Standing up for Olympic Spirit

Friday’s Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games was a vivid blend of colour, sound and British humour that has got people talking. It might not be for everyone, but it has certainly shifted the general mood of scepticism around London 2012 to one of celebration. It serves as a reminder of the power the arts and sport have to create a space to bring people together. At school, I was consistently picked last for teams (and to be honest, I understand why!) but despite this, I do recognise the potential for sport to promote values of fair play and unify otherwise disparate groups. At the end of last year, I found myself playing football in South Africa with some teenage boys, and my inability to play football actually helped to bring us together, with my incompetence being the butt of many jokes!

This ethos of the games, a sort of ‘Olympic Spirit’ is expressed in the Olympic Values. These values were created by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Olympic Movement. De Coubertin’s Olympic values were:

  • respect – fair play; knowing one’s own limits; and taking care of one’s health and the environment
  • excellence – how to give the best of oneself, on the field of play or in life; taking part; and progressing according to one’s own objectives
  • friendship – how, through sport, to understand each other despite any difference

When the run up to the games was primarily concerned with infrastructure, funding and corporate interests, it is interesting to note that the games itself is, in theory, the expression of a movement. This has the potential to shift our perception of the games in quite a decisive way. Like any social movement, a commitment to agreed, fundamental values is essential. Also, the expression of those values must come through collective activity and shared behaviours. Without these aspects, the term ‘movement’ becomes meaningless because it is, in effect, motionless. (You need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.) It is easy to identify these values in the aspirations of of athletes, with many overcoming adversity to even attend London 2012. For example, Haiti have sent 6 athletes to compete, despite the country still being in a state of instability.

If the notion of the games being an expression of a movement is to be meaningful, then the internal structure of the games should reflect the structure of the movement at large. If underlying values become negotiable or flexible, then the definition of the larger movement, and its collective power, is diluted. The particular sports included in the games, the number of countries involved and the exact number of fireworks can, and do, vary from event to event. If the actual sports can change and not undermine the identity of the movement, then it emphasises the significance of having consistent values. And of course, values are intangible until they find expression in human activity.

My concern, along with others, is that these values were, and are, under threat. Commercial interests have come into the foreground with their own values that are not thoroughly ‘Olympic’. BP, the sustainability partner, have committed acts of environmental damage, most notably in the Gulf of Mexico. Dow Chemical are sponsor of the Olympics and Paralympics, and are liable for the Bhopal Gas Disaster where the local water supply has been left contaminated. And Adidas, the main clothing sponsor, have workers around the world that are often paid as little as 34p an hour and lack job security and safety at work.

However, it can be argued that these are legitimate issues but that the Olympics is an example of where these companies are using their money for public good. Some would counter this, suggesting that they merely use the Olympics as a distraction from poor  working practices. Or, it can be argued that now, during the games themselves, it is best to focus on the positive aspects of the event, the unity and co-operation of the teams of athletes. Again, some would counter this, arguing that the majority of spectators can’t participate in this unity, excluded by overpriced tickets. These debates are ongoing…

Depending on your knowledge of the issues, your background and, to some extent, political view, you will sympathise with some of these arguments more than others. I personally take issue with BP’s ethical values, while others do not. The same is true of Dow and Adidas. Many are opposed to corporate sponsorship of the games completely and take a strongly anti-capitalist stance. However, the issue need not be so politically coloured but more empirical. BP have perpetrated environmental damage and have not yet fully satisfied those affected that they have dealt effectively with that damage. Dow and Adidas, in statements and through a lack of dialogue on these issues, consistently overlook the values of respect and fairness.

Respect and fairness are basic liberal values accepted in liberal democracies (which the UK, US and many countries claim to be). Therefore, respect and fairness are not necessarily divisive terms, in relation to ‘left’ and ‘right’ on the spectrum of contemporary politics. In an evaluation of attitudes and values, those being demonstrated by these sponsors do not correlate with those of the movement at this point in time. It is impossible to remove politics from this discussion because values are  inherently political. But we need not even consult our own opinion or political values to identify that there is a disconnect between the politics that the Modern Olympic Movement freely selected for itself and those of many of the sponsors.

On Saturday, the Counter Olympics Network hosted a protest in Mile End in the East End of London. There were a range of interests and issues being represented but there was a general consensus around fairness, respect and friendship. As a protest, it represents a form of dissent or disagreement with the Olympics as expressed in ‘London 2012’ but not the Olympic values themselves. As a peaceful protest, it both demonstrated, and campaigned for, a genuine Olympic spirit. As John McDonnell MP said in the subsequent speeches, ‘They [BP, Dow and Adidas] are dragging our Olympic dream into the gutter…’

The magnitude of some of these issues and their associated controversy often makes it difficult to have a clear debate – positions can quickly become polarised. But I have been reassured in the last 48 hours, perhaps just slightly. Frank Cottrell Boyce, the script-writer for the opening ceremony, has shared his experience of putting together the performance with Danny Boyle in a blog entitled London 2012: opening ceremony saw all are mad dreams come true. Frank invested in the opening ceremony vivid symbols of Olympic values from Britain’s history. But this symbolic expression is underpinned by his commitment to the Olympic values in a more direct way, writing:

With reality comes responsibility. Pretty well everyone feels some reservation about the Games – the money, the missiles, the McDonald’s. For me, the issue was Dow’s sponsorship of the stadium wrap. Dow are – to use a value-neutral word – connected to the terrible Bhopal disaster. Whatever the legal position, it was insensitive and tawdry to take their money.

Consequently, Danny Boyle met with Sebastian Coe, who then set up a meeting between LOCOG’s lawyers and Amnesty. Perhaps it was too late in the day but definitely a step in the right direction. However, it demonstrates the courage of those who are at the heart of the games to speak truth to power, which is often easier said than done. On Sunday, Frank issued a political invitation to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Dow and the IOC, calling it The Dangerous Conversation. He proposes that the games offers the opportunity for a creating a neutral space, where meaningful conversations can happen on a level playing field. (That pun was very much intended!) Maybe it is too aspirational and optimistic, but there is something powerful about overriding the cloying aspects of corporate sponsorship through instigating a conversation which symbolically disarms. And it’s not hard. The Occupy Movement has clearly demonstrated the ability to sit down with a range of ideas and viewpoints represented and find consensus, wherever you happen to be.

So, if Boris Johnson is right and it is time to get on with celebrating London 2012, it is also time to rediscover and celebrate Olympic spirit more strongly than before. Paradoxically, this means standing firm for the values of the movement so that the sport emerges from a foundation of fair play, respect and integrity. It means talking more, and not less, about the behaviours we wish to challenge. On the face of it, ‘standing firm’ may seem like promoting negativity and dissent. However, demonstrating respect through competition, speaking out in protest at injustice and celebrating cultural values in the arts are all necessary, affirmative expressions of an Olympic spirit. To have scripted the opening ceremony celebrating, among other things, the Suffragette movement, and then continue to outline the injustice perpetrated by Dow in an original way – that, for me, is Olympic spirit…

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