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The best books on The Dark Side of the Olympics

recommended by Helen J Lenskyj

The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach by Helen J Lenskyj

The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach
by Helen J Lenskyj


The Olympics are big business—but the extent to which they benefit their host cities is increasingly called into question. They've also long been enmired in political controversy. Here Helen J Lenskyj, the academic and anti-Olympics activist, discusses the malign influence of big business, and the inseparability of sport and politics, as she chooses her best books on the bad side of the Olympics.

Interview by Benedict King

The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach by Helen J Lenskyj

The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach
by Helen J Lenskyj


Before we get onto your choice of books on the Olympics, could you tell us a bit about how you became interested in looking at the political side of the Olympics? Were you a disappointed sports enthusiast or was it something else?

Not a sports enthusiast, I could never call myself that. But in 1980 when I was a graduate student, I changed my direction; I’d been studying the history and sociology of education and changed to the history and sociology of sport and gender. On a personal level, I started running, bought a bicycle and also took up a martial art called hapkido. So there was this integration of my personal interests, not as a spectator of sport, but just as a recreational athlete, with my research interests in gender and sport and women in sport.

I was researching and writing on these issues in the 1980s and 90s and then I was asked to undertake a small research contract for the city of Toronto when they were bidding for the 1996 Olympics. I was asked to look at the status of women in Olympic sport—and complain about the discrimination, or the lesser opportunities, for girls and for women in Olympic sport. I took this very liberal approach—most sports feminists, as they were called in those days, took it—that the opportunities for girls and women should be the same as those for boys and men. So, I wrote a short report documenting the differences in the numbers of programs and numbers of events in the Olympic program.

Then, by coincidence, I bumped into an old friend and colleague who was heavily involved in a group called “Bread not Circuses” in Toronto that had opposed Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Olympics. She gave me some of their literature that was critiquing the social impacts of the Olympics on cities and countries, something I had never considered. My focus had always been more on sport for girls and women, you know, level the playing field.

I didn’t look at the impacts on cities and particularly on disadvantaged people in cities. And so I started thinking a different way, and wrote a couple of conference papers along those lines, and then I joined the Bread not Circuses group because Toronto was already saying they would bid for the 2008 Olympics, and I wanted to be part of the opposition to that.

“The official games had a very narrow range of events that women were allowed to participate in, because they were considered ‘too fragile’”

At the same time, the bribery scandals involving the IOC and bid cities exploded and so, in a sense, my first Olympic book, Inside the Olympic Industry, was this kind of gift that dropped into my lap as a researcher and critic.

Let’s go through your book choices, which, as I mentioned I found fascinating. The first of our Olympic books is The Politics of the Olympic Games by Richard Espy. This is about the role and importance of sports and international relations. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Yes, Espy was taking more of a political science or political economy perspective. Although there’s some historical background, he really starts with 1944, because the Olympics were suspended during World War II (and World War I). Other researchers had written about the Nazi Olympics of 1936, which were infamous on a number of fronts, but this period from 1944 to 1979 when Espy was writing was under-researched and a lot of international political controversies took place in that period.

He goes through every individual Olympics and the ramifications of the political background of each. He’s particularly interested in the “two Chinas” problem and the fact that Taiwan was not recognized. The IOC had a problem if it recognized China or Taiwan. China was upset if it recognized Taiwan and Taiwan was upset if it recognised China. I’m oversimplifying, but there were those kinds of controversies. There were all sorts of Cold War conflicts and so on: the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, which wasn’t a complete boycott, just a partial boycott. On the issue of sport as a force for good, previous presidents like Juan Antonio Samaranch liked to boast about the soft diplomacy that goes on behind the scenes.

Espy didn’t talk about this, but China’s 2008 Olympics was a prime example where organizers were saying, “we’re talking to the Chinese officials and the Olympics will help bring democracy to China”, and all sorts of gross exaggerations that of course never materialized.

So Espy is covering in a very comprehensive way other issues like South Africa, Apartheid and the boycotts involving New Zealand [when 29, mainly African countries refused to participate at the 1976 Olympics, when the IOC failed to ban New Zealand from taking part, after their rugby team had toured South Africa] and so on. He discusses the countries that conformed or failed to conform to those boycotts, as well as the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO), which were set up by “emerging countries”, many in Asia.

