Circus comes to town

After years of frantic competition, pitting city against city and nation against nation, a decision was finally made as to who will host the 2012 Olympic Games. In typical hyperbolic mode, Tony Blair said the success of London represented a "momentous day" for the United Kingdom - adding that "It's not often in this job that you punch the air and do a little jig and embrace the person next to you". Already shares in British construction companies have soared, while mortgage lenders - as per usual - have chirpily predicted a renewed house price boom in the capital. It is not known whether Jacques Chirac contemplated suicide after Paris lost by 54 votes to 50, but suffering another crushing disappointment so soon after his EU constitution referendum defeat could just tip him over the edge. Prior to the International Olympic Committee's announcement, as the minutes and hours ebbed away, government leaders and their flunkies issued desperate appeals and delivered patriotic exhortations, as if the country was on the brink of war. Naturally, to each of the contenders - France, UK, USA, Spain and Russia - the Olympic prize was theirs by right and so not to receive it was by definition an act of national injustice, if not humiliation. For communists, the national one-upmanship and horse trading that invariably attends the Olympic bidding, and the actual games themselves, is a fitting, but grotesque, example of how sport under capitalism is turned into its virtual opposite. Rather than being a genuine means of self-expression and self-fulfilment, played for the simple joy of the sport itself, it has become a lurid spectacle that is propelled by chauvinism and, of course, commerce - big bucks are to be made from all the various deals and scams that surround sporting activity. One thing is for sure though. Sport - like the monarchy - is most definitely not, as we have been brainlessly and repeatedly told since birth, an 'apolitical' activity or institution that provides loads of harmless fun and helps to bring in a bit of much needed revenue for the country. From top to bottom, professional sport is a far from noble endeavour which is inextricably part of the state-politics-cash nexus and will remain so while capitalism exists. On July 6, while he nervously waited for the IOC's vote, Lord Sebastian Coe, all-round Tory smoothie and Blair-appointed champion of the London bid, spoke in honeyed tones of the importance of the "Olympic ideal" and of how vital it was for "the Olympians of the future" that the games come to London, as opposed to Paris or Madrid. The Olympic Games of today could hardly be more different than the games of classical Greece or Coe's imagination - as even the most cursory look at history reveals. According to the earliest records, with the most reliable date for the first ever 'proper' Olympics Games being 776 BC, only one athletic event was held in the ancient Olympics - a foot race of about 183m (200 yards), or the length of the stadium. In the victory ceremony the athlete, his father and his city were announced - while today, of course, it is the country and national flag that is honoured. Inevitably, the modern-day Olympic Games, ever since they were re-introduced in 1896, have been mired in corruption and scandal - often involving allegations of bribery, and in more recent times, drug-taking (not to say, of course, that pre-20th century athletes were immune to the temptations of 'performance enhancing' concoctions of one sort or another). Self-evidently then, due to the tremendous potential for all-manner of profit-making, the process of selecting host cities has become a highly charged event and hence there is a huge potential for bungs and corruption. For instance, a scandal erupted in late 1998, when it was found that promoters involved with Salt Lake City's (winning) bid for the 2002 Winter Games had bribed IOC members, who were forced to resign - the Nagano and Sydney bids were also under suspicion of bribery. Top athletes can reap tremendous financial gains for notable performances, through product endorsements and personal appearances. Originally, modern Olympic athletes were expected to remain strictly amateurs and not earn money even for endorsing products - no wonder the games were dominated by aristocrats. However, by the last decades of the 20th century, professionalism among competitors received official acceptance, as the IOC finally recognised that many world-class athletes were already functioning as professionals. At the top elite level of competition in many of the Olympic sports, the athlete must, as an act of necessity, devote himself or herself entirely to the sport, all but precluding the possibility of holding a separate full-time job. Interestingly enough, the end of amateurism began in 1960s, thanks to the practices of the 'official communist' states - where the top athletes were trained, backed and supported to the hilt by their respective bureaucracies, but were still deemed amateurs. To counter this, as part of the political and sporting cold war, in the 1970s and 1980s athletes in the developed capitalist countries sought out corporate sponsors, in effect becoming 'employees' of the sponsor. By the late 1980s, restrictions were progressively eased on athletes earning prize money, and professional athletes were permitted to represent their countries at the Olympics. Now, of course, it would be regarded as absurd, if not mad, to prohibit athletes from making loads of dosh from their sport - the market rules. Hence the drugs - understandably, everyone wants to be a winner and not a loser. The list of banned drugs has become steadily longer, and in turn ever more confusing - and hence more and more impossible to enforce. Prohibited, or at least in theory, are all stimulants (which can be found in common cold and cough medications, not to mention the humble caffeine), narcotics, anabolic steroids, diuretics, certain hormones (such as human growth hormone), beta blockers and so on almost endlessly. Over the years, more and more athletes have been 'named and shamed' in drugs scandals - though you can guarantee that a greater number still have slipped under the net. In Seoul there was suspicion of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive and he was quickly stripped of his gold medal. In the mid-1990s, China's female swimmers and runners quickly rose to the top of elite competition, arousing suspicions of drug use - by the late 1990s many had been tested and founds 'drugs positive'. Then again, it is safe to assume that some of those branded as 'cheats' and 'druggies' are quite sincere in their protestations of innocence - one quick, thoughtless, sniff of the Vicks Sinex spray and you are in violation of the IOC's drug rules, with your face splattered all over the front and back pages of the newspapers. Of course, for the apologists of capitalism, sporting mega-festivals like the World Cup or the Olympic Games are like ideological manna from heaven. Supposedly, modern-day professional sportsperson are the perfect example of how 'rugged', self-enriching individualism can at the same time promote the 'common' or 'collective' good - with the unit of commonality being the state/nation, not to mention its important sub-agents in the form of Nike, Coca Cola, Starbucks, McDonalds, Vodafone, Microsoft, etc. Therefore, when we look at sport - or business - we see how the cream always rises to the top, thus proving that capitalism corresponds to human nature, or the natural order of things, and that egotistical competitiveness is inherent to the human predicament. Only utopians and romantics would argue to the contrary, we are led to believe. For communists, this is all reactionary baloney. While we do not disagree that there is an essence to human nature, we steadfastly maintain that it is always mediated through material human society - meaning, the 'human essence' manifests in, and is determined by, historically concrete social conditions, which are constantly changing and hence altering, transforming or distorting the manner and way in which it finds expression. Logically then, different social formations and class positions lead to very different modes of thought, behaviour, social organisation and ... modes of sport. The Premier League mentality and the alienated values of contemporary sport are not eternal or unchallengeable. Crucially, sports should be easily accessible and accountable to all. In an interview with The Independent, Tessa Jowell, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, revealed that her own son had been a "golf prodigy" from the age of four. She said: "We were able to send him to an elite academy in Florida that meant he got the very best chance to succeed. He had friends whose parents were not in a position to do that" (July 4). Class society squanders and stifles talent, whether artistic and sporting, on a vast and obscene scale - with the privileged few getting treated like monarchs in elite academies or schools, while the rest of us have to make do with a back alley or street for a football pitch or tennis court. Or, so much easier, just watch it on the TV, while drinking a 'few' beers and consuming junk food - but just make sure you keep up your subscription to Sky l Eddie Ford