Labour Research June 2016


Power games

A political history of the Olympics

Jules Boykoff, Verso, 352 pages, £11.99

The Olympic Games have had a chequered political history. Pierre de Coubertin, the aristocrat who gave birth to the modern Olympics, was against women’s participation, and allowed African countries to participate only to offset what he considered to be their laziness.

Boykoff, a former member of the US Olympic football team, journeys from the 19th century origins of the modern Games, through its flirtations with fascism, and into the contemporary era of corrupt, corporate control. He recounts alternative Olympic movements, like the Workers’ Games and Women’s’ Games of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Gay Games of the 1980s. And he takes a look at some of the athlete-activists and political movements that have challenged the Olympic machine.

Talking recently about the forthcoming Rio Olympics, Boykoff says: “The Olympic Games are in a period of immense flux. Many of the big promises are being cast into major doubt … And the residents of Rio de Janeiro aren’t fooled. 

“In 2011 there was survey where 63% of the people were optimistic that these mega events were going to bring tangible economic benefits to Rio. By 2015, that statistic had plummeted to 20%.” He adds that now, when you go to some favelas, “it’s hard to find a single person” who wants the Olympics.

Reviews contributed by the Bookmarks socialist bookshop. Order online at