Espy covers the threat that posed to the IOC and the way the IOC then tried to bring under their wing all the Asian countries. That all fit very nicely with Pierre de Coubertin’s plan of using the “sportification” of the world and particularly, the sportification of Africa, since he saw sport, western sport, as a civilizing influence. So, in a similar way, the IOC members of the 1960s and 1970s were looking at Asia as new ground for sport, to bring these countries into their fold. The idea was to impose the Olympic model of sport all around the world, and they have pretty much succeeded in that.

What picture does Espy paint of the Olympics in the book? Is it a question of the IOC pretending to be doing something positive in the world of international diplomacy, but actually failing, or is it more a question of them acting as a cover for bad regimes and therefore actually making things actively worse?

Yes, it’s more of a cover, and the current term for that, which I discuss extensively in my new book, is “sportswashing”, following the example of “greenwashing”, which is presenting various kinds of developments and city building and that kind of thing as environmentally friendly when it only just scrapes the surface of the requirements for environmental sustainability.

With sportswashing, the goal of the leaders in these regimes is to bring world attention to the sporting events. For example, last year Belarus had over 100 International sporting events, and these were organized by International federations, the vast majority of which have a direct link to the IOC in that their sports are Olympic sports. So, the link to the Olympic industry is very clear, and from way back, from the periods that Espy was writing about, there were countries where it was sort of mutually decided, maybe implicitly rather than explicitly, that the IOC and that country would promote sportswashing to get world’s attention away from human rights abuses and focus it on to the pure and wholesome international sporting competition among the youth of the world. All this kind of rhetoric is meant to disguise the reality, which is very dire in most of these countries.

Let’s go on to your next book, Five Ring Circus: Money Power and Politics at the Olympic Games by Alan Tomlinson and Garry Whannel. Isn’t this book talking about how the Olympic games, from very early on, became more and more commercialised?

Yes, it’s a mixture because it has eight different contributors plus Tomlinson and Whannel, who do the introduction and also write individual chapters. When it was published in 1984, it was pioneering to have a collection of essays by top scholars, looking at the commercialism of the Olympics and at the boycotts. It touched on subjects, although sometimes rather superficially, about which hardly anything had been written from a critical perspective. One of the contributors, Sam Ramsamy, was himself central to the boycotts of South Africa as an athlete and sports administrator in South Africa.

There are chapters on the Workers’ Games and the Women’s Olympics. These were challenges to the Olympic industry way back in the 1920s, and at the time Five Ring Circus was published, they had been very under-researched and unrecognised. Both of these events, in their time, were more successful than the “real Olympics” until the IOC stepped in and said to the Women’s Olympics, ‘You can’t use the word Olympics, its ours’. The Workers’ Games petered out for a variety of reasons, but were enormously successful in Europe as an international sporting event while they lasted, and both attracted huge numbers of participants.

“Espy covers the threat that posed to the IOC and the way the IOC then tried to bring under their wing all the Asian countries. That all fitted very nicely with Pierre de Coubertin’s plan of using the “sportification” of the world . . . as a civilizing influence”

The women’s competitions in track and field were very extensive compared to the timid and deliberately restrictive way that the IOC organized women’s events in the 1924 and 1928 Summer Olympics. The official games had a very narrow range of events that women were allowed to participate in, because they were considered “too fragile” and all those kinds of arguments. So, this book is an excellent representation of the state of critical Olympic research at the time.

A lot of these people, particularly Tomlinson and Whannel, went on to write very important books on their own or to edit other anthologies. So, I like this book because it shows where the current range of research on these issues came from.

When I looked at this book and that one by Simpson and Jennings again in the last few weeks, I could see two things. First that they were pioneering these kinds of critiques. Second, that 30 or even 40 years later, some of their arguments and some of their voices have tragically just been silenced, ignored or neglected, so that we now have a situation where—although I wouldn’t say the Olympic industry is thriving, because there’s a lot of external threats to it—those who were critics, voices in the wilderness in the 1980s, still haven’t really had their voices heard and not as much has changed as all of us would have liked.

It’s very clear why the Women’s Games took place and you’ve mentioned that. But why was the Workers’ Olympics set up? What was it? What was it that the official Olympics seem to lack that the Workers’ Olympics promoted?

Well, the Olympics were organized by Europe’s and UK’s elite. They were not the “common man’s games” and the amateur rule meant that in theory, anyway, you couldn’t devote your whole working life to training and getting paid for it because you weren’t meant to accept any money. There were certain categories of men, in particular in England, who were among the social elite, particularly those who had access to horses and could train for equestrian events and who could spend their leisure time practicing various forms of marksmanship involving guns or archery. Military men, particularly in Europe, excelled in the Olympics.

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The average working man couldn’t integrate training for an Olympic sport into his working life, didn’t have time for it, and didn’t really have the same kinds of access to some sports that the more privileged classes did. That was one of the motivating forces for setting up the Workers’ Games. But there was also the concept of solidarity among the workers of the world, joining in a sporting event in friendly competition. It was a political act in many ways.

On the point about military men, I hadn’t realised until I read this book that de Coubertin actually introduced the modern pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics and General Patton, who was obviously only a young man then and not a general, came fifth. I also hadn’t appreciated was that there were competitions in architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature in the Olympics before the Second World War, but they all went to the wall after that.

Yes. Well, as the book explains, culture was the second pillar of the Olympic “movement”. Sport was the first and culture the second, and now we have environmentalism, which is a very recent addition. So, culture still is involved in that there are some art exhibits, not competitions. On the early Olympic program, on the sporting side, there were more than a dozen tests of marksmanship, maybe 20-something, some of which involved shooting pigeons, other birds or other live animals. They were very fond of shooting small things.

Sounds like something conceived of by the English upper classes.


Turning now to your next Olympics book Lords of the Rings by Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings, which again I thought was an extraordinary book. So, this is about particular individuals who have forged and run the Olympics. Tell us a bit about who they are and what story the book tells.

The book covers the Olympics across a huge field and a huge range of players, too. The movers and shakers had very little to do with sport unless they happened to run an internationally successful sporting goods company, and not much has changed in that regard, but it started with Adidas and Horst Dassler, the boss of Adidas and so on.

Lords of the Rings deals with some of the wheeling and dealing, and bribery and corruption around the Olympics. I recognized the Japanese company called Dentsu, which has been one of Japan’s largest advertising marketing companies for decades, and thought, ‘I just wrote about Dentsu recently, didn’t I?’ I had, because my new book covers a broad sweep of Olympic scandals. I looked up Dentsu, which was involved in the 1980s and 1990s with some of these events and scandals involving Dassler, Adidas and the sponsorship program that was developed by the IOC with prompting from these big names.

In this book, Dentsu comes up in the chapter called “ISL Rules the World”. ISL is another multinational advertising company that has managed to be at the centre of various FIFA deals and various IOC deals. So, all of these players who are all interlocked have not gone away, and that’s depressing in many ways. I never expected very much of IOC’s so-called reforms, but here we have Dentsu in the thick of scandals in 1980s and 1990s, and Dentsu in the thick of scandals now. Japan’s bid took place seven years before 2020, in 2013. We have Japan’s former IOC member who was the president of Japan’s national Olympic Committee, Tsunekazu Takeda. He was involved in some kind of bribery that resulted in Tokyo winning the 2020 Olympics. Takeda resigned. He claimed he hadn’t been personally involved, but because it had been on his watch he fell on his sword.

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There are other bad actors involved in current or more recent bids. It demonstrates that the more things change, the more they stay the same. When I first read Lords of the Rings and the later book, single authored by Jennings, New Lords of the Rings, I was particularly interested in the bribery aspect because that was what was key to my first Olympic book.

Simson and Jennings have a chapter called “The shoe size of the second daughter”, which is a reference to the way that bid committee members compiled dossiers on IOC members so that they could choose gifts—and these weren’t just trifles, these were gifts in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. These were distributed to IOC members whom they thought might be influenced by them—in other words all of them except Princess Anne, Dick Pound and maybe a handful of others. But in those days, as has been well documented, the vast majority of IOC members were completely susceptible to bribes.

They’ve used that catchy title for the chapter to point out that bid committees left no stone unturned to try to work out how to bribe somebody in the best way possible to secure their vote and, as we know with the Salt Lake City scandals, this ranged from giving free tuition to sons and daughters or nieces and nephews of IOC members, to expensive jewellery for the wives, and so on. In those days, up until the so-called reforms, the entire 100-plus membership of the IOC jetted around the world to visit bid cities, and there would be between five and eight bid cities in those days, when bidding was more popular than it is now. So, they had a lot of top-flight international travel and top hotels, and wining and dining and gifts. And these were people who were very unlikely to be able to evaluate the pros and cons of the bid.

There was a handful who had experience in sport administration, event planning and the urban architecture and the sports facility construction side of it. But a lot of them were the European aristocracy, with some sporting experience. A lot of them didn’t even have that. They were big-time businessmen. So that presented local bid committees with a big field of people potentially prone to bribery and, if they chose the gifts accordingly, they would have some success in shaping the eventual vote.

One important character in this book is the former Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. He was the president of the IOC for a long time, wasn’t he?

He prided himself on so many things, including bringing peace to South Korea or something along those lines. He wanted the Nobel Peace Prize for that, but he didn’t get it. He was a former Francoist and ran a tight ship. He’d been a sports administrator in Franco’s Spain and that was the model he chose for his leadership style, which wasn’t opposed very much. Jennings really does a hatchet job on Samaranch in his later book and later articles, because the buck stopped with Samaranch.

He wanted to be called ‘His Excellency’ although he had no official status whatever. When I was researching my last book, I was looking at articles by arbitrators who serve on the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The recent famous case with Caster Semenya was heard before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is an arbitration tribunal, not a real court, and one of the senior arbitrators is a Canadian, Richard McLaren. I was reading his work, preparing for my last book, as he had done some very important analyses in sports law journals. And even Richard McLaren was referring to Samaranch as ‘His Excellency’.

“A lot of commentators, including me, have pointed out that the IOC has much less of a problem with awarding to dictatorships because they don’t have to worry about referendums. They’re not going to happen”

So, it is just taken for granted that this guy is really really important. But Jennings would say he is just a jumped-up Francoist sport administrator and that it was on his watch that decades of bribery and corruption took place. And if he knew, and he could reasonably be expected to know, he certainly didn’t care. He himself enjoyed a pretty luxurious lifestyle. He had some kind of permanent residence in Lausanne, which no other IOC member would have, and he had a home somewhere in Spain presumably, with his wife, but he had a kind of furnished suite that was his year-round accommodation in Lausanne and lived very nicely, thank you. When his wife died during the Sydney Olympics, he flew home for the funeral and then flew back again, which tells you what kind of guy he was.

I noticed that his children are involved in sport administration now as well.

Yes, Samaranch Jr is an IOC member.

Let’s move on to your book now, Inside the Olympic Industry. What is the story you’re telling here? This book is about the Olympic bids and the process of how they happen. Is that right?

Yes, my book does cover this aspect of the Olympics. I started with the bribery scandals in Salt Lake City, which sort of fell into my lap when I joined Bread not Circuses in 1998, and then in 1999 all the bribery was exposed, and I started documenting that. As an active member of Bread not Circuses, I was able to integrate my personal experiences as an anti-Olympic activist into the book, what sociologists call “participant observation”. I was more of a participant, less of an observer. I didn’t get arrested or anything dramatic, but we did a few things sort of close to the wire and got away with it. We were pleased with our interventions and we actually took credit as an anti-Olympic group for the fact that citizens of Toronto were made aware by the publicity we got, the advertising we did, and the booklets and leaflets we distributed at rallies and that kind of thing. And we prepared a document that we called an Anti-bid Book. This was in an era where there was no social media, and the only electronic communication would be email. We had an email list of supporters and we sent out notices to them, but we were relying on paper, basically, to get the message across, and doing media interviews and getting our critiques published in Toronto newspapers, with some radio and television, too.

