Olympics books reviewed: gold at all costs

Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics and The Games: A Global History of the Olympics trace history of what one social activist damns as ‘greed, exclusivity and elitism’


These two books are a timely and depressing reminder of the grisly underbelly of the Olympic Games. Both tell a similar story in different ways, and it is ultimately a damn ugly tale, despite the many moments of uplift, idealism and sporting brilliance that permeate the history of the Olympics.

The books are an antidote to any narrative that suggests Olympic purity has only recently been diluted; as David Goldblatt, a sports journalist with the Guardian and author of two acclaimed books on the history and culture of football, recognises, the first Olympic games, in Olympia in the Peloponnese, in the eighth century BC, was “set within an often highly professionalized and commercialized sporting culture”, with political capital “generated and traded”.

Jules Boykoff, a prolific politics professor and former member of the US Olympic soccer team, has written extensively about activism and the Olympics and at the outset of his book asserts that engaging with the history of the Olympics is a useful foundation “for understanding class privilege, indigenous repression, activist strategy and capitalist power”.

Goldblatt’s short chapters sketch the quest, from the late 18th century, to revive the ancient games. A key development was the emergence of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who in the 1890s sought to form a “unique version of the modern games”. This led to their staging in Athens in 1896 and Paris in 1900, with an overseeing committee of academics, military officers, athletes and administrators.

Even in these early years there were concerns about housing, the cost of hosting, fears of stadiums not being ready on time, and foreign journalists who “came to dig for dirt” while “the boosters talked things up”.

The tones of the books differ. Goldblatt is often more casual, and sometimes whimsical, but offers tasty slices of social history and the occasional killer punch. Boykoff is sterner, with better footnoting, but he is overly prone to political-science jargon. Taken together, they are good companion volumes and well researched.

Both books share a capacity to uncover the contradictions that have always riddled the games, partly due to the chasm between the public rejections of politics at the Olympics by its overseers and the political power that they have relentlessly mobilised behind the scenes to help nurture the games.

The 1904 games in St Louis saw racial groups pitted against one another, with the charade of racism masquerading as scientific method. The 1908 London games exposed Britain’s imperial anxieties and fraught relationship with the US – as well as Irish nationalist aspirations – as the track athlete Peter O’Connor defiantly hoisted a large green flag to protest at being listed with the British delegation. In 1912, at Stockholm, the Finns marched with their own flag, outraging the Russians.

There were also alternatives to the Olympics. For example, women were not allowed to participate in track and field until 1928. The women’s 800m at Amsterdam that year was, as recorded by Goldblatt, in one of numerous citations of contemporary prejudices, seen as “a pitiful spectacle; to see these girls tumble down after the finish line like dead sparrows. This distance is far too strenuous for women.” Women were then banned from competing in the 800m “on health grounds” until 1960.

To challenge the International Olympic Council (IOC) feminists organised their own games, what Boykoff calls “a vital yet largely forgotten act of political dissent”. There were four women’s games from 1922 to 1934.

After the first World War new states saw, in Goldblatt’s words, “their Olympic debuts as vital components in securing and defining the nation”. As well, the age of the amateur “gentleman” was also under assault from the “lower orders”. Another alternative was the International Workers’ Olympiads, successfully staged in Frankfurt in 1925 and Vienna in 1931, which were largely marginalised by the mainstream media. Still, by 1930 the Socialist Workers’ Sport International had a membership of four million; Goldblatt calls it “the largest working-class cultural movement of the era”.

Delusion and hypocrisy about purity were apparent in the 1930s; Goldblatt points out that Coca-Cola had billboards at the 1932 Olympics, in Los Angeles, although the official report maintained that “not a single note of commercialism was allowed to permeate the consummation of the task”.

The “Nazi games” in 1936 – “initially of little interest to Hitler”, according to Boykoff – were covered by 3,000 journalists in Berlin (compared with 445 at the 1912 Olympics). Colleagues of the IOC’s president, Avery Brundage, witnessed him boast to the Germans that his own Chicago sports club excluded Jews. Jesse Owens, the star of the games, resented President Roosevelt more than Hitler, as he did not even send him a note of congratulations.

The plight of the athlete was apparent in other ways; Owens could not achieve financial stability and was reduced to racing against horses: “You can’t eat four gold medals,” he lamented. (Ironically, in 2013, one of Owens’s gold medals was auctioned for $1.47 million.)

Chauvinistic spittle

The era of the cold-war games saw increased commercialism and, in Boykoff’s words, “chauvinistic spittle spraying in every direction”. (The Soviet Union gained membership of the IOC in 1951.) The despotic Brundage insisted that the Olympics must stay out of politics and away from commercialism, but by 1956 the Melbourne games were boycotted by Egypt because of the Suez crisis and by the Dutch and Spanish because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

The IOC demonstrated a “wilful gullibility” in relation to apartheid in South Africa, but the push for a boycott paid off, with South Africa’s invitation withdrawn for the 1964 games, in Tokyo.

Starting with Rome in 1960, Goldblatt observes, “each of the next nine summer games served as the centrepiece of its host nation’s announcement of domestic transformation and international standing”. Japan in 1964, for example, engaged in what he calls “the single greatest act of collective re-imagining” in Japan’s postwar history. This involved Tokyo descending “into a hellish miasma of demolition and construction” and all of the toxicity that went with that, including low safety standards (which resulted in 100 deaths), land speculation, bribes and aggressive sweeping aside of “vagrants”.

The 1968 Mexico Olympics are remembered for the defiant Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for which they paid a heavy price, but they were far from “lone renegades”. A few weeks earlier in the city “security forces massacred scores, perhaps hundreds of protestors”. (This is a frustratingly vague assertion by Boykoff; Goldblatt gives a figure of 250 dead.)

