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Re: Woolsack

I don’t know if you have been following the Woolsack project which I wrote about here? If not, to explain briefly, a wonderful project has been underway for many months now, the aim of which is to gift visiting athletes participating in the Olympic Games with a woollen cushion, handmade in Britain with British wool. The idea celebrates the woollen heritage and history of the UK, and provides an opportunity for community groups all over the country to participate in the spirit of the Olympics WITH WOOL. People up and down the country are getting together to knit, weave and sew 100% WOOL cushions as gifts for athletes participating in the London 2012 Olympic Games. You can read about the history of the project on the official website:

http://woolsack.org/

However it seems that LOCOG have cancelled the stand in the Olympics village plaza which was originally promised to the Woolsack team. Woolsack were going to distribute cushions to athletes from this stand in the Plaza, and now that this has been cancelled, it will be significantly harder for cushions to reach athletes. It seems from Woolsack’s official news page that the cushions will be gifted to the athletes as planned, but the cancellation of the stand in the Olympics village is a significant hindrance to the project. The text on the official statement from Woolsack is touchingly stoic, and shows a deep commitment to the spirit of the London 2012 Olympic Games:

We are confident that, while keeping within restrictions placed on us by being a LOCOG Inspire project, we can get the gift of a cushion to all the athletes who want one. We are as determined to succeed in this as the athletes are to excel at the 2012 Games.

“Commercial Sponsors of the Olympic Games” are mentioned as the official reason for the change in plans. I am appalled that the efforts of UK community groups, knitters, handicrafters etc. are being treated as a threat to the commercial interests of the likes of McDonalds and Panasonic.

Of course I am a little more sensitive to the issue of Olympics Sponsors than most; a certain project with which I am proudly affiliated* proved unsuccessful in acquiring official LOCOG Inspires accreditation mostly because of absurd clauses relating to the protection of the Olympic Games’ Corporate Sponsors’ interests. Forcing every single accommodation centre along our route to sign a legal disclaimer stating that they wouldn’t IN ANY WAY REFERENCE THE OLYMPICS OR WALK 2012 in their own publicity materials was more than Mark or I could stomach, (especially since Mark had always conceived of the walk as a way for everyone – including camp-sites, pubs, B&Bs etc. along the way – to participate in the spirit of the Games). Additionally, I personally** thought it was completely ridiculous that LOCOG thought the name of Walk 2012 should be changed because “2012”*** is a legally protected term. Too, I am hardly an impartial commentator on Blacker Yarns, being as I am both sponsored by that company in my current venture, and an all-out, freely declared fangirl of what The Natural Fibre Company is doing. However isn’t mutual endorsement part of what sponsorship is about, and is it not possible to enjoy mutual endorsement non-exclusively or at least to protect sponsorship relationships with a sense of proportion or a modicum of common sense?

In the case of The London 2012 Olympic Games, the protection of “Corporate Sponsorship Interests” has become so restrictive that it seems to actually hinder community participation in the Olympic Games. It seems that the only alliances which are allowed are the official, sanctioned alliances purchased through huge amounts of dosh; that community-spirited efforts and the acts of private individuals count for nothing when compared to massive cheques; and that the only people allowed to associate themselves with the Olympic Games are the mega-giant corporations who have bought slices of the elitist pies that comprise the Olympic Games Sponsorship/Partnership packages. My admittedly idealistic, leftist-liberal model for sponsorship has been replaced by something far more sinister model in which “sponsorship” seems to mean intellectual ownership of everything.

Mark’s vision for Walk 2012 (as I understand it) is to celebrate The London 2012 Olympic Games at a level in which even we – with my arthritic, mis-shapen feet, and Mark’s ailing back and knees – might feel we have undertaken a significant physical challenge and thus participated in the Games in some partisan way.

Everyman’s Olympics Hero!

As the walk has developed, I have enjoyed the unfolding story of this narrative, and the wonderful mismatch between the quiet English backwaters that the route travels through, and the pomp, ceremony and London-centric attitude dominating the official publicity concerning the Olympic Games. There are places in England I have only discovered because of Walk 2012; the beautiful, winding path of St. Swithun’s Way; the testing ascents and descents of the South West Coast Path; and the endless flat fields between Wareham and The New Forest, to think of a few examples.

