Neil Faulkner is the author of A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics, to be published soon by Yale University Press. Over the next six months, in this regular blog, he will be commenting on the London 2012 Olympics in the light of the wisdom (or lack of it) of the ancients.
Article by Neil Faulkner
No surprise really that the London Organising Committee (LOCOG) on-line ticket resale for the 2012 Olympics last week went awry. Ticket sales have been a succession of electronic cock-ups, frustrated customers, and red faces. The ancient Greeks did things differently – but I’ll come to that in a minute.
In fairness to the organisers, they have a problem to which there is no easy answer: far more people want to go to the Olympics than there is space for. Some form of rationing is therefore inevitable, and rationing means unhappy people and a black market.
It was not always so. At the 1908 London Olympics, a one-guinea ticket would get you into every event. At the 1948 London Olympics, sales for the opening ceremony were so slow that free tickets were doled out to schoolkids, students, nurses, and Girl Guides.
But the problems are not just technical. The whole ticketing process has been skewed in favour of the corporate elite and the middle class.
When the actors at a Christmas pantomime in Hackney asked how many people among the several hundred or so in the audience had Olympic tickets, hardly any hands went up. The impressionistic evidence from here and elsewhere is that not many East Londoners will be going to the Games taking place in their midst this summer.
It is not difficult to work out why. The odds are stacked against local working-class people. To get tickets, you needed to be internet savvy, fast off the mark, the holder of a Visa card, and able and willing to take the risk of bidding for lots of tickets (and then having to pay for them) in order to be in with a chance of getting at least some.
This was a lottery which poor people could not afford to play, even assuming they were equipped to do so. Olympic ticket prices range from £20 to £2,012. Prices for an athletics final in the main stadium range from £50 to £725.
The implications for most East Londoners are obvious. There will be virtually no-one from Stratford among the 80,000 in the stadium for the men’s 100m final on 5 August. Virtually no-one: because in the London Borough of Newham, average gross weekly pay is just over £500 a week, the unemployment rate is 14%, and one in four Newham children are officially classified as living in severe poverty.
Little wonder that the latest poll shows more than half the population saying they have no enthusiasm for the Olympics, and some two-thirds saying they see no benefit for ordinary people!
So how did the ancient Greeks organise ticket sales? They didn’t. The Olympics were free and anyone could go. The stadium would have been packed with local farmers, shepherds, and cobblers.
Sport mirrors society. The ancient Olympics were a religious festival in a traditional agricultural society. The modern Olympics take place in a capitalist society where everything is turned into a commodity and comes with a price tag.
Free tickets for corporate sponsors and the global elite? Of course: 2.2 million of them
Free tickets for the local community? How bonkers is that?
Dr Neil Faulkner is research fellow at the University of Bristol, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and codirector of several field projects. A freelance archaeologist and historian, his previous books include Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome and Rome: Empire of the Eagles. He lives in Hertfordshire, UK.
A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics is published in April 2012.