A curiously backward-moving but fun book chronicling the buildup to the Beijing Olympics.
A columnist at the time for the New York Observer, Slate blogger Scocca and his Chinese American wife moved to Beijing in 2004 (she worked in nonprofit, he commuted back and forth from New York). For the next four years, by the magic date of 8/8/08, they witnessed the extraordinary transformation of the city into a marvel for the world. A once closed-off, cluttered capital city plagued by the rambling hutongs (the old city’s lanes and alleys…right-angled jogs and branchings, blind turns and dead ends, parallel lines suddenly swinging perpendicularly away from each other”), traffic jams and smog, Beijing was gradually rearranged, gutted and renovated by enormous, all-devouring construction projects. The single-character chai (“tear down”) was painted everywhere. The Stalinist architecture and goofy traditionalist designs were scuttled in favor of the innovative and sculptural: “hatboxes, flashlights, sardine cans standing on end, a giant topiary garden in steel and glass.” China would spend $40 billion to prepare for the Games, aiming for a top gold-medal count (only 20 years before, China had won its first gold medal in Los Angeles), hiding its hordes of rustic migrant workers and selecting the Olympic motto “One world, one dream” (Scocca’s alternate translation: “Same world, same dream”). Life in Beijing for the foreigners was not always easy or comfortable (such as the manifestation of the security state via Internet censorship), but endlessly fascinating and unintentionally hilarious: the lively, ever-changing taxi fleet, the everyday objects that fell apart effortlessly, the contradictions in the Chinese character, the government’s efforts to improve their citizens’ manners by prohibiting public spitting and rehearsing orderly lining-up prescribed “line-up day.” The last part of Scocca’s amusing account marks the suspenseful countdown to the big day, a triumph for China, followed by an extensive assessment that China had indeed “joined the world.”
A witty, light-handed chronicle, though after three years, the Beijing Olympics has already lost its luster.
Timely, illuminating account of the 17th Olympiad, with its many firsts, including the first doping scandal in Olympic history.
Washington Post editor and Pulitzer-winner Maraniss (Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, 2006, etc.) has a talent for condensing sprawling events into comprehensible episodes. In this instance, those episodes take place on and off the field. Many, indeed, take place in secret government facilities and back alleys. The 1960 Rome games, for instance, took place at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union both took considerable pains to convert a theoretically apolitical contest of amateurs into a thoroughly politicized, near-professional endeavor. As Maraniss’s account opens, for instance, track star Dave Sime is receiving an assignment from Washington to “run for your country, and bag a defector for your country as well.” While other American athletes distributed Russian-language pamphlets extolling the virtues of life in the West, Russian women athletes stepped onto the Rome tarmac wearing “sharp beige suits, hosiery, high-heeled brown pumps—and lipstick,” having been instructed to show the sexist sportswriters of the world that beauty salons were not unknown behind the Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, African-American athletes such as Rafer Johnson—the first to carry the flag in the parade of nations—and Wilma Rudolph struggled to keep their discontents about Jim Crow America to themselves, a matter that seemed not to trouble a young boxer named Cassius Clay, whose consciousness would not be heightened for another few years with the adoption of a new name, Muhammad Ali. As to the firsts: Maraniss carefully relates stories of the first doping scandal in Olympic history, the advent of anabolic steroid use, the inauguration of the Olympics as a television event—and the first recognition on the part of the U.S. government, it seems, that the Soviets had a point in thinking that “some…sporting victories have had certain propaganda benefits.”
Evocative, entertaining and often suspenseful—sports history at a very high standard.
The Olympics are supposed to transcend politics, but this fine study reminds us that the Berlin Games were nothing but political.