St Swithun’s Way, photographed by Mark Stanley

I have loved discussing Walk 2012 with locals in the many places where we’ve stopped for a breather, and explaining our mission to campsite owners and fellow walkers we’ve met on the route. Too, I have enjoyed reading on the Woolsack site about how various community groups all over the UK are coming together to knit, sew, and weave cushions in the various parish halls and community centres around the country. I think there is something genuinely important about projects like this which connect the Olympic Games to everyday life and places outside of London. Mark and the people who have made cushions for the Olympic athletes have given their time freely in pursuit of friendship, respect and excellence (The three main Olympics Values); and in the face of continual bureaucratic nonsense perpetrated in the interests of protecting Corporate Sponsorship Interests, have been additionally forced to find courage, determination and inspiration (three of the four Paralympic Values) in pursuit of their respective, Olympics-related cultural projects. I accept that the sponsors must get something in exchange for handing over their wonga to funding the expenses associated with staging The London Olympics, but surely individual and community effort given freely in the spirit of The Olympic Games should count for something too? Like a stand in the Plaza, for the Woolsack project, for instance, so that all the work of all these knitters can be properly represented at the London 2012 Olympic Games, even if Woolsack does not pack the same economic punch as VISA and SAMSUNG.

For the record, I am personally DELIGHTED BEYOND ALL MEASURE that Walk 2012 is now proceeding without any official INSPIRES ACCREDITATION, as this means we can happily endorse all the wondrous eateries along The Games Way – especially The Royal Oak in Fritham – (so much better than McDonalds) and all the amazing Hall & Woodhouse Pubs (whose beer is so much tastier than Coca Cola) – without fear of recrimination, or heavy-handed retribution from LOCOG. What’s more, we will be mostly clothed in Blacker Yarns, which I have knitted into many glorious garments, and I am proud to announce that at no stage shall we be sleeping in an effing HOLIDAY INN****.

Walk 2012 SOX knit in Blacker Designs YARNZ!

I am a liberally-minded person; I am not against the corporate sponsors of the Olympics putting money towards the Olympics – afterall, these mega corporations can certainly afford it – however I think it’s worth remembering that as well as the corporate money coming from private companies, significant chunks of funding for The London 2012 Olympics come directly out of the Public Purse. This money should, I feel, enable all of the small businesses struggling across the UK to take advantage of the presence of The Olympic Games in our country this Summer. I think more people would feel enthusiastic about the Olympics – about challenge, endurance, passion, determination, courage, excellence, etc. – if they felt able to participate in The Games on all levels, including economically. So what if someone wants to repaint their kebab shop with Olympics Rings and create a new kind of kebab called “5 rings”; so what if someone wants to brew an ale called “gold medal” and sell it in their pub during the Olympic Games. Surely the banter, the jokes, the small exchanges surrounding this kind of participatory, unofficial – and yes, ECONOMIC – activity can only be ultimately positive, promoting inclusion and participation where The London 2012 Olympic Games are concerned?

To provide an example: when the Oscars were being awarded a couple of years ago, our local pie shop started selling OSKAR PIES designed in honour of Kate Winslett, who is from Reading, and who had been nominated for an Oscar award. The pie had various ingredients with spurious links to The Oscar awards and Kate Winslett. Yes, its invention was opportunistic! Yes, it was celebratory! Yes, it was fun! Yes, it was tasty! And did The Oscars sue Sweeney’s Pie Shop of Reading, or ask them to change their gleefully-named “OSKAR PIE” to something else? NO THEY DID NOT! The official sponsors of The Oscars were in no way disadvantaged by the selling of the OSKAR PIE by Sweeney Todd’s Pie Shop. In fact, it was good publicity for The Oscars, as until I ate the pie, I had no idea that the official awards ceremony was underway.

Sweeney’s Pie Shop: Doing their bit for the Oscars

I am not wishing to compare the beautiful handmade cushion-making efforts coordinated by Woolsack here with opportunistic pie-making ventures, but I do feel that both the making of pies and the making of cushions can represent local and National efforts to participate in Big, National Events. It would befit organising committees to have a bit of common sense and to recognise how important projects like Woolsack are in terms of fostering public participation and support for said Big, National Events. I am heartily sick of our stupid post-Saatchi cultural focus on big, statement-like, jazz-hands CLOWNSHOES productions and spectacles at the expense of smaller, local projects which require a little bit more effort to understand, and which – certainly as in the case of The Woolsack Project – involve the public in Big, National Events on deeper levels and in more personal ways. In the case of Woolsack, the project will never generate the same kind of glossy, sensational press imagery as Shauna Richardson’s woolly Lions, but with their connections to the history of Britain and everyday needlework traditions in the UK, the cushions arguably constitute a deeper statement on Britishness and regional identity. Too, the participatory nature of Woolsack is inclusive in ways that many of the designated cultural Olympiad projects are not, and has forged unlikely new relationships between a major sporting event and the knitting, stitching and weaving enthusiasts of the UK.

