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As the Barcelona games approach, Alan Harding examines the true Olympic spirit

War Games

When I heard that Barcelona, Brisbane and Birmingham had all bid for the 1992 Olympics there wasn't much doubt in my mind where it should be. Somebody I know came up with a catchy slogan for the Birmingham campaign which summed up its chances cruelly: 'Birmingham - it's not Dudley!' I haven't got that much against Brisbane, it's just that with Barcelona I won't have to put my body through all-night torture in order to watch the events live.

My only reservation about Barcelona has come with the fashion for classical music themes for major sporting events. 'Nessun Dorma' for the 1990 World Cup was fine. I also enjoyed the Intermezzo from 'Cavalliero Rusticano' (Raging Bull theme) which introduced Sampdoria in the recent European Cup Final. But what about Barcelona 1992? Sarah Brightman? Even Freddie Mercury singing 'Barcelona' with Montserrat Caballe would have been better than that.

Still, at the opening of the games I, like many millions of others, will be watching the electronic screen flash out the message: 'The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing is not conquering but fighting well.' Believe that and you'll believe anything.

The Olympics are about national superiority and the hypocrisy of pretending that they are not. The rebirth of the Olympics in 1896 coincided with the opening of the epoch of imperialism, when the great capitalist powers began scrambling to divide the world among them. The Games were quickly caught up in the politics of national rivalries, colonialism and war and have been ever since.

A good example is how Western commentators have leapt to explain away the decades of superiority of Eastern bloc athletes. Apparently it can now be revealed that they were automatons drugged to the eyeballs and hounded by heartless coaches to a disabled middle age. This commendable concern for integrity hasn't stopped the German athletic authorities trying to slip ex-
Eastern automaton and recent drug-test failure Katrin Krabbe in through the back door. And anyway what's the difference between the old Eastern European system of using the army as a front for training professional athletes, and the US university system which uses scholarships in the same way? Did the muscles of American shot putters come from a healthy diet of chocolate milkshakes?

The contemporary concern about drug use in sport has nothing to do with concern for the health of the athlete and the spirit of fair play, and everything to do with the wider use of drug panics in international politics. Indeed there is nothing new about taking drugs to help you win Olympic events. As far back as the 1904 St Louis Games, America's Thomas Hicks won the marathon on a lethal mixture of sulphate of strychnine and cognac. Winning and establishing national superiority at all costs are the true ingredients of the 'Olympic spirit'.

The founder of the modern Olympic movement exemplifies this tradition. Baron de Coubertin was a French aristocrat who grew up in the shadow of the crushing French defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870. He felt the national shame deeply and was influenced by contemporary theories of national degeneration. He wanted to reinvigorate the French national elite through physical prowess and mental self-discipline.

De Coubertin never saw the Olympics as a focus for mass participation or entertainment, but as an expression of physical fitness, sound competition, and a spirit of fair play among the social elite which could regenerate France at home and abroad. 'Inequality is more than a law, it is a fact', he said, 'and patronage is more than a virtue, it is a duty'.

'The greatest show on earth' has always been a political football. The often awe-inspiring talent of individuals is put at the service of petty national pride and advantage. The grace and strength, the endeavour and pursuit of excellence are woven into a harsh backdrop of political reality that neither we nor the athlete can escape. It is this mixture of passion, struggle and identification with the athletes which makes the Games so compelling.

How else can we understand the legend of Jesse Owens? For all his wonderful athleticism and four gold medals, Owens is remembered as the black man who spoiled Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics. Yet, away from the political stage of the Olympic arena, the American authorities who would use him as a propaganda weapon showed Owens precious little 'Olympic spirit'. He stayed in an Olympic village where the US team was racially segregated. Medals won, he went home to a USA where blacks lived in the shadow of the lynching tree. Just two weeks after his triumph, Owens was expelled from the US athletics association for daring to quit a European tour organised to raise money for his white masters.

Everyone has an Olympics from which the memories are more vivid and richer. Mine is Mexico City 1968 : when it looked like Bob Beamon would never come back to Earth; when Tommie Smith mounted the victory rostrum after breaking the 200 metres world record and to the strains of the 'Star Spangled Banner' gave the black power salute, his head bowed not in submission but to disown the anthem.

But the memories of all the Olympics merge and give urgency to the possibilities and fantasies of Barcelona 1992. Will Merlene Ottey at last take the sprinting golds which are her due? Is there any chance that Michael Johnson will defy the race timetable to win both 200 and 400 metres? Or will we see the like of Nadia Comaneci again, who achieved the first perfect score in Olympic gymnastics in Montreal, 1976?

