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The History of the Olympics Brought to Life


(Editor’s Note.   The Digest occasionally posts pieces that are a little different from the commentary normally posted.  This article is a book review of the fourth edition of a book that is fast becoming a staple part of any Olympic library.  The United States Sports Academy received a complimentary copy of the book with a request to submit a review to the book’s publishers.  Here is that review.)

Book Review

Mallon, B. & Heijmans, J. (2011). Historical Dictionary of the Olympic Movement. 4th ed. Lanham, MD.  Scarecrow Press.

This book is now considered to be a regular part of the four year Olympic cycle.  The current volume builds on its predecessors and provides ever more detail about the history and personalities that define the Olympic Movement.

This work is in a sense a history book detailing the world’s largest sporting event.  During the two weeks or so that modern Olympic Games run, the world’s attention is focused on one locale in a way no other sporting event can match, not even the World Cup Finals.

The book’s underlying premise is expressed by former U.S. Winter Olympic speed skater, Dan Jansen.  Jansen writes in a foreward to the book that athletes in any sport should have an understanding of the history of their sport and of those athletes who came before them.

The authors of this book make it easy for anyone to understand the history of the Olympic movement whether that person is an athlete or a non-athlete.  It is true, as pointed out in another foreward article, that the Olympics are the most watched sporting events in the world.  This book provides a means for people who may only be casual observers of the Games to learn about the history of the Games and of the larger Olympic Movement.

The authors exhibit a commitment to detail and to history.  They convey a sense of the passion and determination of Olympic athletes down through the years.  One story in particular serves to make this point.  The book’s preface contains the story of the 400-meter runner from Great Britain, Derek Redmond.

In the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, Redmond was forced to withdraw from the men’s 400-meter race because of an injury sustained just before the start of preliminary qualifying.  He was back in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, where he made the finals in the 400.  As he entered the far turn nearing the 250-meter mark in the final he pulled a hamstring muscle and fell to the track.

Redmond had been haunted by his experience in 1988 and was determined to at least finish the race.  He struggled to his feet and began to limp towards the finish line.  His father was in the stadium that day.  Jim Redmond somehow slipped past security personnel and came onto the track.  He put his arm under his son’s shoulder and guided him across the finish line as the crowd in the stadium roared and a worldwide audience watched raptly.

The authors point out how this one moment of Olympic magic encompassed conflicting truths about the Olympic movement.  The Olympic Creed was formulated by the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France.  “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.  The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The moment in 1992 was magical; but since then images of Redmond’s struggle have been used in numerous commercials by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and by two multi-national corporations.  The struggle and the dollar are juxtaposed in the eye of the public.

The book begins with a chronology of important dates in the history of the Olympic movement. This is followed by a section that discusses the history of the individual Olympiads.  An example of the kind of nugget a reader can find here is the fact that the earliest modern Olympic Games took weeks to complete.  The authors note that the 1900 Games in Paris and the 1904 Games in St. Louis lasted nearly five months and were actually secondary to other events taking place during the same time period.  Indeed there was some worry that those two events were so poorly run that the modern movement might die of neglect.

The authors pick up the story of the Winter Olympics from the date of the first games held in 1924 in Chamonix, France.  Politics are woven into the narrative of the 1936 Games in Berlin and the games of 1940 and 1944 that were awarded but not held because of World War II.  More attention is provided to the Games that took place after the war and the authors note the impact of the Cold War on the Games.

After this last foreward section there is an exhaustive glossary of terms and countries.  It is something that will delight trivia buffs.  It is alphabetized from “Aamodt, Kejtil Amdre” (Norwegian alpine skier who won a record eight medals in his career) to “TV and Internet Rights Commission.”

The book then contains a series of Appendices.  A reader can, for instance, view a list of all individuals who have carried the Olympic Torch inside the stadiums at the various Opening Ceremonies.  There are pages of this type of records, results and little known facts.

Like any book of this type, a reader is not going to be able to sit down and read the book.  It is a book designed for a coffee table or for a reference shelf in a home, office or library.  The authors clearly want to provide a single book that can encompass the history and facts surrounding the Olympic Movement.  They succeed nicely in this effort.


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