The cost of the Mexico games when social programmes were underfunded was just one reason for the protests. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz “imported a whole new suite of riot gear from the US”. When asked about the riots, death and torture and the storming of the national university, Brundage replied, “I was at the ballet last night”. The IOC’s doping committee was established in 1962, but in Mexico just a single competitor failed the test, the Swedish pentathlete Hans Liljenwall, “for drinking too much alcohol”.

The massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics is made more poignant, reminds Goldblatt, by the memory of the Israeli fencer Dan Alon, who said that “taking part in the opening ceremony, only 36 years after Berlin, was one of the most beautiful moments in my life. We were in heaven.”

Security measures in its wake were often used to crush political activism; the IOC, led by the reprehensible Brundage, was all too happy to be sneeringly dismissive of protesters.

Goldblatt has entertaining and revealing pen portraits of the IOC leaders. Juan Antonio Samaranch, for example, was a “master of vacuity” but knew how to cultivate powerful contacts. The idiosyncratic and impish Lord Michael Killanin was more realistic about politics, railed against the IOC’s position on amateurism (looking the other way as athletes increasingly cashed in on their talents) and took TV very seriously. But much of Killanin’s presidency was “consumed by the politics of who could come to the games and who could not”.

Testing for enhanced performances continued as a bad joke: in Moscow in 1980 not a single athlete failed a drugs test, and the Russians revelled in the accolade of the “purest games in history”. (They are not boasting today.)

There was also the increasingly astronomical cost of staging the Olympics; the 1976 Montreal games, for instance, ended up costing $1.5 billion, saddling Canadians with a debt that would take three decades to pay. This era marked the dawn of hypercommercialism that ultimately culminated in the privatisation of the games for the first time in Los Angeles, in 1984, when a private group rather than the city itself organised the event.

In the words of Boykoff this was “the first full throttle, corporate, Capitalist Olympics”; it made a profit of $215 million. Goldblatt adds the revealing (chicken) nugget that such was the corporate paradise that McDonalds had “a scratch card embossed with one Olympic event. If America won the gold in that event the card could then be redeemed for a Big Mac.”

Coca-Cola games

The 1992 Barcelona games cost $11 billion. They also involved the gentrification of parts of the city, leading to sixfold cost-of-living increase in the six years leading up to the games. In relation to Atlanta’s 1996 “Coca-Cola” Olympics, Boykoff records the derision of Martin Luther King III: “Greed, exclusivity and elitism have become the symbols of Atlanta’s Olympic movement.” This involved a “social cleansing programme”, with 9,000 homeless people arrested between 1995 and 1996.

For IOC members, however, there were increasingly lavish gifts; Goldblatt reminds us that, by the 1990s, the IOC embraced a “pathological culture of gift giving”. There was breathtaking corruption in relation to the Salt Lake City bid for the 1998 winter games, which involved $3 million.

Boykoff asserts that, in the modern era, “local and national policing forces use the Olympics like their own private cash machine, multiplying and militarizing their weapons stocks”. In Beijing in 2008 the Chinese government “spent billions to retool its repressive apparatus” as the US sold it high-tech surveillance systems.

There was also the farce of the Chinese protest zone; those who applied for permits for the zone were then targeted, including two women aged 77 and 79, sentenced to “re-education through labour”. There were wholescale evictions, as the “government vacuumed up 8,400 acres for the games”.

All the while the debt mountain continued: the 2004 games cost Athens $16 billion, with the Greek government providing 85 per cent of this; many of its Olympic venues, Boykoff reminds us, now lie “in squalid abandonment”.

Goldblatt poses this question: “why did it get to the point that Greece, already an insolvent country of just 10 million people, would stage an Olympic Games that cost as much as the previous 5 or 6 put together?” Corporate giants were again schmoozed for the 2012 London games, with sponsors securing tax exemptions. The London games, according to Boris Johnson, the city’s mayor at the time, revealed a Britain “at ease with itself”. How ironic and long ago that smug boast seems now.

The IOC has also sought, unconvincingly, to reinvent its narrative with talk of human rights, exposing doping and environmental sustainability, but it has systematically failed to deliver on its promises.

True, Russia has been prevented from sending athletes to Rio under the national flag, an announcement that came after these books were finished, and Boykoff maintains that activists and protestors “have helped create a massive shift in the way the Olympics are talked about”. But these developments are only a fraction of what is needed.

The books bring us eventually to this summer in Rio, Boykoff arguing that in the past few years “celebration capitalism scythed the path for normalizing neoliberalism in Brazil”. Goldblatt dryly observes that given all the problems facing Brazil, “it is hard to imagine that staging the Olympics for $20 billion is part of the solution”.

By all means we can admire those we think are clean athletes in crisis-ridden, debt-addled Brazil this summer, where 10,000 athletes from 205 countries will be hosted, where 85,000 personnel will be involved in policing, and where any political activism is likely to be conveniently conflated with terrorism. But it is the filthy underbelly that screams out from these pages.

Contemporary Rio is a city where real-estate barons have backed the building of Olympic venues, constructed by slave labourers living in rat-infested squalor, which will be converted into condominiums to make huge profits for the barons. A local athletic arena has been demolished to clear the way, leaving a community bereft of its sporting home, while the putrid waters of Guanabara Bay are host to industrial junk and human corpses.

On the evidence presented in these two books we should hate the venal destructiveness of those who have orchestrated the Olympic Games over many decades and admire those who have taken risks to expose the rottenness.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD. His most recent book is A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23 (Profile)

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