Come to think of it, I'm even prepared to sit through Sarah Brightman to avoid missing anything like the sight of a barefoot Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila, running only his second marathon in Rome, 1960. Bikila's father had fought Mussolini's planes and poison gas in the thirties. Twenty-five years later, the world watched him run the cobbles of an Appian Way lit by torches to become the first black African to win a gold medal, beneath the Arch of Constantine. The whole world waits with bated breath for Barcelona.

It's Labour wot lost it

Forget the Sun, says Toby Banks, Labour lost the general election all by itself

In the early eighties Private Eye ran a cover photo of Tony Benn balancing a pen between his nose and upturned lip, eyes bulging madly, spectacles askew. The speech bubble said: 'I blame the media.' Three election defeats later, Labour is still saying 'it's not our fault'.

One Guardian reader declared the 'tabloid intimidation' to be 'tantamount to placing bully boys armed with truncheons at every polling station in the country'. Neil Kinnock cited the cheeky 'It's the Sun wot won it!' headline and Lord McAlpine's remarks about how the newspaper editors were the real heroes of the Tory victory. But McAlpine's comments were more a criticism of the shambolic Tory election campaign than a serious assessment of the power of the press; Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie laughed at the thought of Kinnock taking his tongue-in-cheek claims so seriously.

If the tabloids are so outrageous in their lies and smears, it begs the question of why anyone should fall for it. The first conclusion drawn is always that it is not just 'anyone' who believes them. A letter to the Guardian argued that 'the readers of those [Tory tabloid] news-papers are not particularly interested in politics, yet a part of them believes what they read'. In case you missed the point, another reader helpfully spelled it out: 'Many working class readers believed what their paper told them about tax - as for most other issues.' And yet another: 'Most people are not interested in articles that argue cogently.' So where is the evidence to support these ideas?

The theory of tabloid power does not stand up to even a cursory inspection. Before the election, with Labour buoyant, the party's media campaign strategist, Peter Mandelson, was credited with cracking its image problem through his painstaking market research. Yet Mandelson's research convinced him that newspapers were of marginal significance, compared to the all-important TV. Breakdowns of this year's TV election coverage show that, if anything, it slightly favoured Labour; but a scapegoat must be found, so all the market research goes out of the window. In its place, back comes the tabloid villain, bigger and badder than ever.

This time, the argument goes, the Tory tabloids were so bad that they really did have an effect. But even if you accept that this year's campaign was dirtier than usual, where is the evidence that it had a decisive influence? The Daily Mirror ran an anti-Tory campaign every bit as vindictive as the Sun's anti-Labour one, yet there was a swing to the Conservatives among Mirror readers. On the other hand, half of the Sun's readers showed superhuman resistance to its extraordinary powers and didn't vote Tory.

In fact, the whole discussion is just a way to avoid confronting the failings of the Labour Party itself. A crusade against tabloid misconduct is a convenient cover for the anti-working class prejudice at the heart of the liberal and Labourist tradition. In the memorable words of Labour Euro-MP Anita Pollock: 'I do not like to sit next to a Sun reader on the tube.' The decline in Labour's fortunes has merely brought this contempt to the surface.

Now that their unquestioning loyalty can no longer be counted on, the despised masses are blamed for their selfishness and stupidity. Another Guardian reader spoke of the 'unpalatable truth': Sun-reading Basildon electors are 'unfit holders of the franchise'. He explained that this was not because they were too stupid, but because 'if your chief source of information is one of smear and downright lies, day after day, week after week, how can you possibly form a reasonable idea of what you are voting for?'. Which sounds like a mealy-mouthed way of saying 'working class people believe anything they read'.

If anything, it is these snobs who are guilty of believing too much of what they read in the Sun - particularly the paper's claims about its own importance. A vox pop in Basildon (where the Sun boasted that locals had displayed its election day cover in car windows) revealed pragmatic support for the Tories among both Mirror and Sun readers, and general amusement at the Sun's anti-Kinnock jibes; but nothing to suggest mass brainwashing. An unemployed carpenter summed up the feeling: 'I vote Conservative because I want the best for my family. I want a job, and at the end of the day I think they've got the best chance of improving things. Whatever the papers say, nobody would vote for Labour while Kinnock was in power because they don't like him.' (Sunday Times, 12 April 1992).

The Sun has consistently reflected this basic philosophy. It prides itself on being a working class paper for people who are ambitious and want the best for themselves and their families. It also claims to have more 'A, B and C1' readers than the Times and the Guardian combined, and so to be the most influential paper in Britain. It is required reading for MPs, and ex-editor Larry Lamb observed that every important person claims to read their chauffeur's copy.

