Seizing the Olympic Platform: 6.6 million and counting

This is an edited-down version of a chapter of the same title, published in Vassil Girginov (ed.),Handbook of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Volume Two: Celebrating the Games, London, Routledge, 2013, pp. 239-251.

The piece draws upon research supported by the British Academy’s small grants scheme for my personal research on ‘The construction and mediation of the sporting spectacle in Europe, 1992-2004’.

Dylan Moore, whose observations and experiences form the basis of the ‘seize the day’ section of the piece was studying on the Pembroke/King’s Programme (PKP) at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in July and August 2012. He volunteered written commentary for me after a plenary presentation and debate on the Olympics had sparked a widespread and stimulating debate on the significance of the forthcoming event.

 

London 2012 was the English capital city’s third time playing host to the Summer Olympics. Peter Beck has observed that although there are massive differences in nature, scale and funding between the events of 1908, 1948 and 2012, the three London Games ‘are linked together as key episodes in both British and Olympic history’ (Beck, 2012: 38). In 1908, certainly, the London event changed Olympic history not least by convincing Pierre de Coubertin that neutral judges and umpires were needed in future, given the lack of objectivity and fairness exhibited by the British judges, aiding London’s medal haul; and also by the first-ever march-past of athletes behind their national flags (de Coubertin, 2000: 418 and 424). The 1948 Games were a chance to re-establish international competition, and express a vision of inter-cultural understanding and co-operation following the ravages of World War II. For Beck, London 2012 ‘should be interpreted as helping further to rebuild and strengthen the Olympic movement after the bribery crisis, and particularly to support its efforts to promote new directions like cultural Olympiads legacy’ (p. 38). The Games could also symbolize worldwide the United Kingdom’s capacity to stage a spectacular global event just 4 years after the start of the global economic recession, an economic context wholly unanticipated by the Games bidders of 2005 who pipped Paris at the post for the privilege of staging the 2012 event. In this piece I consider the various ways in which institutions, interests and individuals found ways of ‘seizing the Olympic platform’ (Price, 2008) leading up to, during and after the London 2012 event. 

Politicians

Without doubt the Olympic platform had been seized early and successfully by UK prime minister Tony Blair, who lent his name and position to the bid from the point at which the political decision was made by the Labour government to back the ambitious plan, in line with emerging government policy relating to the staging of international sporting events. The Labour Party’s 1997 General Election manifesto had stated its intent to ‘bring the Olympics and other major sporting events to Britain’. In April 2000 the Labour Government’s strategy A sporting future for all signed up to ‘supporting a viable bid for the Olympic Games; and the Conservative Party had supported a parallel general policy to develop ‘UK bids to host major international sporting events’ in its Blue Paper A future for sport (House of Commons, 2001: 138, para. 23). There was a political consensus of sorts here, and in early 2004 Blair wrote:

Just as England’s World Cup victory last year has led to a tremendous surge of interest in rugby at all levels, so a London Olympics would be an unparalleled boost for sport throughout the UK. By encouraging the young and the not-so-young to take up sport, it would help us produce the champions of the future and, importantly, a healthier and fitter population.

But as well as being a wonderful sporting and cultural festival, the Games would also deliver practical benefits for the capital and the country. They would drive the environmentally-friendly regeneration and rejuvenation of East London, give a huge boost for tourism across the UK, and provide thousands of new opportunities for work and volunteering. (Blair, 2004).

In Backing the Bid (London 2012, undated), ten goals had been targeted. A London Games would:

