Sporting events should not be exploited for political purposes
by Olivia Rudgard
I watch the boat race with my family every year. My dad is an Oxford alumnus, so we have a vested interest, but it’s more than that.
When Wimbledon is running it’s always on our TV, a comforting presence in the background as we work or revise. We went to see the Commonwealth Games when they were inManchester, and now we’re going to see the Olympics in August. And very excited we are too.
So the collective distress when a swimmer disrupted this year’s boat race was pretty significant. We had been robbed, of a spectacle, an event, a great sporting contest. It’s an occasion that marks the passing of each year, like the Wimbledon final, or the Doctor Who Christmas special, or New Year fireworks on theThames. And I’m pretty sure we weren’t alone.
And if that’s how the spectators felt, what about the rowers themselves? They had trained for months on end, enduring long sessions in the gym and on the river, with one date and one event pushing them on. To go through that and lose fair and square is devastating enough; to be robbed of a fair contest by an ‘anti-elite’ protester renders all of their effort completely futile.
And so to the swimmer himself. His actions are not unprecedented; remember that guy who got in Paula Radcliffe’s way at the end of the London marathon? A million streakers have been there before him.
But what is worrying about his actions is that they have the potential to inspire others. Trenton Oldfield is a political ‘protester’ and says that his swim was ‘an act of civil disobedience’. He encourages others to follow in his footsteps to disrupt Olympic events.
I’m not going to link to his blog, because I don’t want to drive traffic there. Safe to say it can best be described as a ‘rant’, full of angry diatribes against elitism in our country. He never really defines what he means by elitism; as a public school educated, LSE graduate he is arguably the product of it himself.
What is clear is that he sees the boat race as a manifestation of elitism. Its path down the Thames past royal residences and political landmarks apparently marks it out as an ‘elite’ event. He does not, however, tackle the more thorny (and more relevant) issue; the participants themselves.
Whether they constitute an elite is the stuff of a longer and more complex debate than I can tackle here. Many of them probably do come from more privileged backgrounds than average. However, having read Oldfield’s blog, I doubt he considered for a moment who they actually were before undertaking his dip in the Thames.
The blog includes a bizarre list of actions that the ‘ordinary person’ can undertake in order to disrupt the work of elites. He implores taxi drivers to take their passengers by a longer route (with no thought as to who those passengers may be). He asks office workers to set off fire alarms at ‘strategic moments’. The pointlessness and selfishness of this is staggering. An action like that disrupts not only those who you may consider ‘elites’, but every worker; secretaries, managers, reception staff, security, kitchen staff… Oldfield seems to give no thought to who he is disrupting.
The Olympics are an in some sense an ‘elite’ event, in that only the best can compete. They have been the subject of some debate over the appropriation of vast numbers of tickets by hospitality companies. They are not without controversy.
However, call me idealistic, but to me they are still at root a mass event. Participants come from all over the world and from all social classes, groups, religions and races.
One of the things I love about them is learning about the contestants, from the first moment, as an ordinary person, they picked up a hockey stick, pair of running shoes or swimming goggles, through their trials, tribulations and injuries, to the final massive effort and push towards glory at the biggest sporting event in the world.
What’s more, my family is not alone in our enjoyment of this. It is one aspect of that entirely human propensity to go one better, to run faster, work harder, write better, explore new territory, discover new ideas, debate new philosophies. The work of athletes is fraught with stress, with exhaustion, illness, injury and disappointment. To become a professional athlete is to set yourself up for a great deal of despair in pursuit of a tiny sliver of success.
To disrupt their hard work at the moment it reaches its fruition is more than unfair. It shows basic misunderstanding of the function of protest. Oldfield is not disrupting the enjoyment of a few in the interests of the majority.
He has already disrupted the enjoyment of a great many, not least the stricken rower Alex Woods and his family, both crews, their support teams, friends and families, and sport-loving viewers like me and my dad, who sat down to enjoy a nail-biting race and were instead treated to a grinning idiot in a wetsuit and the despair and disappointment of eighteen hardworking people.
The participants in the boat race, some of them merely teenagers, had worked incredibly hard in pursuit of glory. They had not been paid to do this, nor had they paid their way into that ‘elite’ position. Their efforts were something that anyone who has worked hard for anything can understand. Their efforts, and those of the Olympic participants, do not deserve to be disrupted in the name of politics.
Image from Lapatia on Flickr