The Sun's rise (documented in three recent books on the subject*) began when it ditched Labour and hitched itself to Thatcher's bandwagon in the seventies, consciously appealing to disillusioned Labour voters. Thatcher won in 1979 and even then the Sun (rather than Labour's debacle) was widely credited with her success. The declining left press watched in horrified fascination as Murdoch and Maggie went from strength to strength, and began to ascribe magical powers to them both. Yet the mighty Sun could do nothing to save the Iron Lady once she had lost her political grip. I suggest the Labour Party starts looking for a new scapegoat.
  • Shock! Horror!, SJ Taylor, Bantam Press, £14.99
  • Sun-sation, Roslyn Grose, Angus & Robertson, £4.99
  • The Good, the Bad and the Unacceptable, Raymond Snoddy, Faber & Faber £14.99

Alka Singh on the Magritte exhibition at the Hayward

What you see is what?

'Do we see what we think or think what we see?' This is the central preoccupation of René Magritte's paintings. He suggests that the two things are not entirely separate: that neither the world of physical objects nor our subjective perception of reality are discrete, self-contained affairs. His investigation of the relationship between them is often very indiscreet. Magritte finds the commonsense order and associations of the everyday world an unreliable guide, and casts them to the wind - not in the shrieking, anarchic way of your average Dadaist, but in an altogether cooler, more ruthless manner.

The current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery provides a great opportunity to see a wide range of Magritte's work, starting from the early 1920s when he was experimenting with various avant-garde styles. Landscape and Military Tattoo of 1920 are brightly coloured Futuristic works. His Baigneuses of 1921 gives more than a passing nod to Picasso and Leger. By 1925, although he was still experimenting with Cubism and Futurism, Magritte had produced his first two Surrealist paintings, The Two Sisters and Nocturne. The influence of De Chirico's poetic images painted in a representational style clearly helped him to find his own artistic voice.

Visual puns such as the shape of a bird filled in with sky; everyday objects juxtaposed in a way which seems random but isn't, as in Elective Affinities; text used to undermine what we think we see, as in the famous Ceci N'est pas une Pipe - these are the things we associate with Magritte. We are reminded here that they were never cheap tricks. It is the painter who forces together incongruous images, but the shock derives from the viewer's own uneasy perception that behind such images lie continuities of meaning which are all too often embarrassing or disturbing. In The Rape, for example, we see in a woman's face a pair of breasts for eyes and a tuft of pubic hair instead of a mouth. Most of the problems we have with that image we supply ourselves.

Violence, humour and eroticism were used by the other Surrealists too, but not in the same way. Magritte rarely painted the liberal nightmare images of Dali; nor did he delve deep into experimental automatism as both Ernst and Miro did. Although technically, Magritte is more pedestrian than many of them, he more than matches them in his power to assault not so much our senses, as our sensibility. Consider for example The Murderous Sky (1927) with its gory, bleeding birds, or An Act of Violence (1932) which is a perfect example of how his work slowly, quietly does violence to the way we usually see the world around us.

In The Spirit of Geometry (1937) a robust figure cradles an infant, but their heads are reversed. A grotesquely small and naive baby face stares out from the shoulders of a nursing mother, while the little bundle of joy looks up with the pensive profile of a weary parent. An everyday relation is exploded, the symbol of love and care is transformed. In the reversal of roles the domination of the parent is obvious to us because it appals to see an adult in a child's arms. Even the innocent face of a child can assume a sinister connotation, hinting at the authority a child exercises over its mother by the sheer force of its own vulnerability. Magritte makes us think and re-think in order to find, or to acknowledge new connections and new meanings.

He was to this extent a typical Surrealist, even though he spent only three years in Paris (1927-30), where he contributed to André Breton's review La Revolution Surrealiste. The experience of the First World War and the ensuing social conflict across Europe led sections of the intelligentsia to question the values of civilization. For the Surrealists, the old social and moral certainties were anathema. Traditional society was found guilty of mass carnage and judged incapable of fulfilling people's desires.

The traditional role for art as depicting reality seemed redundant - the Surrealists believed the aim was to change society, and that artists had a key role in this through exploring the subconscious world of dreams. Science and reason were suspect by association with moribund society. The Surrealists saw their task as freeing creativity from such constrictions, and so achieving a fuller understanding of the world. The artistic and political contradictions of their ideas remained unresolved, and took many of them into a troubled relationship with the French Communist Party. Yet in the process of experimenting they produced not only some bad art, but also, at times, some very good art indeed.