The 1936 Games were also a victory for the Nazis in several senses apart from medal count. They had long reviled the Olympics, whose apolitical ideals and independence from ethnic, religious and racial considerations were anathema to a party founded on racism, whose leaders believed “politics guide everything, and . . . politics is already inherent in sports.” Nonetheless, Hitler was convinced that an Olympiad in Germany would serve his purposes by showing off the Nazi state. He spent huge sums of money refurbishing the capital and building a massive stadium complex; he provided government subsidies so that German athletes could train for a year and a half—Aryan athletes, that is. Long before the Games were played, the Nazi machine disqualified and dismissed Jews, including high-jumper Gretel Bergmann, who very well might have won the event for Germany had she been allowed to compete. (Invited to attend a commemorative ceremony in 1986, she replied, “Although fifty years have passed since my exclusion from the German Olympic team in Berlin, my disappointment and bitterness have only slightly abated.”) As Large (And the World Closed Its Doors, 2003, etc.) shows, the exclusion of Jewish athletes did not go unnoticed. A major boycott failed to materialize, but far fewer tourists attended the Berlin Olympics than had been projected, despite the presence of Hitler supporters such as Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Undeterred, the Nazis introduced the tradition of the torch relay, funded Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia, won favorable contracts from Coca-Cola and IBM and took home bucketfuls of medals. The biggest surprise in Large’s vigorous book, though, is what Jesse Owens had to say about Hitler.
An excellent contribution to sports—and political—history.
The inside story of the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
The 1992 United States men’s basketball team not only stands as the most talented basketball team ever, but it remains something of a cultural phenomenon that helped make basketball a truly global sport and the NBA an international brand. Longtime Sports Illustrated writer McCallum, who covered the “Dream Team” at the Barcelona Olympics, recounts the process whereby NBA stars cruised to the gold medal, crushing opponents who would later pose for pictures with and ask for autographs from the American players. The author sketches a group biography in which some figures (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley) perhaps rightfully garner more attention than others and in which even the selection of the team became a source for drama. Unbeknownst to most, Jordan and Magic (recently diagnosed with HIV) jockeyed for alpha-dog status while Bird was happy to cede the spotlight, comfortable in his accomplishments and willing to use the Olympics as a career capstone before retiring. Barkley represented one of the most controversial choices for the team primarily because of his unpredictable nature, which could be endearingly frank or just plain irascible. Ultimately, though, Barkley probably took the greatest pleasure in the Barcelona experience, slipping past the team’s security apparatus to enjoy the nightlife and the Olympic experience. Coach Chuck Daly held the team together in large part because he could masterfully steer the egos without seeming to do so. McCallum tells the story well, albeit occasionally too choppily, and some might find that he inserts himself into the story a bit too freely. However, he also effectively evokes the remarkable team while placing it within the larger historical context.
Basketball and Olympics fans will welcome this nostalgic trip through the recent past.
Tension builds along with skills as two American swimmers prepare for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Journalist Mullen (Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, etc.) begins at the 1998 World Championships, where Kurt Grote and Tom Wilkens finish first and seventh, respectively, in the 200-meter breaststroke. Soon after, the two former walk-ons at Stanford begin their Olympic training schedules. Friends and rivals, they lead different lifestyles. Grote, a naturally gifted swimmer, balances his athletics against the requirements of med school and a new marriage. His protégé, Wilkens, more workhorse than prodigy, has no life outside the pool and is uncertain which events are his best. Both young men entrust their careers to Dick Jochums, the new head man at the Santa Clara Swim Club: a Bobby Knight–like coach fired from his job at the University of Arizona—abusive, self-righteous, burning with a redemptive fury to reestablish himself as an elite coach and restore Santa Clara to the national prominence it last held in the 1970s. Mullen uses other SCSC members to dramatize the world of the top-level swimmer. Dod Wales, son of an Olympian, evaluates all coaching suggestions with Spock-like rationality. Tate Blahnik’s immense talent is tempered by his bitterness about past coaching exploitation. Dara Torres’s feminine presence cheerfully alters the atmosphere of the macho club. Assistant Coach John Bitter is brilliant on the pool deck, but dangerously careless with the club’s cash. Olympic stars Lenny Krayzelburg, Jenny Thompson, and Tom Dolan make cameo appearances. A journalist and former collegiate and professional swimmer, Mullen confidently covers the design of a “fast” pool, swimming physics, collegiate and Olympic politics, and race strategy as his deftly constructed story moves through the exciting 1999 Pan-Pacific meet at midpoint to the climactic Olympics.
