I can’t think of the Olympics without picturing clean-pressed Tory puppet Sebastian Coe (ever the Daddy’s Boy rival to Steve Ovett’s George Bestian waywardness) meeting and greeting all the sponsors and their hangers-on that have turned the Games into little more than a mammoth marketplace. Especially since most of the companies are, at root, promoting some combination of ill-health, toxicity, child labour and obesity, all of them desperate to be associated with the super-fit glow of all those incredible athletes.
But this rant isn’t about the athletes. I love athletics, love watching those who are the best runners, jumpers and throwers in the world. I painted marks on the outside wall of our house to show the world long jump record. Try it – measure out 29 feet 4 inches and imagine someone leaping that far. I’ll be watching the London Olympics in the hope of seeing such a spectacle, such a display of the absolute limits of what humans can do.
But let’s be honest and admit that, despite the sterling efforts of Seb Coe and his BP and Coca-Cola chums, these Games are nothing to do with some mythical worldwide sporting community and all about the fastest, highest and furthest way of making money.
I’m a runner. I run in forests, on hills, in fields and up and down mountains. I never run on roads – I gave up road running in an attempt to reconnect with the earth, reconnect with something more honest and real than traffic cones and expensive watches, than fixed distances and corporate-logo freebies. And I was fed up of over-use and stress injuries; we’re not built to run on pavements, frankly. In ‘wild’ running I rediscovered the joy of adventuring, playing, falling; choosing my own routes, getting lost, embracing the elements. Elemental. That’s the word. What we did as kids, playing, running for fun, enjoying mud and rain, skidding and sliding around.
This childish joy in nature, and in the very nature of our in-built desire to run, jump, swim, cycle and throw, has long since been taken over by multi-billion pound industries who turn such things into cordoned-off, entry-fee, elitist sell-a-thons. The Olympics is without doubt the most obscenely contradictory of all sporting spectacles.
This childish joy in nature, and in the very nature of our in-built desire to run, jump, swim, cycle and throw, has long since been taken over by multi-billion pound industries who turn such things into cordoned-off, entry-fee, elitist sell-a-thons.
Going out for a run should be just that, going out – getting away, finding a path or trail that leads up, down, this way and that way, away from the humming, buzzing din of commerce. Away from that war-torn backdrop to the fast-food, oil-drilling, top-heavy, ear-splitting racket of the Big Sell. That’s what the Olympics sounds like to me – a cacophony of advertising that all but obscures the purity and simplicity of personal human achievement.
Much of running’s sparsely written history begins with tales from ad-hoc and localised racing, not from organized track racing; village traditions involving all the adult menfolk, often naked, racing to a hilltop beacon and back again, for the prize of a slaughtered pig. Or long-distance runners in Victorian times racing ‘fifty furlongs and five’ over unploughed fields against leather-booted toffs on horseback. There’s a rich history of necessary and imperative long-distance cross-country running, as recorded everywhere from painted cave walls to Greek vases; from hunting on foot to epic runs made by messengers to deliver news; and to the continuing tradition of running in Africa (where even today children can run long distances for food, water and education. A South African proverb says: ‘Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it.’) There’s relatively little of this history written down, and the real embroidery of derring-do started in earnest when modern Olympians began swaying and stumbling around a measured cinder track, fatigued from exhaustion but able to breast the tape before the rest. Suddenly running became spectacle and performance, enclosed and theatrical.
The Games have thrown up some great stories, of course, though my favourite Olympic stories are not really about the Olympics at all. Jesse Owens’ performances in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the black sprinter who not only refused to give Adolf Hitler the Nazi salute but had the speed and determination to win four gold medals, are a landmark in the historical and political power of sport, not only at the Olympics themselves but afterwards, at home in America. Owens, despite being snubbed by Hitler (the Führer commenting later that ‘people whose antecedents had come from the jungle, and thus had stronger physiques, should be excluded from future games’) was remarkably even-handed about the whole affair, commenting that, ‘Hitler didn't snub me – it was President Roosevelt who snubbed me. The President didn't even send me a telegram.’ Back in the segregated USA, at his homecoming welcome on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Owens was forced to ride the servants’ elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to reach the reception being given in his honour; neither Roosevelt nor following president Harry S. Truman ever publicly acknowledged his successes.
The modern Olympic Games were always part of a much broader context than simply athleticism; from the beginning, they were used as diplomatic gatherings and political showcases. The Olympic myth – that the Games were a way of encouraging the suspension of hostilities between warring nations – hid a background of political and armed intervention. Despite the success of the first Games in 1896, they were marred by animosity between Pierre de Coubertin (founder of the Olympics) and the Greek royal family. The die was cast and the history of the Games is one of snubs, boycotts, bribery and wholesale cheating. Despite this, the aura of athletic health is still powerful enough to entice all the corporations who produce distinctly unathletic, unhealthy products to race each other for Olympics advertising space.
The history of the Games is one of snubs, boycotts, bribery and wholesale cheating. Despite this, the aura of athletic health is still powerful enough to entice all the corporations who produce distinctly unathletic, unhealthy products to race each other for Olympics advertising space.
BP, they of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are one of the 2012 London Olympics’ biggest sponsors, with a deal valued at $58 million. Sebastian Coe said, in response to questions about the sponsorship following the humanitarian disaster, ‘The partnership is still really strong. BP’s track record is one of the best. They understand the movement behind the games.’
That is, a movement under the protection of the International Olympic Committee, or what The Progressive magazine refers to as ‘that sewing circle of monarchists, extortionists, and absolved fascists’. The Olympics – while being a showcase for some of the best athletes in the world – is primarily a rolling advertisement for corporate sponsors, financial movers and political shakers. The ‘movement’ was long since dislocated from its own blandly worded code of ethics, just as we accept the gradual disassociation of organized sport from its simple origins.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the noun ‘sport’ as an ‘activity engaged in for relaxation and amusement’. And that’s what wild running in part attempts to do: celebrate sport as ‘amusement’. Fun. A sport not peppered with petro-chemical logos, not fronted by smiling politicians. A sport that roots itself not in profit and power but in the earth. There are times when I stop during a run – not a get-my-breath-back stop but a lungs-full-gulping-it-all-in stop – just to measure my place in the landscape. The hugeness of it all, and how I’m a part of it, my mucky legs connecting to the ground as if they were shoots growing up from it. Nan Shepherd calls it ‘walking the flesh transparent’, becoming truly part of your surroundings, body and earth one big jumble of life. Running through this experience fuels both my cynicism of organized, big-money sport and my joy and delight in the simplest, most natural of pleasures – that is, running off the roads and streets, finding my own trails and paths, creating my own adventure that’s not sold to me as a Spectacle; an adventure without the corporate torch-carrying bluster, and an adventure that is truly my own.
Boff Whalley is the author of Run Wild
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