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Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics and Activism

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj
New York University Press: New York
2000
0791447561 (pb)

xxi + 216

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The expansion in scale of the Olympic Games has been one of the most astonishing global phenomena of the last quarter of the twentieth century, based upon a heady mix of political intrigue, national self-posturing, corporate greed and individual self-aggrandizement. Behind the public face of the Sydney 2000 summer Olympic Games it was all there to see the hustling for position within the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as potential successors to succeed the president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, in July 2001 jostled for prominence; claims by IOC officials for credit for the Olympic "movement's" contribution to world peace; Australia's constant grin as it achieved close to its projected medal tally, and outswam the USA in at least some of the major events in the Olympic pool; the pampered corporate sponsors, cocooned in Sydney's top hotels, escorted wherever they went by minders and police, guided to the best seats in the house for the blue-riband events; and the smug IOC members, many barely interested in sport, wheeling and dealing in the 5-star lobbies and visibly relieved to see the Sydney spectacular get under way so that the ignominy of Olympic bribery scandals around bidding processes could take the spotlight away from them and focus in again on the sporting action.

The most important sociological question concerning the Olympic phenomenon is surely one of accountability. How can an organization that seeks to speak for the whole world, and especially the youth of the world, and to represent peace and harmony between nations, justify the way that it conducts its business? In other words, how do the practices of the IOC match its rhetoric and hyperbole? One focused way of pursuing this line of questioning is by examining the rationale for, processes and outcomes of Olympic bids, the efforts by cities and countries to win the IOC vote to stage the summer or the winter games, and the responses of communities and citizens to those bids. Inside the Olympic Industry is a painstakingly detailed documentation of these rhetorics, processes and practices.

In late 1998 and early 1999 the world media became more interested than ever before in the inner workings of the IOC. This was based upon the confirmations and further revelations of accounts of gift-giving to and bribery of IOC members by the leaders of bid committees. Members of the IOC were routinely provided with lavish hospitality in bidding cities, elite excursions, in some cases special aid budgets for their impoverished countries (though no IOC member is a representative of a country; in this exclusive club you are an IOC delegate to a country). In some notorious cases, IOC members' close family gained employment in a bid committee, or children of members were offered scholarships in prestigious educational institutions. Helen Lenskyj has drawn together the press cuttings and the official documentary sources to portray the embeddedness and extent of this culture of corruption and collusion in a body consistently purporting to speak for universal human ideals. She shows how bidding officials become ensnared in a world of back- scratching and false friendship, the worst of the humbug of international diplomacy combined with the excesses of Hollywood lifestyle. Very importantly, she catalogues the hidden costs of Olympic bids and events, in terms of local and urban impacts. There are spectacular successes in this story Barcelona's reclamation of a dilapidated waterfront, Sydney's transformation of the Homebush site. But what did these really cost, and who were the losers in other cases where the successes were never so obvious? Lenskyj reflects perceptively on these critical questions, ones that are too often ignored or swept quickly under the carpet by local and national politicians and sports administrators. She also shows how in some cases, local community groups have rumbled the real motives of many of those fronting the bids, and, following the pioneering investigative work of Andrew Jennings, reports the efforts and successes of anti-Olympic protest groups in cities such as Nagano, Toronto, and Berlin, and oppositional groups in Atlanta. Her book considers too the nature of the media, and the collusive relationship that is cultivated by the Olympic "movement" with some constituencies within the world media.

Highlights of Lensjyk's accounts are her discussions of particular bids (Toronto and Sydney) and the notion of corporate environmentalism that really underpins the IOC's 1990s conversion to concern for the protection of the environment. Both these analyses appeared in earlier forms in the Sociology of Sport Journal and Journal of Sport and Social Issues, and show Lenskyj's scholarly strengths in subjecting policy documents to critical readings, and providing convincing interpretations of Olympic rhetoric. At times, the analysis would have been still more telling, the narrative even more riveting, if Lenskyj had directly engaged with some of the key actors within the Olympic industry. But her synthesis of these slippery customers' positions is based upon a meticulous reconstruction of their evasions and excuses, and will provide an invaluable source for future researchers on the Olympics. She gives unprecedented levels of space to the voices of the marginalized and the potentially exploited, those for whom the Olympic message was from the very beginning a false promise, and who in the realism of their everyday life knew it. Those disenfranchised or betrayed in this sort of Olympic story have found an impassioned and articulate champion in Lenskyj, who writes that she "had no idea that a book of this kind would be the outcome" (p. xv), when she began her research on Toronto's Olympic bid at the end of the 1980s. It is the community activists of Toronto, Sydney and Atlanta to whom she expresses her "greatest debt".

Lenskyj's book will be of great value to undergraduate courses and programmes dealing with hallmark, media or mega-events, not just specialist sport studies courses. It will also be a useful and accessible starting point for postgraduates and researchers working on the place of the Olympics in the global cultural industries, and the community responses to the rhetorics of such industries. This book is to be commended to all those interested in sport and Olympic studies, and demonstrates the importance of the study of sport for fields and areas such as international relations, globalization and regional studies, and comparative and media studies. Inside the Olympic Industry is a welcome contribution not just to sport studies, but to the sociology of the global system, and a reminder that any such sociology must recognize the importance of sports mega-events in that system.

Alan Tomlinson
University of Brighton

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