Merits a spot on the top step of the podium. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)
Just in time for the Summer Olympics, a fresh new history of the games that begot all of today’s quadrennial pomp, circumstance, competition, and urine-testing.
In a deft analysis of the rise and fall of the games at Olympia, Spivey (Classics/Cambridge) fashions a text that varies in tone from professorial to conversational. He begins with the Orwellian notion that sports are war without the shooting, an image he also ends with, then leaps into the murkiest stream of all, ancient history, and attempts to clarify. He explores the Greeks’ belief that citizens should be physically fit—virtually every male worked out regularly; Socrates was a wrestler—and describes the sorts of athletic venues their cities provided. Men worked out in the buff at the gymnasium, which featured spaces for sprinting, jumping, throwing, and wrestling; rooms for bathing and socializing; and opportunities for sexual excitement, if not fulfillment. Not until about the sixth or fifth century B.C. did athletic contests became more than local affairs, the author states, but once they did expand, they became very popular. Only men were permitted to see the naked athletes compete in foot-races, wrestling, boxing, chariot-racing, the pentathlon, and such other events as the little-known pankration, a no-holds-barred bout that proscribed only eye-gouging and biting. Spivey dispels much of the romance surrounding the competitions. They occurred during the hottest parts of the year and offered only the most primitive arrangements for drinking, bathing, and relieving oneself; the games were, he says, “a notoriously squalid experience for athletes and spectators alike.” Describing each event, the author reminds us that in those ancient competitions only winning signified; there were no awards for runners-up. He reminds us, too, that some of our current Olympic “traditions” are quite new. The torch relay, for example, was invented by the Nazis in 1936. Spivey’s later, less compelling, chapters explore the games’ political and mythological significance.
An essential resource: always reliable and instructive, often entertaining. (20 b&w illustrations)
An American lives side by side with the fear-stricken denizens of an ancient neighborhood that will not survive China’s Olympic Games.
The Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, reports first-time author Meyer, has evicted 1.25 million residents from their homes in Beijing. This massive official initiative to “clean up” the city for the upcoming summer Olympics focuses on demolition and removal in Beijing’s traditional hutong (lane) areas, neighborhoods of narrow paths that crisscross the heart of the city. The author, who first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, moved to a walled courtyard home in a hutong in 2005, when the pace of demolitions was accelerating. He makes palpable the impact of this initiative on Chinese families and the many older people who have never known another kind of home. Compensatory payment is offered when “the Hand” (Meyer’s epithet for anonymous, creeping bureaucracy) stencils the Chinese character meaning “raze” on their walls, the author explains. But even those who go quietly and promptly, therefore locking in the highest settlement, find that it rarely covers their expenses in a sterile concrete high-rise that could be a two-hour commute away. And such is the pull of the hutong on its older inhabitants that many hold out and get nothing; some who are forced out simply disappear. Most Beijing residents neither abhor progress nor revile the government, Meyer stresses; it’s just the total lack of transparency that depresses everybody. Few Americans would care for the hutong’s basic amenities—public latrines, bathhouses, coal- or charcoal-burning heaters—and “dilapidated” is often an accurate description. But these venerable lanes shelter neighbors who truly know, trust and depend on each other, avers the author, who paints a picture of deep personal loss as the old alleys vanish.
Revealing portrait of urban change, and the consequences of China’s unquenchable thirst for modernization.
A trip back 2,500 years to the original Olympic Games: though lacking sponsorship from mighty auto manufacturers, they still reveal many congruencies with current Olympic practices.