•Trigger private and public investment in sport

•Improve the nation’s health through doing sport

•Inspire young people to make sport central in life

•Generate business procurement opportunities

•Create 70,000 volunteers 

•Deliver cultural/educational chances to children

•Distribute facilities/equipment to clubs after the event

•Create thousands of new jobs across sectors

•Boost tourism significantly

•Encourage year-long preparation camps for visiting teams

This is a seriously dubious list of aspirations, contradicted by knowledge of previous Olympics, though sufficiently imprecise to ensure that the goals were not measurable. The candidate file was less gung-ho and all-embracing in its ambitions, pointing to four main themes underpinning the vision for the London Games: delivery of the ‘experience of a lifetime’ for the athletes; the leaving of a legacy for sport in Britain; regeneration-related benefits for the community; and support for the Olympic Movement and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself. (Candidate File 2004, Theme 1: 17). There is a more cautious language here, tailored to the expectations of the central actors: the owners of the event, the IOC; and the performing competitors. The community benefits, and the legacy commitments, are rendered in suitably vague terms. At the same time, the ‘Backing the Bid’ Campaign could claim to speak for all Londoners and talk up London’s profile and status as a ‘zone of prestige’, as Newman (2007: 265) has put it in relation to the governance of the city and the representation of its needs. The civic, metropolitan and national governmental interests were coalescing, though, and the political work was done when, after effective prime ministerial lobbying in Singapore before the final vote and an inspiring address at the final video-aided presentation, London got the decision on July 6th 2005. French president Jacques Chirac had arrived in Singapore later than had Blair, showed little interest in canvassing or charming the electorate, and was widely perceived to have undermined Paris’s bid by this haughty style and demeanour.  

The celebrations in London that followed the announcement of London’s triumph were a combination of the staged and the spontaneous, as broadcasters focused upon those able to leave offices and work commitments to wave their union flags and claim the capital’s achievement for the United Kingdom as a whole. The reported euphoria was tragically dissipated the following day, when London buses and tubes were targeted by Islamist suicide terrorists with a death-toll of 52 civilians, as well as four bombers. This left much work to be done to revive the spirit and the promise of the Games, particularly to assuage fears that a public event on the scale of the Olympics would be vulnerable to further terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, Blair continued, in the wake of the Singapore triumph, to confirm his belief that a London Games ‘will be both magical and memorable and will more than do justice to the great Olympic ideals’ (Blair, 2006: xiv). The onset of the global economic crisis in 2008 also made it difficult to anticipate and plan the Games with unbridled optimism; as in any modern case of the Olympics, the costs would keep rising, and be perceptible to criticism at a time when for the majority of the population living standards were falling and public services were facing severe financial cutbacks. The Olympics was looking like a proverbial hot potato, with decreasing numbers of politicians lining up to hitch themselves to the Olympic bandwagon. The position of Mayor of London also changed hands in 2008, when the former Conservative shadow minister and incumbent Member of Parliament for Henley, Boris Johnson, defeated the socialist Ken Livingstone. After his victory, Johnson resigned his parliamentary seat, and one of his earliest high-profile roles was to accept the Olympic flag from Beijing’s Mayor at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Johnson’s celebrity, high-profile and ambition would match the Olympic role well: the Olympics were good for Johnson, and Johnson was good for the Olympics in turn.  

In May 2010 the transfer of power in the UK from the Labour government to a coalition administration led by the Conservatives did not disrupt in any serious way the momentum in the final years of the planning and preparatory phase. Olympic Games are events of such global profile that intra-political rivalries and spats must be transcended as the city and nation co-operate in presenting the country’s image and the national culture to the outside world as well as the domestic population. 

The Olympics offer irresistible opportunities to politicians. After the Olympic Games turned out so well for Team GB, former prime minister Tony Blair and current prime minister David Cameron praised the Games: ‘a spectacular success’ said Blair, in which the Games portrayed a modern, multicultural Britain proud of its diverse culture as well as its heritage and traditions; ‘You only need two words to sum up these Games: Britain delivered’, said Cameron. (Topping, 2012). Cameron also claimed that the Games had brought the UK’s nations closer together, ‘a Britain where English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish compete in one team and drape themselves in one flag’. And perhaps the most enthusiastic voice for the Olympics was the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, championing a London fully immersed for the duration of the Olympics in an inescapable feel-good factor:

Across London there has been a happy maelstrom of parties and celebration … it has been everywhere, and not just in the centre. Yesterday I cycled down the canal towpath to the Olympic Park, through Hackney; and everywhere I looked there were scenes of riparian merriment of the kind you expect to see at the Henley regatta. (Topping, 2012)

Perhaps Johnson was looking here to kickstart an Olympic legacy of privileged partying and word-power. Henley Regatta and its waterside champagne-swilling hedonists and toffs might be Johnson’s personal model for an inclusive public culture. But we learn here more about Johnson’s tastes, upper-class assumptions and privileged background than we do about the meaning and significance of the Olympics to the residents of East London. Populist politician to the core, though, Johnson could pedal himself into the headlines as a prime interpreter of the Games.  

