The Olympic Conundrum

Ghost Milk, by Iain Sinclair (pp.432, Penguin, £9.99)
Museum Without Walls, by Jonathan Meades (pp.448, Unbound, £20)
Ground Control, by Anna Minton (pp.247, Penguin, £9.99)
The Dirtiest Race in History, by Richard Moore (pp.325, Wisden, £18.99)
The Austerity Olympics, by Janie Hampton (pp.350, Aurum, £8.99)

So, here we are then. London 2012. The Greatest Show On Earth. Or, ‘The entirely despicable, entirely pointless 2012 Olympics – a festival of energy squandering architectural bling worthy of a vain third world dictatorship, a jobbery gravy train, a payday for the construction industry, a covetable terrorist target’, as contrarian Jonathan Meades likes to call it.

Well, which of these descriptions is it? Both? Neither? Or, more likely, something in between? And so what is the sports fan with a social conscience to think? Thankfully, a number of gold medal deserving books have recently hit the shelves to help us make sense of it all.

The great Iain Sinclair leads the way for the naysayers with his 2011 tome Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project – a personal exploration of ‘landscapes ravaged by vanity architectures shaped from smoke and mirrors’. Inside, the Millennium Dome, Wembley Stadium and the Thames Gateway project are all eviscerated, but target number one is the Olympic Games: ‘the scam of scams….warrior-athletes watched, from behind dark glasses, by men in suits and uniforms….the pharmaceutical frontline…the five-hooped golden handcuffs. Smoke rings behind which deals could be done for casinos and mosques and malls.’

The book is dedicated to the memory of the huts of the Manor Garden Allotments, now swept aside to make way for the running and jumping. Sinclair strikes a wistful character as he surveys his beloved ‘wastelands’, side streets and quiet corners of Lea Valley as they morph into super stadia, media rooms and plastic apartments. Villains are easy to come by: New Labour takes a battering, and Lord Coe and David Cameron are the ‘Cardinals of capital strolling through the ruins of a captured city’.

Dizzying, relentless, wildly unrealistic, out-of-time, and in need of a good edit though it is, Ghost Milk stands up as a work of rare brilliance. In fact, its faults are its madcap genius. The prose dazzles, the mixing of high art references and everyday life is adroitly handled, and the book contains more original thought that you could shake a stick at. It is essential reading for anyone yearning for less polished times.

Architecture critic Jonathan Meades is cut from the same cloth as Sinclair. He too is naturally drawn to under-appreciated visions of Britain and has a healthy dislike for any posturing developments. His brilliant new collection of essays, Museum Without Walls, brings together 20 years’ of writings about the way buildings, landscape and culture collide.

The book contains only a few mentions of the Olympics, but his page-long admiring description of the site before the bulldozers moved in ‘…abandoned washing machine drums, squashed feathers, tidal mud, an embanked former railway line, fences made of horizontal planks, fences made of vertical planks, a shoe, vestigial lanes lined with may bushes…’ is the most strangely beautiful and evocative piece you could hope to read about the Games.

If Meades’s and Sinclair’s methods are highly personal, Anna Minton’s Ground Control (republished this year with a new chapter on the Olympics) sticks to a classic journalistic technique: follow the money. This forensically-researched book surveys the gleaming business districts, mega malls and gated developments of modern Britain and argues that this ‘untested urban planning is changing not only our cities, but the nature of public space, of citizenship and of trust’. For Minton, the Olympics represents the ‘high point of the debt-based model of property-fuelled development which played such a large part in bringing the (economic) crisis about.’

Sport barely gets a mention, even in the chapter about the Olympics. She sees the £9.3bn London Games as primarily an opportunity for scheming politicians and on-the-make developers, all getting their fixes through what’s euphemistically called regeneration and legacy. Much of the Olympics is taking place in Newham, where 13 of London’s 15 most deprived wards are situated. Development, say the believers; sheer exploitation, thinks Minton.

Innumerable jaw-dropping examples are provided on how the Olympics has been used as a mask to introduce sweeping changes to the region, all brought in without proper consultation with residents. Community groups that mobilised local support essential to the bid’s success have found themselves victims of a string of broken promises around jobs, education and affordable housing that were given to them by the Games’s fixers.

Minton is particularly strong on housing issues. For example, she tells how within the Olympic Park 11,000 new homes are being built bringing new communities that will not be accountable to local government but will be governed by private companies. A quite startling thought.

Minton impressively navigates the mind-boggling number of quangos and private companies given sweeping powers to ‘get things done’ in time for 2012 and to create as much ‘legacy’ (read money) as possible from what Coe calls the People’s Games. An event that is coming in at over three times the price of what was promised in the 2005 bid. And just 2% of the budget has come from the private sector, despite initial assurances that the public purse would be much less relied upon.

Ground Control is a compelling account of urban degeneration in twenty-first century Britain. It provides eye-opening reading for those wanting to examine the numbers and faceless governance behind the Business Games 2012 running alongside the sporting sideshow.

Richard Moore would seem to be more of a sports fan than the authors of the books above, but he too finds his Olympics story in murkiness. The Dirtiest Race in History is also the greatest race in history: Ben Johnson’s destruction of the field in Seoul 1988, in which six of the eight competitors have since been implicated in drug scandals.

