Friday, September 26, 2008

The Olympics: SRS BSNS

I just finished yet another book on the Olympic games. Titled simply: The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games by Allen Guttmann, it was definitely a project. Its slender size belies the complexity of the story it has to tell. Guttmann's aim was to get behind the scenes of the Games, to bust into the closed-door meetings in Lausanne and share with an average readership the social history of the Games and what really goes into them.

It's also an excellent crash-course in twentieth-century world history. I'd never considered the extent to which the IOC must act as a second UN sometimes. For example: in 1949, when Taiwan broke away from mainland China, there were suddenly two groups claiming to represent the real China. The animosity between the two groups was such that they not only refused to compete together as a unified team, but that each threatened to boycott if the other was allowed in. Quick, what do you do? What's best for the Games? What's best for China? And if, as a representative from a NATO country, you vote for the Communists, what does that mean for international relations? Here's another thorny one: what do you do when a country's very policies violate the Olympic spirit? Should you let apartheid South Africa send an all-white team? Should you let Nazi Germany send a team devoid of Jewish athletes? Is your head spinning yet?

Answering these questions has been the business of the IOC since its inception. Baron de Coubertin's vision is often interpreted to be apolitical. Guttmann's thesis is that it was frankly political: the Olympics were supposed to be a sort of proto-UN, where countries could get to know one another outside of a diplomatic setting, find common ground through sport, and ultimately, learn to get along better to the point where the only people who need guns are those competing in the Olympic marksmanship events. But, as Guttmann shows, throughout the history of the modern games, there have always been groups who aren't so willing to do that. Almost every Olympics has been threatened with a boycott from one country or another. Sorting out the reasons why, trying to remember my world history, trying to recall what the various countries are called today, was why it took me almost two weeks to finish this 193-page book. I'm not saying it's a bad read, just that it takes some concentration.

Guttmann also devotes some time to the amateur question and the issue of doping. I'm too young to remember this, I guess, but the amateur question is sort of the old "doping". It was, until the mid-1980s, a specter that hung over every Games. The meaning of "amateur" was sticky and open to interpretation: a man enlisted in the cavalry was not an "amateur", but an officer was. Jim Thorpe was famously stripped of his medals after it was revealed that he had been paid to play summer professional baseball when he was in college. Like the doping scandals, it seemed that prior to every Olympics, a front runner in some event would be disqualified for having been paid to play. And like the doping scandals, sometimes it would seem incredibly unfair, as in the 2000 case of Romanian gymanst Andreea Raducan. Raducan was stripped of her all-around title after she tested positive for pseudophedrine, which was given to her by a doctor for a cold.

The version I read is a second edition, edited to include information on the Games up to Salt Lake City. The last few chapters interested me the most, because those are the Games I remember the best. I was hoping he'd devote more space to the Winter Olympics, especially the figure skating. 1992 and 1994 were exciting years in figure skating. New rules for women raised the stakes dramatically. In the 1992 Olympics, every single women's medal winner had a fall. 1994 had not only the drama between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, but a stunningly beautiful performance by Oksana Baiul. I think Guttmann was wrong to state that the decision to award the gold to Baiul was "questionable". Not to anyone who watched it and actually understood what they were seeing. Both women skated a beautiful program, but Baiul also skated clean, and since Kerrigan couldn't make the same claim, she rightfully received the silver. It was a small point, but it did make me wonder somewhat about the rest of the book.

Guttmann also gives space to the issue of commercialization. The 1976 Montreal Games were such a money-loser that there was scant competition for the award of the 1984 Games. Yet those games made money for the city of Los Angeles, through the sale of television rights and commercial sponsorships. Again, I can't remember a time when this wasn't a case. But apparently that was the first year it was possible to fly to another city on the official airways of the Olympics, rent a car from the official car rental company of the Olympics, drive to the official hotel of the Olympics, and kick back with either an official domestic beer of the Olympic or an official imported beer of the Olympics, and watch the game on the official television of the Olympics, while sitting on the official mattress of the Olympics. Guttmann also ties the demise of the amateur question to the increased commercialization. There still isn't much money in swimming as a profession, but how much do you suppose Michael Phelps makes in endorsements?

While this book is a bit of a project, it does contain much interesting history and context. Another interesting feature of the book is its bibliographic essay. It's five pages long and will help you scratch any itch for specialized information. If you've always wondered what it's like to be an Olympic rower, if you want to know more about Rhodesia and the Games, if you're determined to pin down the ambiguous Avery Brundage once and for all, there are books for those things too. One that particularly interests me is The Big Red Machine by Yuri Brokhin. I've always thought there was something creepy about the Russian, East German and now Chinese gymnasts. Their achievements are undeniable, but watching them perform is a little like watching someone do something at gunpoint. Most Olympic fans know the broad outlines of a typical Communist athlete's career, but I'd like to learn more specifics. This book has inspired me to do so...but later. I need a bit of an Olympic break. I'm going back to novels for a little bit.

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