Media markets

The London 2012 Olympic Games and the Paralympics generated incalculable amounts of commentary and opinion in the written and broadcast media as the two events unfolded. The British newspapers sensed a golden moment within a longer trajectory of declining circulation and readership, and milked the burgeoning accumulation of medals for the British team. The BBC’s coverage of the Olympics offered unprecedented levels of access to events as they took place, and in review formats and replay mode throughout the event; a total of 51.9 million people, 90% of the national population, watched at least 15 minutes of the BBC coverage. (BBC, 2012a); this constituted the country’s biggest national television event ‘since current measuring systems began’, outstripping the Queen’s diamond jubilee earlier in the year (69%), her son’s wedding to Kate Middleton the previous year (61%), and the men’s football World Cup of 2002 (81%). Of course figures tell their own methodological stories as well describing social trends, and London 2012 had 17 days during which to accumulate this record figure. The single most watched Olympic event, as has been the pattern for Olympics after Olympics, was the opening ceremony, garnering 27.3 million at its peak, with the closing ceremony a million less; Usain Bolt’s sprint triumph in the men’s 100meter final captivated 20 million Sunday-evening viewers. But it wasn’t just the BBC that was so celebratory about its own Olympic performance.

Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics attracted 37 million people, and the broadcaster claimed an average all-day share of 11.6% for the duration of the Paralympics, 82% higher than its 12-month average share. The opening ceremony of the Paralympics gained a peak audience of 11.2 million viewers (this included Channel 4 + 1 figures), and Jonnie Peacock’s gold medal sprint win set a UK Paralympic audience record figure of 6.3 million.  (Farey-Jones, 2012). The closing ceremony had a peak audience of 7.7 million, an average audience of 5.9 million. (BBC, 2012b). This was less than 10% of the UK population, yet the figures were claimed as not just groundbreaking for the broadcaster, but as values-changing and opinion-shifting for the general public. Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said: ‘I’m delighted that we’ve been able to bring a new audience to the Paralympics and, more importantly, that our coverage has played a part in delivering a lasting legacy in changing people’s perceptions of both disability and disabled sport.’ Creative thinking indeed, with the prediction of a ‘lasting’ legacy and an implied generalized effect beyond just the minority of the population that viewed the event.

Nobody can deny the scale of the London 2012 success, for the broadcasters, the media pundits, the successful British athletes, the smiling punters in the Olympic Park and other venues, the contented volunteers. But at such moments of national celebration there are sets of ignored or marginalized guests: the fans of other nations; the corporate elite who commandeer the best traffic routes and top hotels; the politicians from all over the world invited to the Olympic party regardless of any interest in or proven commitment to sport. At any Olympics the host city and nation throw their neutrality to the winds, beginning with the intent to relay an international message to the world, but soon seduced into a dance of self-congratulation with the rising number of adherents and enthusiasts drawn into the spell of the Olympics and the accompanying ideals and rhetoric.

In the rest of this piece I focus mainly upon the Olympic Games – with some reference to the Paralympics – and pick up the hermeneutic baton to consider how the Olympics have operated as a meaning-making resource, for not just the opportunistic politicians cited above, but for professional sport administrators, sponsoring corporations, and cosmopolitan young adult observers of selected events at the London 2012 Games.  The Games are a phenomenon of such scale that any comprehensive analysis of all of its aspects is close to impossible. Typically, critical scholars – as opposed to uncritical apologists and celebrants – have focused upon the documented mission of the IOC and those to whom it has delegated event-staging authority, revealing the rhetoric underlying the self-proclaimed Olympic movement; and have illuminated the patterns and recurrent themes underlying the ritual and the ceremonies that have sustained the messages and the stated ideals of Olympism. Huge amounts of useful work have informed us of the ways in which the different spheres of the national and international media have reported on the Olympics, and in this and complementary ethnographic work scholars have shown the contradictions between the increasingly intense nationalism that fuels individual nations’ commitment to the Olympics, and the claimed universalism of the Olympic message and project. Accomplishing this, critical scholars have, aided by an array of methodological, conceptual and analytical skills, avoided simply regurgitating the message of Olympic ideologues, idealists, apologists and enthusiasts.

But how are insights into particular aspects of the phenomenon to be brought together into a holistic, integrated, synthesized understanding of the overall meaning and significance of the Olympic phenomenon? [i] Just sit back and consider the range of dimensions and elements that make up the Olympic story and its contemporary global profile. For London 2012 there were 6.6 million seats available for the Games, stimulating 1.8 million people to request more than 20 million tickets between them. (Allen and McEvoy, 2011). We cannot know what the Games have meant to that multitude of participants. But we can look more closely at the major agents or actors in the event-making process and ask what it has meant to them, and examine their claims and their assessments as to the meaning and significance of the Games; and ask visitors to London what were the experiential and interpretive highlights of the events that they attended.