Also, the way cushions are being gifted to athletes is particularly moving. I think this is because the creation of each individual cushion and the work involved in preparing for a physical sporting event are being celebrated throughout Woolsack in a manner that seems oddly vulnerable and earnest when compared to some of the the more elaborate, official Cultural Olympiad projects. With their giant puppets, floating islands and fantastical boats, many of the official cultural projects seem to somewhat overlook the people and their incredible physical efforts which lie at the heart of the notion of The Olympics. With Woolsack, it’s different; the athletes and their training and the hard work of making things by hand are the prime focus. There is something very human and comforting about the sincerity behind Woolsack wanting all the athletes who want one to be given a handmade wool cushione:

Woolsack is part of the Cultural Olympiad. The project enables anyone to contribute to making a cushion from British wool. It is intended that these will be given as a personal welcome gift from the people of Britain to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

I didn’t care at all about sport until Mark entered in the Reading half marathon in 2006. Barely able to walk myself because of arthritis and waiting in the stadium for the runners to finish their long run, I was thoroughly unprepared for how deeply inspired I would feel when my man came running across the finishing line, slaked in salt and sweat and grinning proudly. His sons whooped and punched the air when Mark finished the race, and I found an un-cynical inner appreciation for athletic achievement from their infectious pride in that moment. The road to the half-marathon was not, for Mark, paved with woolly lions or dancing puppets; it was a road of long, steady, focussed runs around the less than scenic backwaters of Berkshire; a road of sensible eating and of early nights. I imagine that the athletes currently preparing for the London Olympic Games are engaged in far more gruelling and unglamorous schedules of training, and when picturing this, it is possible to see the relevance of the woolly cushions far more easily than it is to understand what some of the other projects have to do with the athletes competing in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Many different creative visions about what the Olympics and Paralympics mean co-exist amongst the cushions people have made, and together they reflect a diverse statement on the meaning of the Games. Even within the insanely restrictive LOCOG Inspires parameters***** imposed upon the act of “making cushions for Woolsack”, folk have thought about and consolidated their thoughts on The London 2012 Games in beautiful, handmade objects. Making a cushion – especially when leaping through hoops to make sure you haven’t included any of the banned, Corporate-owned Olympics symbols or trademarks – is a long process, requiring dedication and commitment. Surely this kind of lengthy, imaginative engagement with the values of the Olympics, and thinking about the athletes to whom the cushions will go to, is precisely the sort of project that should lie at the heart of the LOCOG and Inspires agendas, and not the strikingly less creative visions perpetrated by the giants of commerce.

In coming weeks I will be thinking about the knitters who have made cushions, and hoping that LOCOG gets them to the athletes with the same generosity, inventiveness and care which have characterised their making. I have not heard a single story from Acer or Atos which engages me in the meaning of the Olympic Games in the same way that the page about the cushion-makers on the Woolsack website does; and in all the discussion about protecting the interests of Corporate Sponsors, nobody talks about the traffic to official websites which is generated by websites or projects involved in The Olympics at a grass-roots level.

I began this post thinking in my head that it is ridiculous that a note pinned to a community notice board at a campsite in The New Forest or the presence of a hand-knitted cushion stand in the Plaza might be seen as threats to the interests of the giant corporations whose money is being used to bankroll the Olympic Games. But by the end of writing this, I find myself hoping that these things do indeed constitute a threat to the Corporate Interests that are now defining the entire identity of The Olympic Games. I find myself mischievously thinking that it would be awesome if good cheeses, finest ales, and handmade woollen cushions could use their associations with the London 2012 Olympics Games to dominate the image of Corporate Britain currently being purveyed through all official Olympics PR channels like some kind of GIANT CLOWNSHOES PIE.

Seriously, LOCOG, get a life and give the knitters back their stand in the Plaza. It won’t hurt any of your official sponsors, and the goodwill you risk losing through your current stance on the wool cushions is worth 100 times more than even your most expensive Corporate Sponsorship Package. The Olympic and Paralympic values are Friendship, Respect and Excellence; Equality, Courage, Determination and Inspiration. For good examples of these, start looking here and stop looking here.

*PLEASE NOTE: NONE OF THE VIEWS OR IDEAS ESPOUSED IN THIS POST IN ANY WAY REFLECT THE OFFICIAL PERSPECTIVE OF WALK 2012TM®
**Felix 2012TM®, Felix Ford Inc.TM®, Dr Felicity FordTM®, KNITSONIKTM are all legally protected terms, and no other companies endorse or are affiliated with any such articles credited to such sources, especially this one
***Come on, how can you Registered Trademark a year?
****Not that there are any Holiday Inns along the official Walk 2012 route for us to stay in, anyway!
*****The parameters governing “making a cushion for the Olympics” are even more restrictive than you might imagine, owing to the protection of, you guessed it, “Corporate Sponsors’ Interests”