To subsidise his work Magritte worked in commercial graphics designing wallpaper, shop signs and advertising. It rubbed off. He also raided the imagery of the cinema and the yellow press, stimulated by the accidental juxtaposition of pictures on a newsstand or hoarding. Classical rules of proportion or composition break down in the cacophony and contrast of modern marketing visuals. On the magazine rack men tower over tower blocks, while being dwarfed by household products. In the clash of the unlike, fresh significance emerges as ordinary symbols bounce off one another.

Perhaps more than any other Surreal-ist, Magritte's best works hint at the rational basis of their irrationalism. In the famous bland, bowler-hatted figure we can see that the absent, distorted and fragmented features are a conscious expression of the uncertainty and alienation beleaguering the individual in a world where all that was once solid has long ago melted into air. In the 1930s such perceptions were mainly confined to sections of the intelligentsia. Today they are much more widespread. It is not at all surprising that the ad-men have had a field day with Magritte, but if you visit this exhibition, you'll find there's more to him than flogging cigarettes and televisions.
Magritte at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London; 21 May--2 August 1992.

Seriously soggy

John Fitzpatrick found the laugh began to stick in his throat

I found it difficult not to laugh at Wayne's World. In fact, it was as easy as I had expected. The sight of four hard rock fans headbanging away to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' on the car stereo simply triggers off in me a lot of positive feelings about the silly, merry abandon that can convulse any group of friends (without a poker up their collective sphincter). Even in the ritualised forms dear to bonding males this sort of communal foolishness is the sort of activity which the cliche 'harmless fun' was coined to describe.

Similarly the slang of any set, clique or gang is often very clever and funny as well as more than a little ridiculous. Here it is as ironic and exclusive as you can get, mobilising all those in-crowd feelings, especially the mocking of outsiders. My favourite is their belated but emphatic use of the word 'not' after some positive endorsement such as 'excellent', all with perfect timing of course, and with Wayne's (Mike Myers) superb smile.

I also found it difficult not to chuckle at the many deft touches of Penelope Spheeris' direction - the camera wandering off to get the life story of the pathologically morbid proprietor of the diner, or ducking under the table to hear Garth's (Dana Carvey) misgivings about a deal over lunch, or lingering on the dozen or so used cars stacked on a spike (only in America) outside the diner, a pomo totem pole. And speaking of native Americans, the film is probably worth seeing alone for Wayne and Garth's backstage encounter with Alice Cooper, who is sincerely into the Algonquin etymology of Milwaukee.

Yes, it's an amusing film in parts but I expect you can probably feel a 'but' coming on, or even a 'not'. It wasn't just that the laughs were much sparser than you'd expect from a sharp comedy outfit, but more that the whole film was seriously soggy at its centre about its subject matter. Spheeris, who made the excellent Suburbia, probably thought it would be a good idea to bring into view and maybe ridicule another grisly slice of the American way. At the risk of sounding like a party on! pooper she has ended up colluding with the nerds.

Long before half way it had dawned on me that the whole thing was actually a celebration of arrested adolescence. The goofy good nature of our heroes is thrust down our throats at every opportunity, underlined by a genuinely bogus (if you get my meaning) counterposition of their creativity and integrity to the traditional nastiness of a corporate smoothy in a suit (Rob Lowe).

The alternative endings, and the pre-emptive deconstructive postscript, can't offset the thoroughly warm esteem in which we have been led to regard the nerds, and aren't intended to. They are intended to impress the odd Guardian journalist, so that they will gush praise on the film's 'play with linguistic registers ...troping on tropes'. Not. Compared to Wayne's World, This is Spinal Tap was a ruthless and certainly relentless assault on the pretensions and many other shortcomings of its target.
In fact the true antecedent for Wayne and Garth is Arthur Fonzarelli, the Fonz of Happy Days fame. He had the same sort of mannerisms, catchphrases and the self-contained subculture (again featuring the diner). Most of all he posed the same sort of rather endearing 'threat' to the adult mainstream against which he defined himself. All that Wayne's World is missing was a Mom and Dad to feed up the boys, but don't worry they do live at home.

The success of Wayne's World can hardly be about satire or send up or observation or even straightforward humour. I don't want to get into a debate about Bernard Manning here, but I did find it both unfunny and obnoxious that the women of whom Wayne and Garth approved were called 'babelicious', and those of whom they disapproved were called 'mental'.

It sounds obvious but I suspect it's probably true; its success is all about regression and nostalgia. We have been here before not just with the Fonz, but with real poignancy and perception in American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show. This time around it's not even good farce. No doubt the film hit number one at the US box office (taking $110m) and is raking it in over here (£1.75m in three days) because it feels good about itself, about its vacuous, inane, harmless, gormless world without responsibility or consequences. Party on Wayne, as no doubt somebody said on the Titanic.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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