I also write about this in the chapter of the book called “Toronto and Sydney Olympic bids: when winners are losers”, because I was also involved with anti-Olympic and Olympic watchdog groups in Sydney during my trips there. Unfortunately, Sydney won the bid, with largely negative social impacts on the city and its disadvantaged populations. I document the resistance efforts in Sydney, Toronto and Atlanta. People in Bread not Circuses had close connections with Anita Beaty (of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless). She and her partner and colleagues were frontline workers before and during the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, trying to stop the worst impacts on the homeless population in Atlanta. It was widely documented that thousands of homeless African-American men were picked up and put on buses and shipped back to “where they came from”. They didn’t come from the regions outside of Atlanta, but they were out of sight if they were bussed out.

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That’s what happened, as with all the Olympics cities: the idea of cleaning up the image involves cleaning up the streets and removing homeless people and panhandlers from view, because the eyes of the world will be on the city. International visitors and (more importantly) the eyes of international businesspeople who might consider relocating or setting up branches in the Olympic city, because suddenly it’s on the world map as world-class city—none of that is compatible with having homeless people begging on the streets. This process has occurred with virtually every Olympics, and will continue to do so because there’s no political will to protect homeless people. In Los Angeles, where they’ve got the 2028 Olympics, the local councillors are already cracking down on homeless people by means of bylaws.

Did you get any political traction with your activism? Is there a greater awareness of these issues in Olympic bids these days?

Not speaking personally, but yes, absolutely. The group in Toronto, the other groups in Vancouver and Sydney, London and other bid cities have had significant impacts. The fact that groups in bid cities around the world over the past 10 years or so have been successful in demanding referendums really reflects the changing climate around Olympic bids.

Thomas Bach, the current president of the IOC, is really pissed off at that. He said, “why do people think there has to be a referendum for this kind of thing?” as if public money isn’t involved! He says there’s this nasty anti-establishment movement going on, particularly in Europe. And that’s why there are all these referendums, and he just whines a lot about that because he can see that the declining numbers of bids is a bad sign for the Olympic industry. On the other hand, they came up with a bit of a grand coup when they decided that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. They knew that there were declining numbers of bids. They had two viable bids for 2024. So, they chose Paris for 2024 Summer Olympics and LA for 2028. LA was not bidding for 2028, there were only interested in 2024, but it would have been a stretch to tell the IOC, the great God of the Olympics, that you don’t want 2028, you want 2024 or nothing. So, of course, LA organisers grabbed that and saw it as a big victory.

“Simson and Jennings have a chapter called The shoe size of the second daughter, and that is a reference to the way that bid committee members compiled dossiers on IOC members so that they could choose gifts—and these weren’t just trifles”

In reality, it was simply the IOC hedging its bets. They had two viable bids, so they went for a double award and decided they could change the rules, if they wanted to. In theory the competition is for one Olympic year only and the bids are geared towards that in terms of costs in particular. The organizers in LA are now having to take into account in their budget that the event will be four years later than expected. Everything will be more inflated and more unpredictable.

Which brings us quite nicely on to the last book Hosting the Olympic Games by John Short because this is specifically devoted to the problems of the costs involved, right?

Yes, and it’s maybe a bit of a dry read, but Short presents a lot of detail that others hadn’t done before, for example, documenting all of the costs in tables. I think he provides the most realistic and valuable analysis of the basic facts and figures about the Olympics in this book: how much things cost, who pays for them and whether there are cost overruns.

The Olympic industry has a habit—and the Olympic organizing committees and IOC and so on have a habit—of presenting figures in a way that suggests that certain Olympics broke even, if not made a profit. Because the costs of new facilities are amortized over the life of the assets, which is presumed to be 30 years or something like that, there are all these accounting tricks that disguise the fact that the city has to build a certain set of buildings and facilities and tracks and fields and pools and so on. Some of them are very useful as a legacy for the local community after the Olympics are over, and some of them are absolutely useless or almost useless. So, for instance, if you build a velodrome, an inside cycling track, it’s a very expensive facility to build and to maintain, and the actual track can only be used by elite athletes who are training for indoor cycling events.

