>> Friday, April 21, 2017
The Olympic Games have become the single greatest festival of a universal and cosmopolitan humanity. Seventeen days of sporting competition watched and followed on every continent and in every country on the planet. Simply, the greatest show on earth. Yet when the modern games were inaugurated in Athens in 1896, the founders thought them a "display of manly virtue", an athletic celebration of the kind of amateur gentleman that would rule the world. How was such a ritual invented? Why did it prosper and how has it been so utterly transformed?I bought this one while in the flush of excitement about the Olympics last year, but surprisingly, I actually read it, even once my enthusiasm had dissipated a fair bit. It wasn't quite what I expected, but in hindsight, it probably worked all the better for it. I was expecting a sort of "greatest hits" structure. Instead, Goldblatt concentrates more on the stuff behind what we see on our tellies.
In The Games, David Goldblatt - winner of the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award - takes on a breathtakingly ambitious search for the answers and brilliantly unravels the complex strands of this history. Beginning with the olympics as a sporting side show at the great Worlds Fairs of the Belle Epoque and transformation into a global media spectacular care of Hollywood and the Nazi party, The Games shows how sport and the olympics been a battlefield in the global Cold War, a defining moment for of epoch social and economic change in host cities and countries, and a theatre of resistance for women and athletes colour once excluded from the show.
Illuminated with dazzling vignettes from over a century of olympic completion - this stunningly researched history captures the excitement of sporting brilliance and the kaleidoscopic experience of the Games. It shows us how this sporting spectacle has come to reflect the world we hope to inhabit and the one we actually live in.
Yes, Goldblatt does cover the great moments (as the book description puts it: "such seminal moments as Jesse Owens and Hitler at Berlin in 1936, the Black Power salute at Mexico City in 1968, the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, and the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980"), but the real insight is in how he explores different themes, looking at the issues that really made the Olympics what they are. These themes are things such as the organisers' attitudes towards amateurism vs. professionalism and how and why that evolved (oh, the class prejudices!), or the participation of women in the different sports.
The structure is interesting. Goldblatt goes chronologically, through each and every Olympics, but the thematic analysis carries through. He also groups sets of 3 or 4 consecutive Olympic Games and identifies what the themes were that linked them. We have, for instance, "Not the Only Game in Town: The Olympics and Its Challengers in the 1920s" and "Things Fall Apart: Bankruptcy, Boycotts and the End of Amateurism". So it's sort of overarching themes that carry all the way through, and then these mini-themes that characterise different eras. It works beautifully.
I confess I did struggle a bit to get into the book, as the initial sections on the ancient history and the very initial actions that led to the Olympics felt a bit diffuse and not that interesting. But once we got into the Games themselves, things really started moving, and I was gripped.
Also, Goldblatt can definitely write, which to me is just as essential in non-fiction as it is in fiction.
MY GRADE: A B+.