A tour de force history of the Olympics in romanticized myth and politicized reality.
As thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators and tourists prepare to descend on Brazil for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games this summer, sports fans are getting a daily dose of information about potentially toxic waters clogged with human waste and tales of how facilities will not be completed on time. This all takes place against a backdrop of political and economic chaos in Brazil. There is nothing new in this intersection of Olympic planning gone awry and controversial political machinations in host countries. Indeed, as Goldblatt (The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain, 2014, etc.) shows in this fantastic history of the Olympics, far more rare were the instances of smooth planning and a lack of political chaos. The author traces the games back to their Hellenic roots, but he also places them in the context of the myths that emerged around them in the 19th century, as various efforts to revive Olympic-style games picked up pace, finally gaining a foothold with French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a self-mythologizing romantic who laid the foundation for many of the Olympic ideals that in most cases embody little more than invented traditions. Goldblatt, best known for his unparalleled books on soccer, has a fine grip on sports in general and an even better understanding of the politics of sport. He shows the myriad ways in which the attempts by International Olympic Committee power brokers to separate sport from politics were themselves deeply entrenched in conservative political mindsets, and he reveals the barrenness of most demands that participating athletes be pure amateurs.
Gracefully written and compellingly argued, this is one of the best books of the year and one of the best sports books ever written.