Thursday, August 15, 2019

Book 194: The Games



"Payne and his friends had promised an Olympic Games funded entirely by the private sector: a modernized version of Los Angeles 1984, but with turbocharged levels of sponsorship and television money. As with all neoliberal fantasies, the project actually rested on the massive and multifaceted involvement of every level of the American state, the short-circuiting of institutions of democratic control, the use of force, where necessary, and all on terms unambiguously favorable to a tiny slice of private and already-powerful interests."

Dates read: December 4-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I am not an athlete. Grace, balance, poise...these are not qualities I possess. I have exercise-induced asthma, so even going jogging for a couple miles like I do on the weekends when it's a reasonable temperature outside is an endeavor. For the most part, I've made my peace with this. I still try to be active, so I do jog (after I hit my inhaler), and I enjoy forms of dance that are more about rhythm than grace. But every so often, when I watch something like figure skating, I find myself wishing that sports were a thing I was any good at.

I suffer the worst fits of this desire to be sporty once every two years or so, when the Olympics rolls around. It also tends to turn me from someone who likes discussing the gulf between America's promise and America's reality into an intense jingoist whose favorite song is Miley Cyrus's "Party In The USA". So in the run-up to the 2018 Pyeongyang Winter Games, I decided to read David Goldblatt's The Games to get some perspective on the biennial sports fest. This book is a comprehensive overview of the modern Olympics, beginning with the first small-scale variety in 1896 in Athens, going through the lead-up to the grandiose 2016 Rio de Janiero Summer Games.

This book is packed with information, and I learned quite a lot by reading it about how the Olympics have grown and changed from their genesis as the dream of Pierre de Coubertin to display the best in white upper-class male sporting accomplishment to their gradual (and often reluctant) inclusion of women, people of color, and commoners. I was surprised by just how many of things I think of as hallmarks of the Olympics: mascots, the torch-lighting ceremonies, the Winter Games, the offsetting of the schedules between Winter and Summer so there are Olympics every two years, are relatively recent additions. And it's astonishing how low-budget they used to be until very recently, and how the ways that different governments have approached their infrastructure projects have created very disparate outcomes.

While Goldblatt does good work separating the modern Olympics into eras and providing a brief introductory chapter linking the themes that arched across all the Games in a particular era, there wasn't as much narrative flow as I tend to prefer in my nonfiction. It's not that his prose is clunky (indeed, it moves very well considering its fact-intensiveness), it's that he seems to be someone, at least in the way he wrote this book, who can't see the forest for the trees. His research was clearly rigorous, and it sometimes feels like he was so enthusiastic about sharing what he uncovered that he lets himself get bogged down by trying to fit in as much as possible. This made for slow reading, because I had a hard time going more than 15-20 pages before I felt like I needed a mental break, and that's not usually true for me, not even for nonfiction.

But if you're looking for a deep, well-structured resource for the history of the last 100ish years of the Olympics, this is the book for you. If you're looking for more information about the winter Games in particular, though, you might be disappointed...they began later and even today seemed to be popularly considered the lesser of the two, but Goldblatt pays them very short shrift indeed...I'd estimate the percentage of this book that deals with them to be 10% or less. Also, if you're looking for stories about the athletes themselves, by and large this won't be where you'll find it. It's mostly about the structures and logistics and international pressures that have grown and created and challenged the Olympics. If that's what you're into, you'll love it. And while it's a very competent book at what it's trying to do, I don't think I'd recommend it to a wide audience...it's too dense and specialized to have broad appeal.

Tell me, blog friends...are you a Winter Games person or a Summer Games person (or do you not watch?)

One year ago today, I was reading: The Informant (review to come)

Two years ago today, I was reading: Charity Girl

Three years ago today, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

No comments:

Post a Comment