Tempelhof on a Saturday afternoon: The sun is out, the beer is flowing, and Great Britain's victory in the rowing is being beamed out to hundreds of Berliners sunbathing in front of the big screen. Most of the action, however, is happening on the other side of the field, where a small sports arena has been constructed out of red and white tape and a homemade banner. It is surrounded by spectators who, it is possible to discern from the babble and the odd flash of patriotic livery, come from all four corners of the globe.
This is the Slowlympics: an alternative Olympic Games organised by „Slow Travel Berlin“. Through the course of the afternoon, the beer will continue to flow, while the participants take part in a variety of bizarre events in an attempt – and a successful one at that – to take themselves a little less seriously.
“Once I get an idea like this, it's difficult to stop,” Slow Travel Berlin's co-founder Paul Sullivan tells me, “once I realised „Slow“ rhymed with „O“, I kind of had to do an Olympics event.”
“Slow Travel Berlin” is a half blog, half volunteer organisation which promotes the idea of “Slow Tourism”; tourism, in other words, which rejects fast paced, commercialised box ticking in favour of immersing oneself properly in a city or location. As the organisation’s website says: “it emboldens us to take pause. To think. To saunter instead of rush and enjoy the details instead of blurring past them.”
So what has this got to do with the Olympics? Particularly in Berlin where, in case we hadn’t noticed, the Games aren’t taking place this summer?
“Slow is an ambiguous word,” says Sullivan, “and I like that. There are different ways you can interpret it. This event is about making the Olympics a bit less about competition and more about collaboration. And that’s what Berlin is like, the way I see it. It’s a collaborative, not a competitive city.”
Certainly, the Slowlympics seem to be the antithesis of the chaos back home. They are just one event in a variety at Tempelhof, where the “Die Spiele in Berlin” offers citizens and tourists alike the opportunity to sit for free and enjoy the sport in the sun. There is no shortage of space, the atmosphere is chilled and, for once, the Olympics seem to be something which absolutely everyone is enjoying. The Currywurst may be a Euro or two more expensive than it is on the street, but it’s worth the pain. As for Slow Travel’s event, it’s not quite Slowlympics versus Olympics, says Sullivan, but it’s definitely a nice alternative.
We finish our conversation, as he goes to brief the Slowlympics competitors. They are numerous, multinational and largely eccentric. Families tuck into picnics while the smokers guiltily avoid the toddlers. One group of Spaniards in matching t-shirts babble away amongst themselves, while a giant American gentleman dons a hat in the shape of a pint glass, with “USA” emblazoned across the front.
The first event is the standing long jump. Six grown men and women line up along the tape and jump a few feet forwards, before everyone falls about laughing and cheers excitedly. Next is Wurst Flinging: even more grown men and women line up and are each handed a small, raw Wiener sausage which they take turns to throw as far as they can. The Germans, who have never received any proper cricket coaching, begin to stand out. One Wurst hits a photographer. Sides split.
The day goes on with all number of similarly ridiculous competitions. There is a backwards running race, a slow bicycle race, grape spitting and compact discus. Sullivan, moreover, is right. This is collaborative. It’s self aware, relaxed and hilarious fun.
Sullivan admits that the organisation has made a slight loss on the event: “We raised €260 from team registrations and donations, and we’ve spent about 100 more than that. But it’s not about the money. It’s just been a fantastic day. And we lost a lot more money at our last event, so we’re improving!”
Slow Travel Berlin’s non-capitalist approach is admirable. While it may hinder the organisation from expanding in terms of bilingualism – it is, for the moment, a largely Anglophone set up – and audience, it ensures that events like the Slowlympics remain true to what the organisation promotes – involvement, integration and enjoyment.
And this event, however small, however informal, a breath of fresh air from the overly commercialised world of the modern Olympics. In social and economic terms, it was indeed collaborative, not competitive.