My first Olympics was the 1980 Games in Moscow. I didn’t know much about politics or world affairs – to be fair, I wasn’t quite six years old – but I did know the Americans were not competing because of a “boycott” (not to be confused with the obdurate Geoffrey who was opening the batting for England that summer). When the Russians didn’t show up in Los Angeles four years later, it was clear that something was up. That something, of course, was the cold war.
Sport is many people’s first exposure to international relations and it’s often not a bad primer on who’s got a beef with whom. When the Soviets bashed seven bells out of the Hungarian water polo team at Melbourne’s “Friendly Games” in 1956 – the “blood in the water” match that Hungary won 4-0 – it was obvious that this was more than a game, even if the deeper significance was mostly unspoken at the time. To this end, the Olympics can be taken on face value as a sporting contest, but it is more intriguing – and can only properly be understood – by examining its social and political context.
This is the premise for David Goldblatt’s new book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, which is pretty much the story of the 20th and 21st centuries. The tale starts with the Athens competition in 1896, an all-male, all-white affair; by 1900 women were allowed to compete in tennis, golf, croquet, equestrianism and sailing; and in 1924 William DeHart Hubbard became the first African American to win a gold medal (a feat that went unreported in the mainstream US media).
The Olympics did not become the spectacle we would recognise today until the 1930s, says Goldblatt. The 1932 Los Angeles Games brought a razzle-dazzle that was pure Hollywood, introducing theatrical touches such as the three-tiered podium, national anthems and a flame that was kept alive in a cauldron for the duration of the competition. In 1936, in Berlin, the organisers – in essence, the Nazi party – initiated a torch relay that began in Olympia. The closer the flame got the stadium, the blonder the carriers became, naturally. This Olympics made explicit the tenuous link between athletic success and nationalistic fervour.
He is damning about the legacy in Britain following the 2012 Olympics, citing the swingeing cuts to school sports
The book is ambitious and might have been daunting but Goldblatt is a well-qualified guide, bringing the kind of insight and scale he brought to his heroic history of football, The Ball Is Round (2006). In 2014’s The Game of Our Lives, he analysed football in post-Thatcher Britain, proving again that he excels at putting sport in a wider context. The Games weighs in at a mere 400 pages, but you could not accuse its author of cutting corners.
Historically, Goldblatt has been a professor at Bristol and De Montfort universities. He seems to be a full-time author now, which makes sense given the scope of his recent subjects. His approach is not a boots-on-the-ground one: for The Games, for example, Goldblatt does not trawl around Olympic sites and the book does not appear to contain original interviews. Instead, he relies on contemporary accounts and his knack for putting a smart spin on the events.
This, along with the fact that he chooses a straightforward chronological structure, could make for rather a flat narrative. But while his background and rigour is that of the academic, Goldblatt’s inclination is towards the eccentric and the anecdotal. This makes The Games an easy, enjoyable read, full of odd trivia – like the fact that Antwerp in 1920 awarded medals for popinjay shooting, a popular Flemish pastime.
But Goldblatt can be opinionated and spiky, too. He is damning about the legacy in Britain following the 2012 Olympics, citing the swingeing cuts to school sports, and offering an astute analysis of the benefits of hosting the Games. Mostly you are left with the sense at the end of Goldblatt’s book that the Olympics will continue to be chaotic, inspiring, incomprehensible and unmissable. Much as it has been since 1896.