14 Responses to Re: Woolsack

  1. colleen says:

    I was at the Spitalfields Wool Fair this weekend where there was a Woolsack stall displaying some of the cushions that have been made, each with their little labels attached describing their provenance and maker. They are BEAUTIFUL, connecting knitters from remote parts of the country with the spirit of generosity and excellence which should be at the heart of the Olympics. The lady on the stall, from Cornwall – was it the Natural Fibre Company? – told the story you have described here of LOCOG’s indifference to distribution of the cushions, as well as relating the outrageous prices for bottled water and crap food. But I’m not surprised. We need to rise above it though, I think. Let’s walk, knit, bake, have tea, ignore LOCOG and celebrate OUR 2012 together and bugger LOCOG.

  2. Mark says:

    Awesome post Felix, I am especially pleased to see much PIE love in addition to all the walking and knitting :-)

    Fundamentally I don’t really believe the sponsors themselves would have a problem with Woolsack or with Walk2012. I suspect it is over-zealous LOCOG brand guardians or whatever they call themselves deciding NO on behalf of their sponsors.

    I don’t think the LOCOG representatives of the sponsors should be allowed to quietly smother the original intent of the Inspire programme (which did talk about sustainablilty and promoting local business) without a protest.

    GO FZL!!!

  3. Samantha says:

    Great post, sadly confirming all my worst fears about the commercialisation of the Olympics. I’m off to read more about the Woolsack project now.

  4. jeannette says:

    forgive me, but i think once you get into the promotion business, you kinda hafta deal with the promotion business. woolsack should hire themselves a brassballs promoter — greenpeace and PETA are famous for them at the green end of the scale — and get the athletes to endorse wool on the same terms they endorse adidas. you know of course this sponsorship is all about television; the athletes are not amateurs and are competing, basically, for the $50 million adidas contracts. i think a youtube campaign is a good place for the greens/wools to begin to insist that the games and the athletes go green. it’s a scandal the resources they squander.

  5. quinn says:

    A thoughtful and informative post, and I am happy to think the wonderful folks putting care and effort and national pride into their wonderful projects are not being overwhelmed at the irony of commercialism and restrictive power.

    And that photog of the path through the grainfield? Good gracious. It’s a stunner.

  6. Sue Byrne says:

    Have been in touch this week with the p.m. programme and they are going to do a piece on the Woolsack fiasco sometime next week, after they have spoken to Sue Blacker and been to the stuffing event in Bedford.

    The IOC doesn’t run the Olympic Games – greedy sponsors do, and I wish the Olympic movement would have the balls to tell them to p..s off.

  7. Pingback: Ravelruckus | Bookgrump

  8. Ruth says:

    Thanks for this post. I am fascinated by both your project and the Woolsack project, which I hadn’t heard about at all.

    The machinations of LOCOG are indeed odious and they are becoming a laughing stock, but at least they don’t own the internet, so you have been able to do your bit spreading the word about these projects without their help. We recently had our safe, law-abiding islands invaded by the torch relay. The high security levels looked ridiculous – and betrayed a lack of understanding of the community they were visiting, whilst they got fabulous Vikingy footage all over the news and we were supposed to be grateful we were ‘included’. Projects like the Woolsack are so much more inclusive, yet they don’t seem to see the value.

  9. Samantha says:

    Spurred on by your report here on your website, and the banning of the combination of the letters O-L-Y-M-P-I-C-S from an internet based event recently, I have written the following to LOCOG and the USOC. I await a reply from either:
    Dear Sirs
    I am writing to both LOCOG and USOC to express my resentment at the way that both of these organisations have managed to tarnish my view of this year’s Olympic Games and their sponsors.
    LOCOG have retracted their promise to grant space in the Olympics village plaza to the Woolsack project: a project offering comfort and encouragement to all the sports participants whilst highlighting an important part of Britain’s heritage, the wool industry, through the distribution of cushions (handmade by volunteers throughout Britain, who are donating their time and the materials free of charge for this project) to the participants.
    The USOC have heavy-handedly banned the term “Ravelympics” within the online community at Ravelry.com: a term which denoted a spontaneous celebration of the dedication of the Olympic sports participants through a sharing of challenges and commitment throughout this international online community.
    These two independent moves have quashed genuine grass-roots support for and personal involvement in the London 2012 Olympics to protect the interests of the sponsors> This has resulted in me associating this year’s Olympic Games with an overriding impression of greed and bully-boy tactics. These tactics, employed by big business, have tarnished the image of both the Games and, more importantly, the big name corporations which are sponsoring the event. I am sorry for the sports participants, who have no choice but to be associated with this, in order to fulfil their dreams.
    Yours sincerely

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