The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Quite disappointing. There is some interesting and useful information; especially about the early games and the 19th century context that the Olympic revival comes out of. But as it gets further on; the book suffers. Frankly, it is probably trying to do and say too much in too little space. There is no overarching theme or narrative; no through line, that connects the chapters. There are some focal points; but these are not as well developed as they could be; and sometimes forced as the author tries to shoe horn in all the games of a specific time frame into the focus. But, as often as not, these focuses get lost in the details. The author tends to spend more time on the planners (and their backgrounds) than the games themselves. The latter half is almost entirely focused on the broader sociological and economic contexts of the host cities and games with very little discussed about the games themselves. There is only a tiny bit about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, for example, when discussing the Summer Games in 2008. A good chunk of the Rio games is taken up by a discussion of the Brazilian presidential impeachment and surrounding scandals. Also, the closer to our own era we get, the more the authors particular political biases come through, muddying the analysis.
The subtitle of the book is the “A Global History of the Games” but it is not at clear what is particularly global about this history. Obviously, it is global, since the Olympics is global, but beyond that, I am not sure what they are trying to get at with that.
There is also a kind of elitist aesthetics expressed throughout. Inevitable, Olympic projects, such as buildings, slogans, or mascots, are described as kitschy, banal, vacuous, or ugly. There is a lot of sneering at the consumerism around the Olympics—which seems to run counter to the author’s concerns about the IOC’s long history of clinging to 19th century amateurism.
There are some errors as well; the most egregious being when he inexplicably labels the Christian identity nationalist, Eric Rudolph, the terrorist responsible for the Atlanta Olympics pipe bomb, a libertarian.
Overall the author’s cynicism and elitism get in the way of the valid criticisms of Olympic projects. As this and other histories show, there are many problems and criticisms to be made, but this work doesn’t do the work necessary to develop these, explain why they are concerns, or offer much in the way of alternatives. In most cases, the reality of the games is implicitly compared to some unstated majestic and idyllic system where the Olympics could take place without these problems.
Furthermore, as critical as the author is of the vision of Coubertin’s Olympics, the author actually seems to in a way share this utopian vision of pure sport. But since the reality of the Olympics can never live up to this vision; it gets lots of righteous scorn and rhetorical sneering.
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