Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics by Jules Boykoff (Verso, £11.99)
THE OLYMPIC Games have not always been the commercialised economic and undemocratic juggernaut of modern times which, awash with corporate sponsorship, rides roughshod over host communities.
But, historically, it has been a clandestine, elite-driven organisation with regressive policies, a huge price tag and ever-strengthening ties to capitalism.
The St Louis games of 1904 were even bedevilled by so-called “anthropology days,” with events rigged to test racist hypotheses showing that “savages” were inferior.
Women’s participation in track and field events shamefully lagged behind the introduction of female suffrage.
Fortunately, the Olympics’ chequered history has been accompanied by a catalogue of progressive radical protest.
Pre-empting Tommy Smith and Don Carlos’s black power salute at their medal ceremony in Mexico 1968, Irish athlete and staunch nationalist Peter O’Connor — selected to represent Britain— climbed the flagpole to rip down the union flag and fly his Irish alternative after winning silver in the Athens 1906 long jump. Suffragettes targeted the golf tournament at London’s 1908 games.
In developing his theory of “celebration capitalism,” which gives the mainstream media something to cheer about every four years, Boykoff firmly places the five-ringed circus as a central cog in a destructive neoliberal machine and finds much to admire in the alternative, yet short-lived, International Workers’ Olympiads.
And he demonstrates how the Olympics are an incredible but fundamentally unsustainable sporting event, an over-budget corporate franchise purchased with public money, directly transferring wealth to private hands.
British taxpayers footed 88 per cent of London 2012’s costs but received few positive long-term benefits. When even The Economist claims that hosting the Olympics is bad for a city’s health, something is clearly wrong.
Enjoyable and informative, Power Games is an even more relevant read in the build-up to this summer’s first-ever Latin American Olympics.