Moore expertly talks up the rivalry between Johnson and Carl Lewis. Johnson, then, as now, the more laidback, he proves an accommodating and engaging interviewee. Lewis, then, as now, is an enigma. Even after his awe-inspiring exploits at the LA Games of ‘84, he remained largely unloved by the US public, and near on despised by US journalists and other athletes. His supposed aloof, calculating, preening personality is to blame for some. Others, not without reason, suggest Lewis’s race and rumours about his sexual orientation played a part.

Moore smartly draws the characters of not just the protagonists, but a cast of bit-part players, such as Joe Douglas, founder of the legendary Santa Monica Track Club. Moore is told of Douglas: ‘You gotta meet Joe: he’ll have a million stories…I mean, I don’t know if you can believe all of them.’ Always good news for both writer and reader.

A cast of intriguing villains is brought forward, including athletics chief Primo Nebiolo, who suppressed news of athletes’ failed drugs tests, and a mystery man in the Seoul drug-testing room who continues to hold a secret.

Cycling journalist Moore smoothly charts the arms race between dopers and testers that began with weightlifters in the 1950s and will continue evermore. Moore is also excellent on the details of competition – the training techniques, the bravado, the drama, as well as the beauty of it all. The source material for this is rich. Johnson’s run, even though we know it was powered by drugs, remains truly astonishing. And Lewis was a perfect specimen – ‘I’ve seen beauty twice, Mike Tyson punching a heavy bag and Carl Lewis running’, says one journalist otherwise known for his antipathy towards the athlete.

The book is written almost like a thriller: the strong characterisation is backed up with twists, turns and builds to ‘that race’ and Moore’s one and only meeting with Lewis. It’s an enthralling story, and one which showcases the magnificent drama of the Olympics, as well as its downright ugly side.

Janie Hampton’s The Austerity Olympics (updated and republished this year) is an altogether more uplifting read, being on-message about the ability of the Games to unite a nation, and even the world. Indeed, Coe provides the foreword. The book is a hugely impressive account of how a war-ravaged London hosted the Olympics in 1948.

Hampton states her book is ‘about the people that made it happen, their lordships on the Organising Committee and the schoolboys who ran messages and handed out cups of tea.’ It seems unlikely Sinclair, Meades or Minton would approve such a quaint approach, but 1948 was a different age, and this is a story that deserves telling in its own way. The capital was a bomb-shattered landscape with rationing of food, clothing and petrol still in place. Yet-to-be-repatriated German prisoners of war were drafted in to build what is now called Wembley Way, athletes were housed in schools, and the GB team’s pre-Games training camp was a week over Easter at Clacton-on-Sea, kindly arranged by Billy Butlin. ‘The 1948 Games were a triumph of bodging and fudging’, as Sinclair says.

By tracking down many of the organisers, competitors and spectators from the Games, as well as copious amounts of library research, Hampton brings to life the characters and circumstances that shaped the 1948 Games.

Inspirational stories are within, not least tales of WWII veterans turned athletes. The British weightlifting team was captained by a former prisoner of war, who weighed just five stone when repatriated. 1948 also saw an early incarnation of what is now the Paralympic Games, held by former servicemen and women with spinal cord injuries.

The Games’s stars included thirty-year-old mother of two Fanny Blankers-Koen, the ‘Czech Locomotive’ Emil Zátopek, and the Turkish wrestlers whose successes resulted in their anthem being played four times in a row. Matt Busby managed a team of amateurs to fourth in the football competition, which he ranked as his best ever achievement.

The Austerity Olympics is a heart-warming read, and it certainly provides food for thought for those who refuse to truly believe in sport’s power to transcend itself.

So, where does this leave us? Certainly, we’re on safe ground taking pot-shots at the undoubtedly ridiculous aspects of the Games, such as the bizarre second-rate football tournament, the over-representation of First World sports, and the impossibility of using any credit card other than the sponsor’s at venues.  But what of the bigger questions posed by the books here? Should we question the Games itself?

‘Are the Olympic Games of today worthwhile? Has big business, nationalism, the win at all costs attitude defeated the original Greek conception? Are they, in short, more of a headache than a pleasure to all concerned?’ That is to ask the same questions as London Calling magazine in 1948.

Even in 1984, Moore tells us that The Times was asking: ‘Will there be another Olympic Games after Los Angeles? There are those that believe that these XXIII Olympics, opening today in front of President Reagan, will prove to have been so bedevilled by political boycott, excessive finance, shameless nationalism, acknowledges professionalism, rampant and undetected drug-taking, security against terrorism, immovable traffic and insufferable smog that future Games will be in jeopardy.’

Well, no doubt, the Games is getting, and will continue to get, bigger, and better, and worse. It’s not going away. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t repeat the questions raised in ‘48 and ‘84 and the new ones being thrown up by the troublesome authors of our heightened times.

For sure, when the Games begin, the TV will come a-callin’ for many of us. It is the ultimate sporting buffet after all. Enjoying the games but questioning, or even opposing, The Games is not a contradictory position, is it? If so, then how does the viewer reconcile this?

To steal a trick from the politicians, developers and dopers, rank hypocrisy would seem to be the only answer.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis