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The best books on The Olympic Games

recommended by Philip Barker

The Story of the Olympic Torch by Philip Barker

The Story of the Olympic Torch
by Philip Barker

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The Olympics are one of the world's great celebrations of sport. Here Philip Barker, Olympic historian and sports journalist, chooses five books that help you to understand the games, their origins and their traditions—and to relive the sporting drama of past Olympic Games.

Interview by Benedict King

The Story of the Olympic Torch by Philip Barker

The Story of the Olympic Torch
by Philip Barker

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Before we get to the books about the Olympics you’re recommending, tell us a bit about the flame ceremony you attended in March. Is it always held in Greece?

Yes. It’s always held in ancient Olympia and the flame is always lit from the rays of the sun.

This year there was a volunteer cast of performers, thirty-odd dancers who were priestesses and 15 young men who also dance and line the route. The actual flame is lit from a concave bowl. It’s a giant sort of mirror, almost like a giant magnifying glass. They put some old-fashioned filmstrip in so that when the sun comes down, it starts a fire. They hold a torch to it, and it bursts into life. The ceremony is done at a place called the Temple of Hera. It’s part of the archaeological site of ancient Olympia, now just a few colonnades here and there and a few stones, but the backdrop is stunning.

The ceremony was much diminished this year. Normally the inhabitants of Olympia will go en masse to watch. This year, because of the coronavirus, there were just some invited guests from the International Olympic Committee, some from the Tokyo Organising Committee, a few people from the local municipality and that was it, along with a few journalists. And yet, at the actual ceremony, there was a strong feeling that we had to start—as a sign of hope, as an emblem that in the face of so much adversity the flame was at least burning.

On the second day Gerard Butler, the actor, ran with the torch, so there was this perfect combination of a Hollywood film star and the Olympic torch. The crowds came out in force to see it, but then they decided to scale it completely down, so that no further relay took place. They’re keeping the flame in Japan, which I think is a great move because it gives a little symbol of hope. That’s what it’s meant to be anyway, a sort of inspiration.

Let’s talk about the Olympics books you’ve selected. First up is The Olympic Games by Lord Killanin and John Rodda: tell me about this book. 

When I was growing up this book, first published in 1976, was a really excellent encyclopaedia of the Olympics. It goes right up to Munich 1972 and it tells the history of the first 90-odd years of the Olympic movement. It has a summary of every single Olympic Games. It even has an article by Prince Philip about equestrian events, because Prince Philip was, at that time, the head of the International Equestrian Federation.

“It’s taken a long time for people to actually research the Olympics properly”

For many of us, this was the first introduction that we had to serious books about the Olympics. It is brilliantly illustrated. And, for me, a lot of the pictures came to life when I watched the films and documentaries on the TV. It was as if the book had come to life. It’s a seminal book in getting you up to speed with the history of the games in one volume. The authors did a magnificent job. It’s still something that I’ll consult to this day.

Killanin was a member of the International Olympic Committee, wasn’t he?

He was president, 1972-1980. John Rodda was a very distinguished Guardian journalist who, in 1968, had attended the student protests in Mexico before the Olympics of that year. He was actually there when the security forces moved in and the shooting started. It’s one of the great forgotten things, the massacre at the Square of the Three Cultures in Mexico City just before the Olympics. It’s reckoned that at the very least, about 300 people were murdered there by the government forces. Rodda covered the Olympics right up to his death. He died before London 2012, but he was one of the grandees of Olympic journalism.

It does have great illustrations and the other thing that’s immensely useful about this book is that it has, at the back, a ‘who’s who’ and a list of all the Olympics medal winners.

Rodda and Killanin catalogue the great Olympic figures. It’s taken a long time for people to actually research the Olympics properly. The organization I belong to, the International Society of Olympic Historians, has done its bit. There is still a lot of work to do in finding out and verifying the facts, because over the years mistakes have crept in and the documentation in the early years wasn’t as good as it could have been. Historians have gone back to newspapers and found that some of the results were actually incorrect. Over the years things have changed, too, like the spellings of names—that sort of thing.

There’s been a lot of work since, but this book pulled everything on the Olympics together for the very first time. It is written for intelligent adults, but it’s accessible to people and, of course, the illustrations help that.

Let’s go on to the next of the books you’ve chosen, The British and the Olympics: Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612-2012 by Martin Polley. What was the influence on the modern Olympics of Britain’s culture?

The British have always been mad about sport. In the Middle Ages a king of England actually had to ban football because the men of England were so interested in kicking a bladder around they stopped practising their archery.

This book goes from 1612, which was when Robert Dover, a local landowner, set up his ‘Olympicks’. These are still held in Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire at the end of May every year. They are wonderful. Every year somebody actually plays the role of Robert Dover and they have things like shin-kicking, wrestling and wall-climbing. That was the start of the idea of the Olympics in England.

And then, in the 19th century, there were games in Liverpool, Morpeth, London and other places which are discussed in the book.

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There was a fascination with the ancient Greek world. The best known initiative was by Dr William Penny Brookes, who lived in Much Wenlock, a little village in Shropshire, and started the Wenlock Olympian Society. Originally the idea was to promote a library to help the locals learn to read. Now it has been revived and it goes on every year in July. They have the Wenlock Olympian Games on the field in Much Wenlock, and it provides a wonderful link. Indeed, William Penny Brookes started to correspond with a chap called Evangelos Zappas who had established very similar games in Greece. The Zappas  Olympics started in 1859. He also corresponded with Pierre, baron de Coubertin, who actually came to Much Wenlock in the 1890s and visited Brookes.

There’s a passage in something that de Coubertin wrote, where he says that it was the inspiration of the Shropshire country doctor that gave him a nudge when it came to trying to revive the Olympic Games. The British initiatives were very, very important. There were games in London in 1866 called The National Olympian Games, that took place just behind King’s Cross station. They had swimming down at Teddington, near the lock, and athletics at Crystal Palace. One of the people who took part in the athletics was W. G. Grace. He was playing a match at The Oval the day before he was due to run. He was 18 years old. He scored 224 not out, then had the self-confidence to go up to the captain and say, ‘Look, I can’t field tomorrow. Can you find a substitute? I’ve got to go and compete down at Crystal Palace in the athletics.’ And he won the 440-yard hurdles. He did take part in a few other races as well, but didn’t do quite so well. In those days of gentlemen amateurs, people didn’t just specialise in one sport.

“The rules around amateurism were strict. People who earned money as ski instructors couldn’t take part, for example.”

The public schools helped this culture because they were obsessed with sports. The FA Cup basically came from an idea of a knockout cup at Harrow School. Public schools and their old boys were an impetus behind the development of organised sport in those days and they certainly had a major role in the Olympics.

Polley’s book on the Olympics and Britain is beautifully illustrated. It pulls together pictures of so many things that actually show the heritage of the games that people might walk past and not be aware of. People don’t appreciate that we have this tremendous sporting heritage that goes back so many hundreds of years. This book shines a light on that because it’s not just the Olympic Games, which Great Britain has attended on every occasion; it shows that Great Britain was at the forefront of all the activities that encouraged and brought about international sport.

Are athletics a bit like football for the British in that we started it, but we’re not very good at it, or have the British tended to punch their weight in the Olympics?

Recently, yes. In Atlanta in 1996, the British won only one gold medal and that was Redgrave and Pinsent in rowing. Then they brought in the National Lottery, which transformed things.

Going back further, the Olympics had a strict amateur rule and you weren’t allowed to accept money. Some countries abused that, like ones behind the Iron Curtain. They would assign people a job as, say, a soldier, but their duties would consist of, for example, playing football. They played a bit fast and loose with the system and the American collegiate system allowed for something similar.

But the rules around amateurism were strict. People who earned money as ski instructors couldn’t take part, for example. It’s only really since the days of Coe and Ovett in the 1980s that British athletics has been well supported. They had the Sports Aid foundation, which was a trust fund/grant type thing, then it became open and after that, of course, people were sponsored and therefore able to train full-time. Attitudes have changed. British athletes are basically being monitored all the time. It’s a whole different ball game.

Let’s move on to the next of your books about the Olympics, The Games by Marshall Brant. It’s a kind of history through press cuttings, is that right?

The great thing about this book is that it shows you how it was at the time. It came out in about 1979, just ahead of Moscow, but it’s a fabulous thing because it shows you what people were saying at the time and there’s no hindsight involved. Newspapers are instructive because no one can airbrush their contribution. It’s a fabulous book and goes back to 1896.

You get a great sense of place and time from this book. It’s absolutely fascinating because you get transported back to the time. A newspaper comes out and it has to make a judgment. Maybe somebody ought to think about doing a book that takes the story up to the present day.

Your next book is El Fuego de Olympia by Conrado Durantez, who was a member of the Spanish Olympic Committee. What’s he writing about?

