As the XXVI Games in Atlanta draw ever nearer, Olympics-oriented books are speeding off the presses faster than Michael Johnson sprints off the blocks. Happily, a few of the volumes have historical value. The coffee-table-style Chronicle of the Olympics, 1896-1996 (DK Publishing, $29.95), provides a mercifully succinct yet admirably detailed accounting, in words and some 750 photographs, of every Olympics, Summer and Winter, since the rebirth of the ancient Games in Athens in 1896. An appendix lists every medal winner. And the final chapter explains just how the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1996 Games to the Georgia capital over what would have appeared to be the logical site of the centennial celebration, Athens. This book may also prove invaluable as a trivia tool. If, for example, the name of Gustav Thiefenthaler pops up unexpectedly in conversation at your neighborhood sports bar, you will be able to say that he was the light flyweight wrestling bronze medalist in the 1904 Games in St. Louis. So there!
Grace & Glory—A Century of Women in the Olympics (Triumph Books, $19.95) recounts in only 100 pages the struggle that female athletes have waged for recognition in Olympic sports. Women were excluded from the 1896 Games, although a courageous female marathoner singularly named Melpomene competed on the sly, finishing an hour and a half after the winner. At Paris in 1900 women were authorized to compete, but only in golf, tennis and yachting; track and field was not opened to them until 1928. Figure skating was the only event for women in the first Winter Games, in 1924. In tracing this dogged ascent of Olympus, Grace & Glory offers winning portraits of such athletes as Sonja Henie, Babe Didrikson, Wilma Rudolph, Pat McCormick, Dawn Fraser, Olga Korbut, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Bonnie Blair.
By far the most intriguing of the new histories is author Stan Cohen's The Games of '36 (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc., $19.95), which recalls the furor over the so-called Hitler Games of 1936. Innocently enough, the IOC had awarded both the '36 Winter and Summer Games to Germany in 1931, two years before the Nazis rose to power. But by 1936 more than enough was known of Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism and his suppression of human rights (if not about his lust for international conquest) to create unrest in the Olympic community. There was pressure in the U.S. for a boycott of the Games. But the Berlin Olympics and, perhaps inadvertently, Hitler himself had a staunch defender in Avery Brundage, president of the American (now U.S.) Olympic Committee. His credo was "the Games must go on." And they did, with amazing consequences.
The Nazis put on quite a show, a masterwork of propaganda. And yet an African-American sprinter named Jesse Owens crabbed Hitler's act, winning four gold medals. Long afterward the myth persisted that Hitler, in a rage over this triumph of a supposedly lesser species, snubbed Owens, turning his back and stomping indignantly out of the stadium after each of Owens's victories. But as Cohen takes pains to establish, der F�hrer had been told by Olympic officials that it was not his function to congratulate any of the winners and that if he insisted on doing so—as he had done with German athletes on opening day—he must congratulate them all. Hitler decided that he had neither the time nor the inclination to shake that many hands, so he kept to his luxury box, congratulating no one publicly and, in that sense, snubbing every competitor.
But there was more than enough controversy to go around. A swimmer, the effervescent Eleanor Holm, was kicked off the U.S. team for partying too enthusiastically on shipboard en route to the Games. Two U.S. sprinters, Marty Glickman and Stan Stoller, both Jews, were bounced from the 4x100-meter relay team in a move they suspected was made to appease Hitler. The Jewish sprinters were replaced, however, by two blacks, Owens and Ralph Metcalfe.
Berlin's were the first Olympics in which the torch was lighted inside the stadium by the last runner of a relay team that had begun its journey in Athens. And these Games inspired a memorable film, Leni Riefenstahl's Olympiad, which has survived in all of its beauty decades after its evil sponsors met their ruin.
Not long after the conclusion of the Hitler Olympics, Brundage advised his U.S. committeemen that "we can learn much from Germany." That, in a tragic sense, we did.
And yet, as worthwhile as these books are, they will inevitably suffer in comparison with a work in progress that may, as its promotional blurb unabashedly proclaims, "render nearly every other Olympic history superfluous." When it is complete, The Olympic Century (World Sport Research & Publications Inc.) will total 25 volumes, will have taken 12 years to prepare and will have the official blessing of the USOC. This enormous project is headed by Gary Allison, an award-winning screenwriter (The First Olympics—Athens, 1896), with a staff of eight writers, and edited by Laura Foreman, formerly with Time-Life Books. Judging from the two volumes published so far—The VIII Olympiad, Paris 1924, St. Moritz 1928 and The XXIII Olympiad, Los Angeles 1984, Calgary 1988—this collection will be not only an important historical document but also a most pleasurable read.
The Paris- St. Moritz volume has some hitherto unpublished photos of the Paris Summer Games that were recovered in a Tokyo museum by Allison's intrepid team of international researchers. The shot of the legendary Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, barefoot and with spikes in hand, captures the essence of that dedicated if dour athlete, who won five gold medals in Paris. Nurmi's heroics and those of other leading performers in these Games are described in surprisingly lively prose that is free of the deadly solemnity that so often characterizes the writing on the Olympics. In the section on Johnny Weissmuller, for example, Ellen Phillips, the author of this volume, veers off into a discussion not only of the swimming champ's later career as a movie Tarzan but also of the attempts by four other Olympians—gymnast Frank Merrill (the 1920 Olympics), swimmer Buster Crabbe (1932), shot putter Herman Brix (1928, later known as Bruce Bennett) and decathlete Glenn Morris (1936)—to play the Apeman.
The 1928 Winter Games were dominated by another future movie star, Henie, a figure skater of such transcendent gifts that, as the book informs us, "the wind split open to let her through."