The rowdy road from the city-states of antiquity to Olympia for its quadrennial sporting competitions was traveled at least 293 times over 1,200 years. Spectacular showbiz at its nascent best, the games were well organized and profitable. The Olympic field of dreams was carefully prepared. Even when war raged on the peninsula, all belligerents observed a general military truce in Olympia. Spectators came in vast numbers. It was classical-age Woodstock, with ongoing amusements. Boozing and prostitution were open and notorious, junk food was hawked, and a great time was had at the traditional summer games. The five-day program began with opening ceremonies and hack literary declamations followed by the chariot race and the pentathlon (discus and javelin throw, long jump, running and wrestling). Then came foot races, more wrestling, boxing, free-for-all fighting, and, just for laughs, running in full body armor before the closing ceremonies and final hangovers. Contestants were customarily clad in nothing but olive oil, thus ensuring that no women snuck in to compete. Judges, expected to be above reproach, were sometimes reproached. The Olympia emergency room ministered to contestants full time, while coaches trained their compliant athletes with special exercises and fad diets. Some old traditions are recent inventions: there was no marathon back then, and the Olympic torch relay, we find, was created by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin games. Travel-writer Perrottet’s (Route 66 A.D., 2002, etc.) account of the ancient competition, using sources from Pindar and Plato to Herodotus and Homer, as well as other ur-sportswriters, makes lively and entertaining reading.
A timely re-creation and recreation: wonderful history for sports fans, great sportswriting for classicists, and fun for all. (30 illustrations, not seen)
An exciting replay of the American hockey team’s defeat of the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics from Daily News sportswriter Coffey, who provides generous background on both teams.
The sensational American victory became iconic for a country still mired in post-Vietnam malaise, infuriated by the Iranian hostage crisis, and depressed by a faltering economy. But this come-from-behind fairy tale is not what occupies Coffey. Enough of the jingoism and folderol, he writes: Who were these guys? What were they holding in their hands? Coffey proceeds to describe the mechanics of the game, with the US eschewing its usual dump-and-chase tactics to play with more finesse. “A well-conditioned teams wins in the first 10 minutes, maybe less,” the Soviets’ famed coach Anatoly Tarasov had once said. The US coach, Herb Brooks, knew that his team couldn’t wait too long to take charge; from the beginning, they needed to have the “speed of hand, speed of foot, speed of mind” for which the Tarasov-trained Soviets were famed. To achieve this, Brooks would have to overcome the bitter regionalism of the players and mold them into a symphony on ice. Along with the game’s play-by-play, Coffey braids into the story the backgrounds of the US players and as much of the Soviet players’ as he can. He shows the Americans adapting to a hard, aloof Brooks, happy to have a measure of luck (as well as poor Soviet tactics) on their side. Then come the years thereafter: the alcoholism and the vehicular homicide balanced against the pro careers and the successful restaurant business. Coffey’s tale reminds us of a more innocent Olympics era, when doping and judging scandals were not common currency, when there were no millionaire professionals at play in an overhyped “dream team.” The 1980 hockey players were, contrarily, a bunch of amateurs and dreamers.
Makes pure hockey of a much-manipulated moment. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)
From the author of Cinderella Man (2005), another true-life tale of an underdog asserting his worth with a sports triumph.