Games Makers: Coe and Co

Lord (Sebastian) Coe talked of his ‘seismic moment’ of the Games. It was not a Mo Farrah victory or a Usain Bolt dash and gesture of triumph. It was his encounter with a medical doctor on the tube. Coe told this story at the closing of the Paralympic Games. He was approached by Dr Andrew Hartle, a gamesmaker/volunteer attired in purple en route to serve in the volunteer medical team at boxing. Dr Hartle had tended some of the injured and dying at the St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington after the 7/7 bombings following the day of Coe’s bidding triumph in Singapore.  ‘For me, this is closure … I saw the worst of mankind that morning, and now I’ve seen the best’, Coe reported the doctor to have said. Coe gave a second example in this speech. Emily, a gamesmaker at wheelchair basketball, told him how the paralympic competition had ‘lifted the cloud of limitations’. He thanked too all the participants and all the volunteers for their ‘unbridled sprit’, and stated that ‘we will never think of sport the same way, and we will never think of disability the same way’.

‘London 2012: Made in Britain’ was Coe’s assessment, combining sentimentality and patriotism in an all-embracing thank-you from London to the rest of the nation. The Olympic show could now move on, challenging Rio to match the welcome, organization and accomplishment of London.

Corporate Games

In the first days of the Games in particular, rows of empty seats at venues sparked controversy. Whose were these seats? Why were tickets allocated to people with other things on their mind? The debate and comment led inevitably to those core actors in the Olympic story, the sponsors, as well as the sports administrators who were allocated tickets through their national federations. The eleven worldwide sponsors, the elite category of Olympic sponsor, each pays around £64million to the IOC for its sponsorship of an Olympic cycle. They are Coca Cola, Acer, Atos, GE, Dow, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, P&G, Samsung, and Visa. As rows upon rows of Wimbledon, the Aquatics centre and other venue seats were empty in the first week, Sebastian Coe and others threatened to name and shame these beneficiaries of Olympic partnership so ready to absent themselves from the Olympic party. Sponsors defended themselves against these charges, and the venues began to be filled as the momentum of the Games gathered speed, though not necessarily with corporate representatives and their guests, but thanks largely to LOCOG’s ad hoc free tickets programme – Key Seats – which called upon London colleges and universities to supply bodies. But the issue remains. The sponsors are a major actor in making the Games happen, and what they want is privileges and profile. Eight per cent of all Olympic tickets are allocated to Olympic partners/sponsors, with the top sponsors at the forefront of these recipients. A parallel universe of commercial activity goes on behind the scenes at the Olympics, and the top sponsors seek their money’s worth in access to the events, guarantees of the best accommodation, VIP routes through the city, as well as exclusive branding and retailing rights within the venues. And there might be so much going on that there will be little time to get to the events themselves. The sponsors measure their results by marketing reach and brand awareness, not the attendance of their employees and representatives at a marginal tennis encounter between unknowns on a grey weekday afternoon in suburban south-west London.

Christopher Ketsuleres is director of Olympic marketing and sport for GE (General Electric), one of the eleven worldwide partners. He recalled, at the end of August 2012, the benefits of Olympic sponsorship, attributing $1billion, in sales ‘tied to the Games’, to the past 4 (Summer and Winter) Olympics, after becoming an Olympic sponsor in 2006, and renewing in 2011 right through to 2020 (Hula, 2012). His highlight of the London Ggames was the relighting of Tower Bridge, around 40% down in energy demand thanks to GE’s LED lightbulbs. The Olympic Village Polyclinic was equipped with GE medical imaging. Ketsuleres boasted the IOC’s most diverse sponsorship category, GE providing technology from lightbulbs to locomotion and aircraft engines. Branding opportunities were everywhere. We’ve ‘been able to work with some of our customers to brand the locomotives with the Olympic Rings, same with our aviation business. Ketsuleres noted that retail partners ‘were easily getting their arms around what the opportunity was’, and also that the Games have unified GE itself as a business. The London 2012 operation was based in a works centre next to King’s Cross, and the ‘commercial engagement standpoint is translatable to any other project’. The Winter Games of 2014 in Sochi, Russia, were also by now offering the company commercial benefits, with GE already having installed two gas turbines ‘as part of its activation’, and Rio 2016’s mayor’s office established as an active partner four years ahead of the next Summer Games, jointly assessing needs, projects and solutions with GE. Ketsureles reaffirmed his company’s commitment and work ethic:

We’ve got a team place in Sochi, we’re going to meet the PyeongChang team here in London for the first time, we’re ready to start and have been engaged with Russia and Brazil for two years.

