Home Ethics Contemporary Issues David Owen: Can the Olympic Movement learn anything from Heroes singer David Bowie’s perennially hip and glittering career?

David Owen: Can the Olympic Movement learn anything from Heroes singer David Bowie’s perennially hip and glittering career?


In his forty-odd years in the media spotlight, I am not aware that David Bowie gave the smallest sign of any particular fondness for sport.

But this did not stop the skinny songsmith from south London with the odd-coloured eyes and the genius for image-making from leaving his mark on the Olympics.

Through its many repetitions, his Berlin Wall anthem Heroes – written at the height of the Cold War in 1977, three years before the boycott-scarred Moscow Games – became part of the fabric of London 2012.

My mind’s eye, for example, has it as the soundtrack to a lap of honour by Sir Chris Hoy in a velodrome as noisy and emotional as any concert venue.

The justification for London 2012, if you recall, was to reconnect young people with sport.

The copious recourse, almost from the first minute of the Games to the last, to Britain’s rich pop and rock heritage to supplement the action amounted therefore to tacit acknowledgement of the power of music to help in attaining this goal.

Think about that: one fragment from the oeuvre of a then 65-year-old performer (Heroes was actually co-written with Brian Eno) was judged so inspirational to those 40 or 50 years his junior that it was scripted into scores of victory parades.

With the Olympic zeitgeist now so very different from those heady days in Stratford are there any lessons the Movement can draw from Bowie’s extraordinary career?

Nearly 47 years on from his first hit, Space Oddity, which followed hot on the heels of the Apollo 11 moon landing, one is tempted to say longevity; as the modern face of an Ancient Greek invention, however, this is one area where the Olympics has little to learn.

What is truly remarkable though in a business in which acts go in and out of fashion in a matter of weeks is that Bowie, with the arguable exception of years two and three, remained “hip” and “cool” throughout those 47 years.

This is more fertile ground altogether; there are not that many young people, I suspect, who regard the Olympic Movement as hip or cool, which is a significant part of its strategic problem.

It is worth throwing in at this point that had Bowie been an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, he would probably have been due for retirement on age grounds at the end of next year.

So the advanced average age of an organisation’s members ought not per se to be a barrier to retaining street cred.

How did he do it? Well, he was known as a pop chameleon and part of his secret was to embrace repeated, radical style changes from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and so on.

He was also a proficient film actor.

It would have been easy for him to stick, as most pop acts do, with a tried and tested formula, and simply ride the wave until it crested.

But he never stood still for long. As he said in a sentence that was displayed in a London tube station on Monday as a warm and witty handwritten tribute: “I don’t know where I am going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”

His was not the only recipe: another rock music front-man who remained hip until the end, indeed who was probably hipper in his last years than in his early decades, also died recently aged 70 – Motorhead’s Lemmy.

The secret of Lemmy’s cool was that he never changed a jot. But then the audience for the hard-pounding heavy metal for which Motorhead are known was far more restricted and less diverse than the one that Bowie commanded.

Of course, it is one thing for a pop singer to embrace a strategy of repeated radical change, but quite another for a high profile, globe-straddling institution to do so.

“I don’t know where I am going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring” would not be a sensible mission statement for an IOC President to adopt.

But it is all too easy for complex, multi-layered, multinational institutions to fall prey to gradualism, ch-ch-ch-changing only at a snail’s pace when they change at all.

The trajectory of Bowie’s career would tend to suggest that when an idea is strong, there is a great deal to be said for adopting it uncompromisingly, with courage and conviction.

Applying this theory to Agenda 2020, you might conclude that this is why the Olympic media channel looks enticing and potentially innovative while so much of the rest of the programme seems underwhelming – especially given the deep-seated problems in some leading sports bodies that 2015 has brought to light.

Of course, big organisations, especially multinational ones, are often structured so as to make bold, decisive action very difficult.

This is the prudent path; the best way to avoid putting too many influential noses out of joint.

What needs, I think, to be resisted in any large institution is going a step further and adopting the mindset that a gradual approach on any issue is automatically virtuous.

In sports administration, as in the field of artistic endeavour, bold can be good.


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