Five Book Plan: The Political Olympics

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Jules Boykoff is an author, academic and former US National Team Footballer. Regularly cited as one of the world's leading experts on the history of the Olympics, Jules is the author of books on the criminalisation of dissent in the United States, activism and the Olympic Games, and the era of mass spectacle and sporting events, plus several collections of poetry. His new book, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, is out now. In this new Five Book Plan, he presents his top five books on the political Olympics.


 
John Carlos and Dave Zirin, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011.

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, John Carlos and Tommie Smith thrust their black-gloved fists into the sky during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash. In solidarity silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia donned an Olympic Project for Human Rights button. This became not merely an iconic moment from Olympic history but an extraordinary moment from world history. The John Carlos Story is a gripping account of the personal and political context that led to this unforgettable stand. Spotlighting our inclination to champion activists the further they recede in the rearview mirror of history, President Barack Obama publicly praised Carlos and Smith in 2009: “I think to signify in that Olympics that there was more work to do, to acknowledge the injustices that were still taking place, I think that was a breakthrough moment in an overall push to move this country towards a more equal and more just society.” Obama added, “I think that what they did was in the best tradition of American protest.” But Carlos and Smith paid a high price for their actions. They received a steady stream of vitriolic threats on their lives. They were pilloried in the press. Jobs were scarce. Yet Carlos, Smith, and Norman never backtracked. And history has vindicated them. The John Carlos Story charts this courageous path.

Gilmar Mascarenhas, Glauco Bienenstein, and Fernanda Sánchez (eds.), O Jogo Continua: Megaeventos Esportivos e Cidades, Rio de Janeiro: Ed. UERJ, 2011.

The Rio 2016 Summer Olympics is not the first sports mega-event to descend on Rio de Janeiro. O Jogo Continua: Megaeventos Esportivos e Cidades [The Game Continues: Sports Mega-Events and Cities] excavates Brazil’s relationship to sports mega-events in the modern era, from the Pan-American Games of 1963 in São Paulo through the 2007 Pan-Am Games in Rio to the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. The collection takes special aim at how sports mega-events reshape urban spaces, often to the benefit of elites and to the detriment of working people and the poor. The book also analyzes sports stadiums, showing how architecture has powerful impacts on social and spatial relations. It excavates the trope that Brazil is ‘the country of the future’ and suggests that if Brazil continues to host sports mega-events it may always be just that.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj deserves credit as one of the most consistent, longtime critics of the Olympics and the havoc the Games can wreak on everyday people in the host city. In Olympic Industry Resistance, she draws from her experiences working with Bread Not Circuses, an anti-Olympics coalition in Toronto that successfully fended off that city’s bids for the 1996 and 2008 Games. She lays out the negative impacts the Games can have as well as the fightback that arises to challenge the Olympic machine. Along the way she explores the vital role that mainstream mass media play. In 2012 she told Democracy Now! that there have “been countless examples…where the basic human rights have been violated in host countries—and not just Beijing, every host country—because of the IOC’s requirement that protest be banned in or near Olympic venues. Host countries use that requirement to extend the ban on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to huge areas and regions of their host city.” Lenskyj has been indefatigable in her efforts to challenge the “Olympic industry,” as she insists on calling it. Our understanding of the Games is better for it.

Douglas Hartmann, Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete is a meticulously researched monograph on the political moment that forged a US-based movement comprised of athletes: the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Using oral histories and archival research, Douglas Hartmann unpacks the actions of athlete-activists—including John Carlos and Tommie Smith—and roots them in the history of the civil rights movement. He also discusses the import of a lesser known act of political dissent at the 1972 Munich Games where Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett—who were teammates of Carlos and Smith at the 1968 Games in Mexico City—stood on the medal podium after winning gold and silver in the 400-meter run and flouted convention by standing casually and twirling their medals. Hartmann’s analysis of “the thrill of victory and the agony of activism” helps us understand why more Olympic athletes don’t use their athletic pedestal to engage with prickly politics. And it gives us a deeper appreciation for those who do.

Mark Perryman, Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us and How They Can Be, London: OR Books, 2012.

In this short, punchy book, the London-based, sport-loving Mark Perryman offers a thought-provoking manual aimed at fellow-traveller sports aficionados and others open to criticism about the Olympics yet keen to figure out ways to improve the Games. In the first part of the book, he builds his case for “Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us.” The innovative heart of the book is his vision for revamping the Olympic Games. Playing on the Olympics’ five-ring symbol, he proposes his “New Five Rings”: (1) decentralize the Olympics so they’re staged in a country and not just a city; (2) select athletic venues that will maximize participation; (3) move Olympic events outside the stadia and make them free to the public; (4) select Olympic sports based on their universality and accessibility to the less affluent; and (5) reduce the role corporations play in commercializing the Games. Perryman’s plan aims to meaningfully connect elite and grassroots sport while making the Games more equitable. A worthwhile goal indeed.

Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics is now available to purchase from the Verso Books website for 30% discount, free shipping and free bundled ebook.