The Games by David Goldblatt is a door-stop history of the modern Olympic Games, from their reinvention in Athens in 1896 to Rio 2016. I picked it up from my library, but it’s also cheap on Amazon.
The book examines the role of the Olympics in international conflicts, women’s struggle to be included on equal terms, and how every Olympic Games had their issues.
He also delves into the offshoots of the main event such as the artistic and musical competitions, and rival protest movements. It ends at the 2016 Rio Games (and unfortunately misses the pandemic-craziness of the 2020 Tokyo Games).
Goldblatt shows how the Olympics have been buffeted by (and affected by) domestic and international issues, and how they reflect changing attitudes to race and ethnicity. Even though they have a connotation of being politics-free…they are anything but – and have always been that way.
He also examines how the IOC remains a secretive and unaccountable organization, and how the events it promotes are bloated festivals of corporate capitalism and artificially enhanced human ones (I had no idea the breadth of Communist-bloc cheating…that was sort of just taken for granted).
What I Liked
I liked how organized the book was. Admittedly, it’s a long one, but it did not feel that way since it’s structured chronologically from Athens 1896 to Rio 2016 (plus the Winter Games).
I liked how he gave sets of Olympic Games a unifying theme – like “Quiet Years” of Helsinki, London, Melbourne, etc – it gave a real sense of how the Games fit in with the times.
I liked how he wove in a geopolitical context, without dwelling on it.
David Goldblatt is a simply fabulous writer. His book, The Ball Is Round, was terrific. I’d honestly read anything he writes.
What I Didn’t Like
The book was terrific. Nothing truly negative.
I’m an Atlantan. I’m deeply biased. But, even though I love the city, it absolutely has flaws. And, yes, the Atlanta Olympics had some significant flaws. So I expected some criticism, especially since the author made it clear that every Olympic Games (except maybe Barcelona as the exception that proves the rule) had significant flaws.
But, wowza, did the author have some things to say about Atlanta.
And it seemed like the criticism of Atlanta was sharper because Atlanta pulled a lot of Olympic ridiculousness out in the open rather than playing this weird hush-hush say-one-thing-then-do-another that every other Olympics did even though Atlanta’s Olympic ridiculousness was the same, or even less, than other Olympic Games.
For example, Atlanta was famously “hospitable” to the IOC committee members and played that game out in the open and played it well, because that’s how you played it. Salt Lake & Sydney straight up paid cash bribes to officials to get the Games…but because they did it in secret and hushed, it was more understandable.
Either way, it’s a minor criticism of the book, even though I will admit that he’s right that Atlanta had issues that put a damper on the legacy of the Games, even if the actual Games ticked all the markers of success.
Baron de Coubertin (the founder of the Olympic movement) was a ridiculous dude however he is Exhibit A for the ability to Think Big and stick with your dreams. I mean the modern Olympics are ridiculous in their own way…and yet, they are absolutely amazing. To be able to get humans from every country on Earth to all get together and play games with each other is simply nuts when you look back over human history. The Baron made it happen.
The world of Big Sports is insane. Unlike high geopolitics (like the UN) where you have state self-interest as a driving motivation, Big Sport has all these conflicting motivations that produce the strangest outcomes.
The Olympics as I know it, as a child of the Nineties, is surprisingly recent. There have not been that many “normal” Olympics – where most countries are represented, women can fully participate, and they have a unified look to them.