books 1936: The Worst Olympic Games Ever (So far)
Jesse Owen at the start of a race at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin., New Statesman
By David Goldblatt
W.W. Norton, Hardback, 528 pages
Towards the end of the Second World War, Evelyn Waugh bet Randolph Churchill £20 that he couldn't read the Bible from end to end in a fortnight. The secret aim of the bet - to keep Churchill quiet for a bit - was not achieved. Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford complaining that Churchill repeatedly set his task aside to remark: "God, isn't God a shit!" David Goldblatt's well-organised account of the history of the Olympic Games will give anyone - passionate sporting believer or sporting Dawkins - the same sort of experience. God, aren't the gods of Olympus shits?
Who gets the gold medal? Who is the -all-time Olympic shit? The contest has been running since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and it continues with the latest example that begins any day now in Rio - and it is still a desperately close call. Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly a bigger shit than Avery Brundage, but Brundage had many more opportunities to express his shittiness at the Olympic Games.
Brundage was a mad American and the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1952 to 1972. He ran the Games with breathtaking arrogance, -although that doesn't make him unique. His principal mania was amateurism. He believed without compromise in the holiness of playing sport without financial gain. This was, in effect, an attempt to restrict sport (and preferably everything else) to the middle and upper classes: a moral crusade if ever there was one.
Juan Antonio Samaranch was the president of the IOC from 1980 to 2001. His main peculiarity was pretending to be an actual president: a head of state. His Bogus Excellency was humoured by all who wanted the favours of the Olympic movement. He cultivated loyalty by blind-eyeing a culture of graft, extortion and bribery.
We also have the shits from politics who attempted to use the Games for purposes other than the glorification of the human spirit. Hitler is the type specimen but we can find others from the Soviet Union and Russia without trying too hard, and most other nations, including our own, have produced their Olympic opportunists.
Then there are all the local megalomaniacs who saddled their cities with unending years of debt. And we mustn't forget the people for whom the Games are about money, pure and simple. Since 1984, the Olympics have been a celebration of Coca-Cola and McDonald's, companies that supply everything a human being needs for an active, sporty life.
The Olympic Games: how do we love them? Let me count the shits. Should we include the Baron de Coubertin, the French historian who founded the IOC in 1894? Like the English public schools, he believed that sport teaches boys to sink the self into a common cause, to show unquestioning obedience to authority and to go to bed too tired to masturbate. He declared that the function of women at the Games was to crown the victors with laurels.
Goldblatt, who won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2015 with The Game of Our Lives, his study of English football, has done a damn good job here. This is a high-speed toboggan ride through history that doesn't give you much time to look at the scenery, but there is a great deal to cram in. The Games reads pretty well, despite the author's taste for flat-pack phrases borrowed from journalism and his strong inclination to recklessly spilt infinitives.
If you read the book from end to end in the Churchillian manner, there can be only one conclusion: scrap the Games. Stop them now. It's all getting silly. It has been silly from the Games' inception and it has got sillier and nastier through the years. Anything we can do to stop those horrible old men with their horrible, power-drunk and/or money-crazed agendas and their stinking philosophies and/or hypocrisies can only be a good thing for the world.
You can get the same sort of feeling from reading about the Beatles. How ghastly they were! Look at the dysfunctional relationship between John and Paul, the way they marginalised George, the hang-ups of Brian Epstein, the financial manoeuvres of Allen Klein, the grand folly of Apple, the poisonous attitudes to Yoko Ono, the break-up, the recriminations . . . But what about the music?
It's the same thing here with the Olympics. This is a decent history of the Games but you can't hear the music. I wasn't there when Jesse Owens won four gold medals at Hitler's 1936 Games in Berlin, and I missed Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands winning her four gold medals in 1948 in London at the first postwar Olympics - but surely these were something more than a newspaper story and a political point?
I know I was at the past seven summer Games but I am inclined to doubt it after reading this book. I was working as a sports writer, so my job concerned heroes rather than shits, the songs rather than the rows. It seems that there were two Games going on at the same time: one that showed all kinds of bad things about humanity and -another that showed a few other things.
In this book, the breakdown of the transport system in Atlanta in 1996 matters more than Michael Johnson's extraordinary run in the 200 metres. I was there. I walked all the way to the stadium to catch it, because my legs were a safer bet than the buses - and God, it was absolutely indescribably bloody wonderful. And a better story than "Bus gets lost shock".
Yes, Sydney won the 2000 Games by two votes because it was smart in the way it handed out the bribes - but my memories concern Cathy Freeman winning the 400 metres, Fu Mingxia winning the springboard diving, the first Olympic women's pole vault, Steve Redgrave's fifth gold medal and the dressage duel between Bonfire and Gigolo.
The London Games of 2012 were hardly immune from unpleasant dealings. The rows about spending and legacy continue, as we always knew they would. But for 17 days they were the best party in the history of humankind and they were followed by the joyous Paralympics. Goldblatt has told his story but it's not the whole, or the only, or the best, or even the truest, story.
You find all that in the action - and that's why we still have the bloody Games.
[Simon Barnes is the author of "Losing It: a Lifetime in Pursuit of Sporting Excellence" (Bloomsbury Sport)]