No wonder there were empty seats at some of the less glamorous encounters in the Olympic calendar. GE was setting the pace and there was too much to be done to be bothered with watching the sporting action.  

London 2012: seize the day

Here, I present a selected visitor perspective on what London meant to one young visitor to London and the UK during the Games. [ii] The politicians, performers/competitors, media commentators and pundits have their chance to seize the platform in the Olympic schedule and calendar; and at London 2012 the volunteers were regularly – soon to be predictably and routinely – thanked for the atmosphere they are said to have done so much to generate and create.  The promotional culture of contemporary sporting spectacle is such that the slightest slip of foot or tongue can generate countless headlines, and so the spotlight is kept on the performer or the organizer. News values concentrate understandably and predictably on the sensational, the glamorous, the controversial. Indeed, BBC Director of Sport Barbara Slater commented in the week before London 2012 that she did not believe that sport was in itself the core attraction of the Olympics for many viewers; rather, sport was rendered especially interesting and conducive to blanket coverage in the media by its capacity to generate not just sporting narratives, but limitless stories of human interest. Sport offers, she said, ‘so many fantastic human interest stories that actually stretch beyond sport’, giving us ‘a desire to get to know the competitors … who they are, what their personalities are’; we ‘want to go on that journey with them’   (BBC, 2012c). In this sense every competitor is a potential story, fuelling the insatiable appetite and intercultural curiosity of the growing public for the background tales of hard work and success, crisis and comeback, cultural deprivation and sporting salvation. There are countless extras seizing in part the Olympic stage, creating a cast of thousands; but if we think for a moment about the people finding time and money to be in the stadium and the velodrome, and other Olympic sites and venues, what of their story? What does the beach volleyball look like to a young Californian male?

How does the experience of being there fit with the far from common ideologies and values that characterize the Olympics and the visitors’ own national identities?       

 

Dylan Moore (in his own words)

Being in England, based in Cambridge and so close to east London, offered me the chance to get to a selection of events at London 2012 Olympic Games: preliminary beach volleyball, the final swimming session, and the men’s bronze medal football match in Cardiff.

It was hardly California, my home university being Berkeley, so the beach volleyball match in the centre of the city was both oddity and attraction. Not knowing what to expect as far as crowds, delays on the Underground, and other everyday logistics were concerned, we headed to the venue with plenty of time to spare: Horse Guard's Parade for men's and women's beach volleyball, sandwiched between the city’s central St. James’s Park and the impressive structure of the UK’s Foreign Office. My friend and I had been in London the weekend before, so we had an idea of what a more routine weekend crowd looked like.  To us, the street didn’t really look very different.  Likely, Londoners avoided the city, and those not interested in the Olympics visited at other times.  There was plenty of crowd control and volunteers were on hand to help lost spectators; these volunteers, helpful without being pushy, polite without sounding overtrained, made a great contribution to the day, and the Games, more generally, setting an upbeat, welcoming and optimistic tone and so framing the events for all as an enjoyable experience. It was a spectacular space in the heart of the city, and the matches were great fun.  However, it was clear that many seats had been left unused, unappreciated privileges of corporate sponsors or Olympic families.  This was very disappointing, countering the spirit of the Olympics, as without doubt there would have been plenty of students like myself who would have loved the chance to attend an event – the element of just being there is a big dimension of top-level sport and mega-events such as these. It’s not just about making money; the Olympics are an event for the world to see, not just those with enough money to purchase a block of tickets. Maybe the corporate sponsors should look to more philanthropic initiatives, and give unwanted tickets away to students or schoolchildren. Of those there, though, there was strong support – boisterously and vociferously expressed – for Team GB, and that was a lot of fun to be a part of, rooting for rank outsiders on the home territory of the team.

