Books explore the games behind the Olympic Games

Covering everything from athletic dramas to tales of corporatization, these four titles offer a high-flying view of a globe-spanning event

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      On the eve of the 2010 Winter Games, I’ve decided to compile a list of four of the best books I’ve read about the Olympics. This selection covers the sports, business, politics, and history of the Games, ensuring there is something for everyone.

      Figure Skating’s Greatest Stars (By Steve Milton. Firefly, 224 pp)

      Hamilton Spectator columnist Steve Milton has written a lively and authoritative history of figure skating, including profiles of 63 star athletes. This lushly illustrated new book shows how women such as Sonja Henie, Barbara Ann Scott, Peggy Fleming, Midori Ito, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt, Michelle Kwan, and Irina Slutskaya contributed to the evolution of the sport, which has become one of the marquee events of the Winter Games.

      Milton demonstrates how North Vancouver’s silver-medal-winning Karen Magnussen has not received enough recognition for her innovations, which included the first layover camel and a spiral sequence that later became a requirement of the short program. “She was the first woman to do the splits in both directions, the first to proceed from an Ina Bauer into a double Axel and the first to do a side layback into a back layback,” he writes.

      As the preceding sentence shows, Milton knows his figure skating. Male stars, including Canadians Donald Jackson, Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, Toller Cranston, and Elvis Stojko, are also given their due, along with superstar pairs and ice dancers.

      Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism (By Helen Jefferson Lenskyj. State University of New York Press, 216 pp)

      There are other solid critiques of the Olympics, such as Andrew Jennings’s two Lords of the Rings books and Helen Lenskyj’s more recent Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda, which was published in 2008.

      But this penetrating analysis by Lenskyj, released in 2000, remains a classic for how thoroughly it exposes the secrecy, elitism, hypocrisy, corruption, and lack of accountability of what she calls the “Olympic industry”. Lenskyj, a Toronto sociologist and activist, wrote the book at the height of a scandal over the Salt Lake City bid committee’s unethical gift-giving to International Olympic Committee delegates.

      It’s worth noting that the Vancouver bid committee never released an itemized list of its expenditures to suppliers of goods and services, so there’s no way of telling if our city won the Games through similar means. Lenskyj’s book points out that bid and organizing committees have never been covered by freedom-of-information legislation, furthering the lack of transparency—though that will change for the London Games in 2012.

      Lenskyj also shows how the Olympic Charter’s ban on “political, religious or racial propaganda” near venues is designed to stifle dissent in host cities. In addition, Inside the Olympic Industry shines a light on how the media and universities have been complicit in suppressing public debate. “A beautified, gentrified city with state-of-the-art professional sport facilities has no value to men, women, and children whose basic needs are not being met,” Lenskyj writes.

      If you want to know why there will be so many protesters on the streets of Vancouver on Friday (February 12), this book provides the answer.

      Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism (By Robert K. Barney, Stephen R. Wenn, and Scott G. Martyn. University of Utah Press, 384 pp)

      This is business journalism at its best—and it’s brought to you by three Ontario academics. This meticulously documented 2002 book chronicles how the Olympics morphed from a bastion of amateur athleticism, under Avery Brundage’s leadership, into a corporate leviathan linked to the biggest brands on the planet, under Juan Antonio Samaranch and Jacques Rogge.

      At the centre of the shift was Dick Pound, a former IOC vice president from Montreal who oversaw negotiations with corporate sponsors and U.S. broadcasters in the 1980s and 1990s. “Take away sponsorship and commercialism from sport today and what is left?” Pound states in the book. “A large, sophisticated, finely tuned engine developed over a period of 100 years—with no fuel.”

      The Olympics were in a weak position in the early ’80s, marred by boycotts of the Moscow and Los Angeles games. The 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics were a television-ratings bust. The authors show how former IOC president Samaranch responded by ushering professional athletes into the Olympics to boost interest in the United States, and by changing the Olympic calendar so that the Winter Games and the Summer Games no longer occurred in the same year. This keeps the Olympics in front of the world’s media much more frequently.

      Selling the Five Rings also provides insights into why the IOC’s continued success is linked to providing exclusivity to its sponsors—and why it tried last week to remove the Australians’ boxing-kangaroo flag from the Olympic Village.

      The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics: The Vancouver Edition—Winter 2010 (By David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky. Greystone, 322 pp)

      Sports junkies and journalists from around the world will love this book because every medal winner of every Winter Olympic event since 1924 is listed here, including all of the hockey players. But this is more than a book of statistics. Wallechinsky is also an Olympic historian who, along with his nephew Loucky, tells the some amazing tales behind the medals.

      For instance, they describe how Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. hockey team’s miraculous gold-medal performance in 1980, was called the “Khomeini of Ice Hockey” for his fanatic discipline. There’s also a story about how B.C. skier Nancy Greene Raine’s coaches at the 1968 Games in Grenoble deliberately distracted her from being nervous by taking her to a restaurant just before her giant-slalom race. They rushed her to the slopes while the competition was under way so she wouldn’t have time to feel any anxiety. After winning the gold medal, she was greeted by more than 100,000 fans upon her return to Vancouver.

      From bobsleigh to speed skating, from alpine skiing to snowboarding, this book has it all, including Winter Olympic records and national medal totals. There’s also an entry for the most lopsided hockey match, which occurred in 1924, when Canada beat Switzerland 33-0.