This is a great book. It’s such a lavish thing. It’s 460 pages on beautiful paper with wonderful illustrations, a lot of them from his own personal collection. There are cartoons in there as well as the actual story of each torch run, with some unusual pictures. He includes quite a lot of himself carrying the torch, because in 1968 he accompanied it for a lot of the way because they did a special thing for the Mexico Olympics with Spain, celebrating the connections between the old world and the new world. They built it round this ‘voyage to the new world’ theme, which was rather romantic, and he took part as one of the commissioners to make sure that the flame got to where it was meant to be.

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When I wrote my much more modest book about the Olympic torch, I sent him a copy and this beautiful lavish album came back. It’s full of photographs. It shows you things that have happened on the relay that you wouldn’t necessarily know about. And its great beauty is that, because it covers each relay separately, you can compare and contrast how the relay was conducted each time. Each country tries to stamp its identity on it and, with the colour illustrations and the text, it really captures that.

 What sort of things do countries do to stamp their identity on the relay? 

In 1968 it went across the Atlantic by boat and then through Central America, including the Mayan temples in Teotihuacan. At the 1956 Melbourne games, it made a journey down Australia’s eastern coast. At Sydney 2000, they developed a special torch that would allow a diver to go out down to the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef under water. They started the relay at Uluru (Ayers Rock). The Greeks had the torch carried by people wearing the fustanella—the skirt you see their soldiers wearing—in ceremonial roles.

The Australians made a point of choosing their greatest female champion, Cathy Freeman, in the stadium itself to light the flame. The Spanish had an archer who lit the flame by firing an arrow and that remains a very memorable image. Muhammad Ali was American, so Atlanta could call upon ‘the greatest’ to light the cauldron at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. Each place tries to look at their traditions and symbolic moments from their country’s history and invest the flame with those. It’s those individual stories that the book tells.

“Great Britain was at the forefront of all the activities that encouraged and brought about international sport”

Until 1984 it was mainly just athletes who carried the flame, but that all changed. People can now be nominated to carry the flame because they are worthy citizens, those who have done something for their communities, ‘civic champions’. Also, the sponsors now have a better opportunity to nominate people. I was nominated because I’d helped the British Olympic Association with some of their history and they asked me if I would like to carry the torch.

Where did you carry it?

I carried it twice. I was allowed to carry it in Greece in 1996, as part of the International Olympic Academy in the Taygetus Mountains above Sparta. I also carried it in Brentford, alongside the River Thames, in 2012. For me, that was very appropriate because I used to work for a TV programme called Transworld Sport and our headquarters were just a stone’s throw away. That was my first job in television.

Let’s move on to the last of the books you’ve chosen about the Olympics, which is Master of Ceremonies by Ric Birch. He was the creator of various closing and opening ceremonies, as well as lots of ceremonies at other sporting events.

Ric was the architect of the opening ceremony for Sydney 2000. Many people regard that as one of the greatest opening ceremonies of all time. There were problems with Cathy Freeman lighting the flame because something went slightly wrong at the end. I think Ric probably regarded that as the longest two minutes of his life.

He started out with Australia’s bicentennial celebrations in 1988. He was involved with Barcelona in 1992 and the book tells a lot of little anecdotes behind the development of the ceremonies. He’d previously worked on the 1982 Commonwealth Games as well. They had this giant kangaroo called Matilda that came into the arena. Birch reveals in his book that the ‘driver’ of said kangaroo was not exactly in the best condition. He’d apparently been smoking something.

It’s quite an irreverent book. It’s very interesting, but it’s written in an informal style and goes through the tribulations of getting these ceremonies right. Everybody sees the opening ceremony on TV. Everybody thinks that it just happens.

If you get a great opening ceremony, it sets the tone for the games. London certainly did that. Ever since Moscow in 1980, the ceremonies have been something to set the tone. It’s been something that people are impressed by. Everybody still remembers Rocket Man from Los Angeles 1984. This book shows that there is a lot of hard toil, sweat, blood and tears put into these Olympic ceremonies behind the scenes.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Philip Barker

Philip Barker is a sports writer, broadcaster and Olympic historian. He has reported on every Olympic Games since 1996 and has also covered the Olympic Winter Games on three occasions. He carried the Olympic torch in 1996 and 2012. He has worked in television for over thirty years and is a regular columnist for InsidetheGames.biz and contributor to Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. He is the author of The Story of the Olympic Torch and Lord’s Firsts.

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Philip Barker

Philip Barker is a sports writer, broadcaster and Olympic historian. He has reported on every Olympic Games since 1996 and has also covered the Olympic Winter Games on three occasions. He carried the Olympic torch in 1996 and 2012. He has worked in television for over thirty years and is a regular columnist for InsidetheGames.biz and contributor to Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. He is the author of The Story of the Olympic Torch and Lord’s Firsts.