My own patriotic emotions were saved for the final session of the men’s and women’s swimming at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park. It was a prime ticket, delivering Michael Phelps’s last Olympic swim, and the stadium was full to the brim. I was surprised however that a lot of the crowd left and did not watch the final medal ceremonies, where the US won gold in both events.  As an American, I of course stayed, but I was surprised by the lack of support for non-GB teams. I have always thought that the Olympics were about countries coming together in competition, often in intense rivalry but also in support of each other’s participation and contribution. Perhaps for a host city that is not in the USA or China there is a general frustration with American and Chinese dominance of the medal table. The USA is certainly close to obsessed with beating China in the medal count, and China is no doubt similarly motivated, having topped the gold-medal table at Beijing in 2008. So perhaps overall sportsmanship suffers; there may have been no empty seats if a Team GB swimmer was climbing the podium, or maybe disappointed non-Brits would have diminished the crowd.  We look to the Games as an idealized version of international understanding, a symbol worldwide of co-operation and mutual respect between cultures and nations. But we feel them as national citizens, and in this sense the Olympics have become an expression of political interests and values.

My third Olympic event of August 2012 was the men’s bronze medal football match in Cardiff, Wales.  For such a city to be able to host an event is an economic boon.  Restaurants and hotels were packed to capacity.  However, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium was not as well organized as London venues had been.  And again, I was a little disappointed by the turnout at this match, as there were a lot of empty seats, and the London 2012 website did not sell tickets in the last few days before the match, saying that tickets ‘may’ be available at the venue for pickup.  This was an issue for many people; why make a trip to Cardiff, with no guarantee that tickets would be available.  This could have been handled more appropriately, administered with much more clarity and efficiency. I was with a group of students many of whom had not planned ahead to go to the game, but once in the area would have gone given the opportunity. This was both lost revenue for the game, and a sign that away from London, the administration wasn’t quite up to expectations.

While there may not be obvious quantifiable economic benefits to hosting the Games, it is clear  – at least from the London example – that the Olympics are a tremendous source of pride for the city. The support for Team GB’s beach volleyball team play was amazing, and helped the team pull through against a Canadian team widely perceived as vastly superior. It’s clear then that special moments of collective achievement can fuel expressions of national pride. The Summer Olympics work best too in a world-renowned city, and London has the appropriate infrastructure to host such large-scale event. That Britain’s performance in the Games was so strong ensured that the whole of the UK seemed to light up every time that Team GB won a medal. Well, it seemed like that to me in my time in Cambridge, and my observations of the British media. All in all, it was a wonderful experience to be in England at that time, and I am very glad that I have been a part – however miniscule – of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Dylan’s voice celebrates London 2012, but with precise observational focus and different ideological foci to others from his Cambridge group, who prioritized their own national backgrounds, from Korea, China, or Malaysia. He also questions, in terms of Olympic ideas and values, the lack of respect shown by spectators to victorious Olympians, so conveying the inbuilt tension in international elite sport between respect for all competitors and the emotional attachment to the fortunes of a compatriot.

Seizing and Re-making: Concluding Thoughts

John MacAloon observed 20 years before the London 2012 Games that:

In Olympic studies, it is simply absurd to think that one researcher, or one national or regional center, or one discipline could have anything truly scientific to say about the Olympic system as a whole, that is, about a phenomenon encompassing or intruding upon or constituted within 170 national cultures and uncountable sub-national cultures. (MacAloon, 1992: 22)

The implication here is that there is no single, neatly accessible Olympic system, movement, or games, but many culturally varied manifestations of the phenomenon of the Olympics, and of the various elements that constitute it as a ‘system’; following MacAloon’s logic, any attempt to theorize the Olympics in any overarching fashion will therefore be flawed, maybe at best partial. And if anything, with the expansion of the Olympic ‘family’ to 204 nations, countries or territories, the interpretive task has magnified in complexity. Michael Silk (2012: 734) makes the simple but central point that ‘different groups will experience the Games, and be impacted by them, in different ways’. Electronic media or the written press may be your main source, he adds, and that is a different experience from being at the event. Athletes, volunteers, and displaced former residents are other categories of subject said by Silk to experience, and interpret, the Games in hugely different ways. All of these seize the platform in different ways, and for different ends. What, then, holds the expansive Olympic edifice together? How can such an array of cultural, political, and economic interests and values produce a coherent whole?

