically no free sporting facilities, in fact, in line with the presiding ethos of our council, which sees sporting sites and cultural buildings not as community resources, but as potential property developments. Selling off playing fields, unfortunately, is a dishonourable tradition here in Broken Barnet - see here ...

There are large areas of economic deprivation within Barnet -a surprising fact which our council chooses to ignore. Within the least advantaged areas access to good education, healthcare and housing is of course the most restricted: the social problems which occur without opportunities for younger residents to engage in positive activities inevitably lead to anti social behaviour, drug abuse and related problems. Selling off sports grounds, clubs and playing fields will produce a quick profit, but the long term effects of such shameless profiteering will be much more significant.

The brilliant, defiant tone of Danny Boyle's opening Olympic ceremony on Friday touched on an almost forgotten sense of pride, an emotion which has resounded with so many people: a celebration of the history of ordinary people, the achievements in social progress and culture made possible by real struggle, real work, real people. Not the struggle of a game of tennis, or polo, or years of training for a five second win in a race for a medal. Hard work, in hard circumstances, and quiet lives of small successes, large sacrifices and modest ambition.

Ironic, is it not, that it takes a man of Irish Catholic background to remind the British, or arguably the English, of the things which matter so much to us? Or maybe not. Maybe only someone who comes from a culture outside of the English class system could produce such an effective slap in the face for a coalition government run by the privileged elite for the privileged elite.

Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, Dave, and Boris: but then again Jerusalem will be built on England's green and pleasant land - if you and your chums haven't sold it all off for development.

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