Tug of war used to be an Olympic event. It had all the rules, regulations, and rituals of any other sport, as well as the scandals (spiked footwear was an issue). In fact, the very first black Olympian competed in the tug of war of 1900: a Frenchman named Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera. Alas, tug of war was dropped in 1920.
How to Watch the Olympics: The Essential Guide to the Rules, Statistics, Heroes, and Zeroes of Every Sport is rich in intriguing background. Co-written by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton, it is the sort of timely title one expects to find unleashed “just in time” for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
And yet, this is a wonderfully entertaining and informative read, one that caught me incessantly putting “Did you know ...” questions to my friends. Did you know shot put has its roots in throwing cannonballs? Did you know the steeplechase began as an Irish race with participants running between churches? Did you know the oldest Olympic gold medalist was 53? (She was British archer Sybil Newall who smoked the 1908 London Olympics).
Such peeks into larger stories about the evolution of individual sports and the Olympic tournament do not come without context. “How to Watch the Olympics” moves evenly through the Games, with chapters on each ceremony and each summer sport. It’s laid out with sidebars, graphics, appendixes, and photos. There is a concise narration of the status of each event: rules, strategy, record-holders, and history. Like any good guidebook, “How to Watch the Olympics” gives us times, places, and dates for London events, but it’s the well-told stories that are best. We learn, for example, what Minoan bull-jumping has to do with modern gymnastics, why South Korea dominates archery, and what the British royal family has to do with the distance of a marathon.
Rather than allowing infectious enthusiasm to turn this book into a trivia-spouting cheerleader, the authors also tackle provoking matters, chronicling controversies ranging from the age of gymnasts to doping to why the father of tae kwon do was disowned by the sport’s governing body. Politics, of course, weighs heavily. While the authors pay attention to well-known stories, such as that of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it also looks at lesser-told tales. At the Melbourne Olympics, for instance, just after the Hungarian Revolution, there was a ferocious rivalry between athletes from the USSR and Hungary. When the men’s water polo teams met in the final group game, they literally came to blows, “the ball all but forgotten.” With blood in the water, police intervened.
The fraught relationship the Olympics has with female athletes is dealt with in a section titled “Eleven Wretched Women.” It details the 1928 controversy over permitting women to run track in the Amsterdam Games. Even Harold Abrahams, the Olympic track star portrayed in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” insisted that running is too violent for women. Women did run in Amsterdam. But their exertion and exhaustion so shocked the rulemakers that they banned from future Olympics any events in which women would run more than 200 meters – a ban held in place for 32 years.
“How to Watch the Olympics” did not have to be as good as it is. It could’ve gotten away with mediocrity and still capitalized on the London excitement. But Goldblatt and Acton set their sights on a higher prize. Stories, after all, are the foundation for why we watch sports in the first place. It is our good fortune to join these storytellers for the ride.
Anna Clark is a freelance writer in Detroit.