'The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by', by David Goldblatt - Review

By Horspool, David | The Spectator, July 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by', by David Goldblatt - Review


Horspool, David, The Spectator


There's nothing new about lying and cheating at the Olympics. Scandal has dogged the Games for well over a century, says David Horspool

The ambitions of the founding father of the modern Olympic Games, the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin -- that they should be 'the free trade of the future' and provide 'the cause of peace' with a 'new and mighty stay' -- were at once wildly optimistic and strangely prescient. Considering that they were first conceived of as a festival of sporting excellence in a spirit of internationalism, the Olympics have had an enduring habit of stirring up displays of humanity at its worst. To anyone who believes that the excesses of the Games over the past 50 years or so have betrayed a purer original legacy, these two books by Jules Boykoff and David Goldblatt provide bracing correctives.

The Games may have grown with each successive Olympiad, but almost all their present-day horrors are rehearsals of performances given during their earliest reincarnations, from Coubertin's first revival in Athens in 1896 up to and beyond Hitler's racist jamboree in Berlin in 1936. And yet here they come again, unstoppable by recession, depression or scandal, and embracing a version of 'free trade' that the Baron could never have imagined.

The first modern Games were, like nearly all those that succeeded them, arranged as a result of horse-trading on committees by men (exclusively men until many decades later) who were answerable only to themselves. 'We are not elected. We are self-recruiting, and our terms of office are unlimited. Is there anything that could irritate the public more?', was Coubertin's reaction to criticism, quoted by Boykoff.

Coubertin's Games were imposed on a city whose actual governors had no intention of putting them on. The Greek prime minister, Charilaos Tricoupis, hoped they would go away, and 'would have preferred that the question of the Olympic Games had never arisen'. But, in a way that would become familiar to opponents and sceptics of subsequent Games, up to and including London 2012, the prospect of embarrassment in front of a global audience and the willingness of other powerful interests to step in, combined to arrange a spectacle that somehow captured the imagination not only of those who attended, including vast crowds who watched from the hills surrounding the stadium, but also a wider public.

But there were always serpents in the Baron's Eden. The tradition of lying about the tremendous cost of the Games began early, with Coubertin's estimate of a budget of 200,000 drachmas for the whole event turning out to cover only a third of the costs of refurbishing the main stadium, let alone any other outgoings. The twinning of Olympism with amateurism was always divisive. At first, the International Olympic Committee stuck to the most extreme interpretation of the concept, inherited from the likes of Britain's Amateur Athletic Club, for whom amateurs could by definition not include anyone who is 'by trade or employment a mechanic, artisan, or labourer'.

From the beginning, that level of exclusion proved difficult to police, but even so, the International Olympic Committee was perfectly willing to strip Jim Thorpe, the hero of the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, of his gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, for having been paid to play baseball. They continued to refuse to reinstate them until 70 years later and still, 'in an act of breathtaking meanness', as Goldblatt puts it, 'left their records unaltered', as if Thorpe had never taken part in the Games, let alone been greeted as 'the greatest athlete in the world' by the King of Sweden (to which Thorpe is meant to have replied, 'Thanks, King'). The IOC clung to amateurism long after the state-run programmes of the Soviet bloc had made a complete mockery of the term. Barcelona, in 1992, was officially the first Games at which amateurism was no longer imposed.

Drugs, the signature neurosis of the modern Olympics, were part of the proceedings from very early on, too. …

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