Book Review: Power Games- A Political History of the Olympics

Power Games front cover

Power Games by Jules Boykoff.

Jules Boykoff. Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. London: Verso, 2016. RRP £11.99 paperback.

I have had Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics sitting on my bookshelf for a while, but with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 – the Games have only been cancelled three times since they started in 1896 – it felt like an appropriate time to actually read it. Power Games is an engaging and insightful history of the modern Olympics, from their conception by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the late 1800s, to their current incarnation. Jules Boykoff, an Olympic athlete turned academic, brings a unique perspective to the topic as someone who has both participated in and studied the Olympics.

Power Games is arranged chronologically. Some games are discussed in depth, whilst others are barely mentioned. Boykoff focuses on several themes throughout however, particularly the downsides of the games. The issues he discusses include a lack of accountability, greenwashing, extensive and long-term public debt, profit going to private companies, displacement of residents, and increased policing powers. Boykoff discusses the resistance movements that have grown up in host cities including Vancouver, London, and Rio de Janeiro. In some cases, activists have even managed to prevent cities bidding to host the games, including Boston, Hamburg, Rome, and Budapest.

The Olympic movement has descended into a slow-motion crisis. Fewer and fewer cities are game for the Games. For too long host cities have worked in service of the Olympics. It’s time for the Olympics to start working in service of host cities. A serious rethink is long overdue.

Boykoff, 2016; p.241

Power Games is an excellent example of how powerful the appearance of being apolitical can be. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has worked hard to portray the Olympic Games as above politics; they refuse to take a public stance on conflicts or disputes, and athletes who use the Games to make a political statement have been punished harshly. I am a strong believer in the argument that there is no such thing as apolitical however; even refusing to take a side has an impact. If you can convince people that something is apolitical however, then it becomes much harder to critique. In Power Games, Boykoff explores how this process works, and just how effective it can be.

I really enjoyed reading Power Games, it is well-paced and well-written. I knew a little bit about the mounting critiques of the Olympic Games before reading it, but my understanding is much better now. Boykoff also references quite a few geographers in his analysis, which is pretty much a guaranteed way to make me like an author! There are a few things that I think would have made the narrative easier to follow, such as a list of host cities and IOC Presidents, and maps of host cities and Olympic sites. I think pretty much every book would be better with more maps though, so perhaps I’m being overly critical.

As a former athlete, Boykoff clearly has a strong affection for the Olympic Games, and he would like to see them reformed rather than abolished; he provides a clear and comprehensive list of the changes he believes need to be made in order for the Games to survive in a more sustainable and ethical way. If I was the IOC, I would pay attention.

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