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The Games: A Global History of the Olympics:

David Goldblatt

One of the greatest feats in the history of the modern Olympics was achieved when Jim Thorpe, an American of mixed European and Native American heritage, won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 games in Stockholm. He was so far ahead of his contemporaries that his times and distances would have given him a hatful of golds if he had competed in individual disciplines. And although he was a novice, some of his records in the decathlon would last for 60 years. When Gustav V of Sweden draped the two gold medals around Thorpe’s neck, he paid him an undeniable compliment: 'You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.' Thorpe's reply might be apocryphal, but is irresistible: 'Thanks, king.'

A year later, when it transpired that Thorpe had previously earned a few dollars playing minor-league baseball, contrary to Olympic amateurism rules, he was stripped of his medals and his name was removed from the record books.

Thus was established the great contradiction of the modern games, which is the central thesis of David Goldblatt's solid and penetrating account. As a world stage for human athletic achievement, the Olympics have been wonderful and life-enhancing. As a vehicle for preening governance, megalomania, nationalism and injustice, they have been grotesque.

It all began with good intentions. Taking inspiration from the Ancient Greek games, as well as visits to the quaint games at Much Wenlock, Shropshire, Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, a minor French nobleman, conceived the idea of an international festival of sport. Good thinking, but unfortunately the ethos of the games from the start was rigidly Victorian: they would offer a display of manly virtues by gentleman-amateurs. No professionals, no riffraff and, in the first modern games in 1896, no women.

At least half the human race watched London 2012

Perhaps we should not be too harsh on the baron, a good egg and a man of his times, but if he had given more weight to the ancient games, he might have been more flexible. At Olympia, there had been no cash prizes, but the sporting culture in which they were set was highly commercialised. Furthermore, the idea that sport should be apolitical, another futile tenet of the Olympic movement, was entirely modern.

Games by games, Goldblatt exposes a sorry parade. In the name of a spurious purity, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred anyone tainted by professionalism, and for decades confined women to decorative sports such as tennis, golf, croquet and archery.

The key Olympic political figure during much of the 20th century was Avery Brundage, who, like Thorpe, represented the United States in the decathlon and pentathlon in Stockholm. While making a fortune building skyscrapers in Chicago, Brundage also rose to pre-eminence in the IOC, first as the member for the US, later as the president from 1952 to 1972.

Brundage presented himself as the keeper of de Coubertin's flame. In fact, he was an autocratic bully. Pleas that Thorpe should have his medals and records restored were met with a stone face. 'Ignorance is no excuse,' Brundage said. Keep politics out of sport was his watchword as he embraced and appeased totalitarian regimes. As IOC member for the US, he opposed calls for a boycott of the Nazi games in Berlin, once boasting that his Chicago club did not admit Jews.

Shortly before the 1968 games in Mexico City, some 250 protesters were gunned down by an Olympic security battalion. Over the following weeks, thousands more were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured. Clearing away undesirables from the streets of a host city had become as traditional as the torch relay and the opening ceremony. At Munich in 1972, terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. All were killed, as well as five of the terrorists and a German police officer. The IOC response to the massacres of Mexico City and Munich was a quick washing of hands: the games go on.

Brundage was also a bulwark against commercialisation and television. 'The IOC has managed without television for 60 years,' he said in 1956, 'and believe me we are going to manage for another 60.'

By the time the wily Juan Antonio Samaranch took over as president in 1981, however, the dam had burst. Hypocrisy was replaced by venality; sponsorship and broadcasting were given full rein. The IOC grew ever grander as its reach expanded. Samaranch insisted on being treated as if he were a head of state.

There are so many issues and events for Goldblatt to cover that his book can sometimes feel too potted. He has also made minor errors, probably caused by a rush to meet the Rio deadline. But his analysis and narrative flow are excellent, especially when we reach the modern era. Some games, such as Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996 (the Coca-Cola games), turned a profit. But Montreal 1976 and Athens 2004 showed how dangerous gigantism could be. Quebec's taxpayers finally paid off their nearly $1.5bn debt in 2006. Compared with the Greeks, who spent $16bn, they got off lightly.

Yet the Olympics really are the greatest show on earth, and no amount of corruption, doping and cheating can undermine the spectacle. London 2012 claimed that at least half the human race, 3.6bn people, watched at least a minute of the games. Broadcast to almost 200 countries, it could claim a prime-time audience of 200m. That is thanks to the true roll of honour, from Jim Thorpe in 1912 to Usain Bolt in 2012.

Perhaps the greatest games, and the best example of true Olympic virtues, was Rome 1960, the first to be televised internationally. In one fortnight, the world was set alight by the grace of four diverse young athletes. Wilma Rudolph, an African-American who was one of 22 children and had polio as a child, won three sprint gold medals. Cassius Clay, who won gold as a light-heavyweight boxer, had a crush on Rudolph, but was too shy to ask her out. Herb Elliott, from Australia, the greatest of all middle-distance runners, won the 1500m by a street and broke his own world record. Finally, the marathon, staged at night and lit by thousands of hand-held torches, was won by an unknown black African, Abebe Bikila, a member of Emperor Haile Selassie’s bodyguard. As if connecting to the dawn of humanity, he ran his race barefoot.

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