In the same vein, sliding centres for Winter Olympics, where they have luge, toboggan and skeleton—these kinds of events—these are not snowy places on a little hill in the park where you can take your kids. They are potentially life-threatening walls of ice that the luger navigates down at amazing speeds. In the case of Vancouver, during a training run, a luge athlete from Georgia was killed, and the subsequent enquiries showed that, while there wasn’t negligence, officials had warned that the barricades and the safety railings and all the rest of it were totally inadequate. Some people had said ‘someone will get killed’ and, tragically, someone did get killed.

So, these facilities are extremely expensive to build and to operate, and they’re not a useful legacy for the city or the surrounding area. The money side of it is disguised with the language around “legacy”, which is all very warm and fuzzy. But the legacy has mixed benefits and is extremely expensive. There are the accounting tricks of amortizing the costs. Then there’s the cost of building the infrastructure, like new highways or a new airport. They’re certainly a benefit to the community later on, but it’s a sad commentary on local politicians that they won’t build adequate public transport and adequate facilities for local populations without this impetus, this catalyst of hosting the Olympics.

Given that sort of cost-benefit analysis, which presumably is similar in every place, why do cities continue to bid for the Olympics? Or is it actually the case that fewer and fewer do now, because people have become much more aware of the cons?

Fewer do, but there’s a very noticeable trend that the ones that are bidding—and the 2022 Winter Olympics is a good example of this—tend to be dictatorships. And a lot of commentators, including me, have pointed out that the IOC has much less of a problem with awarding to dictatorships because they don’t have to worry about referendums. They’re not going to happen. They know that the facilities will be built on time and probably on budget, but if not on budget they’re not accountable to anyone as a dictatorship. At the same time worker safety on construction sites doesn’t matter so much. Qatar’s an infamous example, where the number of worker deaths every year is enormous, preparing the stadiums for the FIFA 2022 World Cup.

Now the 2022 Winter Olympics have been awarded to Beijing. The IOC was stuck with two options, Kazakhstan or Beijing, and they thought that Beijing was a better bet. So that’s how that turned out. I think every city around the world is aware of the escalating costs of the Summer Olympics, because they’re enormous. There were eleven thousand athletes destined for Tokyo this year, although that’s not going to happen now. The security is enormous and the costs keep going up in other respects as well. Even climate change is having an impact as more extremes of heat affect the Summer Olympics.

One final question. Can the Olympics be reformed, or are they just out of date and should be abolished? Is there a way of making them genuinely beneficial for the cities that host them and make them a benign event politically and socially, or are they always going to be a problem?

Well, like any social activity, they can’t be divorced from politics. Sport is political by definition, despite how much the IOC or anyone else argues that we should keep politics out of sport. I think my short answer is no, they can’t be reformed. Apart from the hype around the Olympics and the pageantry of the opening and closing ceremony, people are interested in track and field, swimming, gymnastics, figure skating—a handful of sports that spectators around the world love watching. The media rights holders know that there’s not much point televising archery. There are a lot of duds as far as the media is concerned. Most viewers around the world just want these high-profile sports with exciting outcomes, and those championships could be held as they are currently, and widely televised every two years or four years.

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There are other options that don’t have the baggage of the Olympics and are not as enormous, like the Pan Am games, the Commonwealth Games and the Gay Games. Even IOC members are saying the games are getting too big. They try to cut back once in a while but, on the other hand, they add a lot because of diminishing interest. Thomas Bach, the IOC president, is particularly interested in attracting more youth and so it was his brainchild to start the Youth Olympics a few years back and to have sports like skateboarding and other urban sports. Surfing is coming up in the 2024 Olympics. So, to attract more youth as participants and as viewers because that’s the audience of the future, and all their market research on these topics has concluded that they’re not attracting enough youth.

Interview by Benedict King

April 3, 2020

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Helen J Lenskyj

Helen J Lenskyj

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto. Her work as a researcher and activist on gender and sport issues began in the 1980s, and her critiques of the Olympic industry include Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics and Activism (2000) and Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda (2008).

Helen J Lenskyj

Helen J Lenskyj

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto. Her work as a researcher and activist on gender and sport issues began in the 1980s, and her critiques of the Olympic industry include Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics and Activism (2000) and Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda (2008).