Schaap, the host of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, seeks to cut through the apocryphal tales that sprang up in the wake of Jesse Owens’s record-breaking performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin by drawing on accounts from sportswriters, eyewitnesses and the athlete himself. He attempts to get inside Owens’s head while exploring everything from Hitler’s alleged snubbing of black athletes to the nature of the unlikely friendship between the American track star and German long-jumper Luz Long. Like many African-Americans of the time, Owens (1913–80) grew up in poverty and grappled with discrimination. While at Ohio State, he pumped gas for hours each day to support his wife and young child; even though he’d tied several world records on his high-school track team, he was not offered a scholarship. Success and controversy followed. He endured accusations of obtaining money from the Ohio state legislature without having earned it, racy tabloid stories of romantic trysts and questions about the genetic advantages of black athletes. With the help of high-school mentor Charles Riley and college coach Larry Snyder, Owens qualified for the Olympics. After a lengthy debate about whether participation in the Nazi Games was ethical—a discussion that had special resonance for African-Americans, whose circumstances bore striking similarities to those faced by Jews—the U.S. chose to take part, setting the stage for Owens to show the world a true superman not descended from Aryan stock. The author offers an in-depth story whose only flaw is its narrow timeframe, depriving readers of a look at Owens’s later years.
Explodes off the blocks and proceeds with grace and fluidity.
Magic's second autobiography, far richer than his first (Magic, 1983), for this one (written with Novak, coauthor of autobiographies of Nancy Reagan, Lee Iacocca, etc.) details not only the prestidigitation of the NBA's greatest point guard but also the stunning 1991 revelation of HIV infection that turned Johnson into a world celebrity. To get right to what everyone is waiting for, Magic talks candidly about his sexual promiscuity and his disease. Squelching rumors that he's gay, he declares that ``my pleasure was being with women''—droves of them. ``I was stupid not to take precautions,'' he says. The terrible weeks surrounding his November 7th retirement from basketball get day-by-day coverage, as he reels upon learning of his infection; is buoyed by the love of family, fellow athletes, and fans; and makes his dramatic appearance on Arsenio Hall. Magic raps George Bush for waffling on AIDS policy, and he pledges that ``I'm going all out to fight'' the disease. The poignancy of his new role is underscored by the amazing years that preceded it. Strict, loving parents and a childhood of nonstop basketball blossom into a decade of NBA greatness. The epiphanies tumble out: rise of the Laker dynasty, war with the Celtics, MVP award. The Magic carpet ride goes on after retirement: the 1992 All-Star Game, where Magic proved that HIV-positive and athletic brilliance can go together; the Olympic Dream Team. Even as the book goes to press, he ponders rejoining the NBA, but knows that his work is on a different court now: ``I started working for God's agenda. I believe He's got a mission for me—to help make society more aware, and to get people to care.'' Filled with energy and good will: a small miracle, given the circumstances, but just what one expects from Magic. A lock for a fast-break to the bestseller lists. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs—not seen.)
A brief but enlightening history of the athlete as a cultural icon.
From the shamanistic athletic rituals of Paleolithic hunters to the exploits of today’s millionaire sports superstars, athletes have fascinated and transfixed us for centuries. This is true, writes Amidon (co-author: The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart, 2011, etc.), for both a universal and a particular reason. At their best, “athlete[s] ha[ve] always been able to transport us out of our daily lives,” to stop time for an instant and allow us to suspend disbelief. At the same time, the athlete has always held the ability “to represent the ethos of his era.” In rich yet concise prose, Amidon explores this universalist nature of the athlete, including the godlike efforts of the Greek warriors of the ancient Olympics; the tragic heroics of the Roman gladiator; and the romantic image of the jousting knight errant to the civilized amateur ideal of the Victorian era. In his discussion of the modern era, the book’s most accomplished section, Amidon emphasizes how class, race and gender worked to initially limit who could become an athlete—working-class competitors, for instance, were explicitly barred from the first modern Olympics—and how those excluded overcame such barriers. Women athletes now hold sway in the public imagination more than they ever have. The black American athlete has moved from being an occasional patriotic icon (Joe Louis) to a political rebel (Muhammad Ali) to a cultural avatar (Michael Jordan). Though he occasionally lapses into questionable comparisons—the early-era baseball player, reflecting the industrialization of work, as a working-class Joe who worked overtime (like everybody else) if a game went into extra innings—Amidon’s broad historical sweep fascinates with its facts and challenges with its commentary.
A cultural history of sports that says as much about all of us as it does about athletes.