An hermeneutics of everyday life is vital to any remotely comprehensive theoretical framing of the Olympic Games. That is why the voices of the politicians, administrators, competitors, spectators, media consumers, broadcasters, sponsors, and visitors must be heard. They were all there, or thereabouts, and every single opinion, experience, interpretation and emotion can lay claim to equal validity. But of course the methodological logic of this point can stretch interpretation to breaking point; even if we knew the millions of experiences and emotions that constituted the entity London 2012, how could we make overall sense of it? If we add too the extraordinary scale of ‘real-time’ communication flow through social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, mobile apps) to websites and e-mail updates, fans are consuming, interpreting, contributing to the meaning of the Games in unprecedented volume; ‘London 2012 was dubbed the Socialympics. There were 306 billion items shared on the internet during the 17 days of the Games’ (arnoldimcpherson, 2012: 1). In this blinding blitz of information exchange, the interpretive task is to represent the main ways in which we come to understand the Games, and the cycles of interpretation and experience whereby we come in our different ways to give particular levels of meaning and significance to the Games. No Games are exactly the same; but all Games are comparable in their formal and informal rituals. They appeal to the highest ideals within sporting competition, yet generate in the science of doping the most sophisticated forms of cheating and deceit in the history of sport. Every Olympic Games is what I have called elsewhere (Tomlinson, 2005) a form of necessary arrogation, a form of appropriation in that the messages of Olympism are interpreted anew according to the interests and priorities of the host city. It is an illegitimate yet utterly acceptable process, in which the pseudo-universal ideals of Olympism are sustained alongside a recognition that the Olympic ideals are continually in the remaking. The IOC introduced environmentalism in the early 1990s, emphasized legacy in the last couple of decades, targeted Generation Y for the Winter Olympics, renamed the key Olympic values in mid-2000s, and has played recurrently with the notion of the Olympic Movement. The IOC itself therefore has performed acts of reinterpretation of the purportedly sacrosanct Olympic ideals. The modern Olympics could not survive without these cases of necessary arrogation. In this process of constant remaking and contestation a Games such as Beijing, conceived as Monroe Price puts it as ‘spectacular, superlative, outsized’, has no ‘one strong unified message’ but becomes ‘polyphonic, multivoiced, many themed’ (Price, 2008: 2). Such processes are inevitably bound up with the particular ideological interests of key political and economic actors and institutions, and the ultimate meaning of an Olympic Games will depend upon how those interests do or do not coalesce with the expectations, experiences and interpretations of all the participants from athlete to administrator, spectator to viewer, volunteer to displaced resident.

Throughout its modern history the Olympics have represented a global platform to which various parties have been attracted for the possibility of the publicity and the profile that it can provide. This has been done collectively by nations, in the heart of the Cold War rivalries between the USA and the Soviet Union; and in individual acts of political resistance, whether this be Mohammed Ali throwing away his Olympic gold medal; or Tommie Smith and John Carlos making the famous clench-fisted black-gloved salute on the podium at Mexico City in 1968; or the disruption of Olympic ritual in the name of political causes, as was demonstrated by anti-China protesters during the torch relay preceding the Beijing 2008 Games (Rowe and McKay, 2012). How we experience and interpret the Olympics can counter the official rhetoric and ideology of the event. If we disapprove of the monopoly of the sponsors in the Olympic Park and the stadium we can keep our money and credit cards in our pockets. But the power of organized commerce and the pull of the spectacular will usually render such acts relatively inconsequential. There is an emerging critical analysis of anti-Olympic protest (Lensjky, 2000; Sadd, 2013), and at London 2012, Boykoff and Fussey (2013) identified a persisting dance between security forces and activists jockeying for position in the public sphere.     

What, then, are the ideologies and interests that really shape the making and framing of the Games? It is not appropriate – indeed borders on the boring – to pitch the phenomenological against the structural in seeking an overall understanding. A proper grasp of a cultural phenomenon such as the Olympics must recognize the validity of experience of the lifeworlds of all participants, in the context of the power wielded in privileged positions by actors and institutions able to seize the public platforms of the Games. A truly effective sociology of Olympism and its place in public culture, state ideologies, and commodity-based consumption will explore in a more sustained and integrated fashion than has hitherto been the case the relations between the everyday and the elite, the powerful and the powerless, in what is an intriguingly persistent co-production of a unique cultural phenomenon.

 

References

Allen, V. and McEvoy, J. (2011) ‘The 13m Olympic losers: Most sports sold out for London 2012 Games after surge in demand for tickets’, Mail Online, 28th April. Online. Available HTTP:< http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1381223/London-2012-Olympics-20m-tickets-sold-actually-see.html>(accessed 10th March 2013).

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