At a glance:
- Author: Allen Guttmann
- First Published: 1992
- Type of Work: History/Politics
- Genres: Nonfiction, Politics, History
Anyone whose curiosity about the rituals, procedures and formalities of the summer Olympics was piqued by the recent events in Barcelona will find interest in Allen Guttmann’s thorough, knowledgeable account of the origins and arguments surrounding every element of the contests and pageantry.
Guttmann begins with the premise that politics, rather than constituting an occasional intrusion into the athletic realm, is the essential generating force behind the entire Olympic movement, and that to understand both the athletes and their effect on the nations they purport to represent, one must understand the history of the evolving spectacle that so totally captures public attention. Beginning with French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who initiated the Olympic revival in Athens in 1896, Guttmann shows how a series of often arrogant, bickering social figures developed the Olympic concept as a conjunction of idealism (world peace), brotherhood (athletic fraternity), rampant nationalism, commercialism, and religion.
The issues that still plague the competition are deftly examined, as Guttmann shows that as early as 1900, questions concerning women’s participation, genuine amateurism, and excessive chauvinism were already being debated, while such important features of the Olympic aura as the slogan about “taking part” (de Coubertin quoting an American prelate in 1908), the motto (“Citius, Altius, Fortius...Faster, Higher, Stronger,” as suggested by a French cleric in 1921), the creation of the first Olympic Village (Los Angeles, 1932) and the torch run from Athens (Berlin, 1936) are described and analyzed.
The narrative proceeds in chronological fashion, concentrating on the primary issues raised at each Olympiad (such as the first evidence of drug use, in 1952, or the proposed boycott of the Nazi-controlled Berlin Olympics in 1936), while linking the quadrennial games with extensive, probing discussions of the members of the IOC (the International Olympic Committee), a body answerable to no nation or constituency. The various representatives on this self-appointed, very powerful board express the national interests of their home countries, and the central theme of the book is the close parallel between Olympic controversy and the dominant issues of the twentieth century. Guttmann touches on the outstanding athletic performances of each meeting, and appreciates their significance, but his primary focus is on the “frenzies of chauvinism” that surround “individual athletic achievement.”
Although he is acutely aware of its hypocritical manipulation, Guttmann is still inspired by the ideals of the Olympic spirit. The goal of his work is to make it possible for future Olympics to realize the actuality of de Coubertin’s dreams; the incisive commentary he provides illustrates the difficulties involved.
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