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The Games: A Global History of the Olympics By David Goldblatt

Release date: 17th July, 2016
Publisher: Macmillan

List Price: £20.00
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For decades, the Olympic Games, like its equally over-hyped sporting cousin, the World Cup, have each provided a seemingly endless source of rich material for writers. During this time, however, only one undeniably definitive account of either event has appeared – Brian Glanville’s The Story of the World Cup, published in 1980 – which means the Olympics await a similarly conclusive title.

David Goldblatt’s version is good, but it’s a little too hurried in parts; the book runs to 400 pages, though the subject matter probably warrants a second or even a third volume.

The modern Olympic era began with Baron de Couberin who, in 1892, advocated the reintroduction of the Games, firm in the belief that athletes could do as much for world peace as the development of “the telegraph, railways [or] the telephone.”

Goldblatt clearly revels in unearthing the Games’ earliest foundations, acknowledging the influence of the Much Wenlock Games in Shropshire as well as the Cotswold Games, first held in Chipping Camden in 1612.

He’s equally at home when setting an evocative scene, such as the one at Antwerp in 1920, when the Games’ ceremonial arch featured not a traditional discuss thrower or marble statue of a muscled wrestler, but a “Belgian soldier lobbing a hand grenade.”

There’s also a steady stream of engaging anecdotes. A favourite comes from Stockholm’s 1912 Games where American Jim Thorpe romped to victory in both the decathlon and the pentathlon. When Sweden’s king Gustav V awarded Thorpe his two gold medals, he shook the American’s hand and said: “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe, showing few signs of nerves, replied: “Thanks, king.”

The following year, however, Thorpe’s records were removed from the record books after it was discovered he had played minor league baseball as a professional. Ironically, involvement in professional sport is a ‘crime’ that would result in almost all of today’s Olympic record holders being disqualified.

The Games can, of course, be inspirational: from the joy of Mary Peters to the pain of Olga Korbut and sheer delight of Jessica Ennis.

Yet we must contrast this with the displays of overt nationalism (Berlin 1936), of troops shooting 250 of their own people in Mexico City in 1968, the massacre at Munich four years later. Then there’s the ridiculous overspends – at Montreal (1976) – it took Quebec forty years to repay the debt and at Athens in 2004.

Perhaps it’s the Game’s ability to simultaneously inspire and shock which makes them so compulsive (half of the world’s population saw at least a minute of London 2012 on TV) and while we await a definitive written history of the event, that won’t prevent most of us from tuning into Rio between 5th and 21st August.


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