The problem with the Olympics

As so often, the entry of the state into a "common endeavour" has turned it from a limited scope ideal to which individuals attach themselves at private expense into a huge state subsidised idealistic parade onto which, inevitably, an over-supply of must-have items are attached; weird sports, arts, culture and infrastructure are now all elements of this over-expensive extravaganza. Along the way, equity in access to all sport, to funding and to other forms of cultural participation disappear with tax funding being extracted from some groups to pay the Olympic monster. The whole thing becomes an appallingly expensive re-distributive mess.

How much better to have a far smaller event, sponsored privately, released by its very smallness to be a premier athletics event without political content? Those who were interested would still know who the best athletes in the world are; those who were not could use their money for diverse benefits unknown in the extended spontaneous order of the wider world. The beige of the rows and ranks of our state sponsored Olympians would be replaced by individuals with personal colour made bright by their own efforts to obtain excellence at no cost to the rest of us.


While the proximate cause for the rising distaste for the Beijing Olympics is the way that China treats Tibet, I think there’s something else. My local market stallholder expressed it the other day as "all those Chinese in rows and ranks of uniforms – makes me shiver".

What he pictured was an old cliché of Maoist uniformity. I rather liked the “rows and ranks" which I think was expressed tautologically, but actually captured the sinister uniformity and hierarchical inequality of communist China rather well. Today, the cultural mores of post Mao capitalistic China are quite different, with the creative chaos of Western clothes and accessories prevalent. But he did bring back to me the scene when London’s 2012 Olympics were announced. The British delegation leapt in delight and hugged and wept, but what struck me then was the contrast of their individual abandon with their corporate uniformity. If my memory serves me right they were all uniformly dressed in formal business suits in a rather drab beige.

For me, this is the lurking cultural mistake behind the Olympics. Sports people suffer from some of the blind intensity of totalitarians. Sure, they celebrate excellence, but it is not a spontaneous excellence, rather a planned excellence that is generated by a rigorous collective effort. This deliberate construction of performance has strong echoes to the way it is achieved through the controlled statist methods of the communist regime. As such, it becomes culturally unreal, a freak show that ordinary mortals see through.

All over Britain teenagers – most between 15 and 20 - are being recruited into our Olympic effort for 2012. These half-formed athletes will be sponsored and trained up to excel on our behalf in the Stratford wasteland. What a contrast with the ideal of individual self-discovered excellence – spontaneous achievement by those who take part because they have found that they can excel. [Click read more to continue]