A look at politics, Moscow and women
The Politics of the Olympic Games, by Richard Espy. University of California Press, Berkeley, 215 pp; $11.50, hardcover.
Given such an ambitious title, one expects at least a 10-volume set à la Encyclopedia Britannica. However, by only dealing with the Olympics since World War II and with judicious editing, Richard Espy has kept the book to a manageable length without sacrificing any of the flavour or impartiality required.
Espy begins with a discussion of sport and politics. He says that the modern Olympic Games symbolize the struggle between man’s ideal and the reality within which he must live. Their founder, Baron de Coubertin, sought to provide an opportunity to revive and instill in the world’s youth, through physical exercise and competition, the “virtues” of fair play and soundness of mind and body, virtues that in his eyes had been lost or were rapidly dying out.
Espy goes on to say that the modern Olympic Games have been utilized not so much for international fair play, peace, and understanding as for national self-interest, survival, and greed. He claims that the Olympic ideal has not been held equally by all concerned. At best a long-range objective, it has receded behind the demands of expediency and self-preservation. In short, the Olympic Games demonstrate an ideal struggling to become reality. It’s not, says Espy, that the ideal concept has been rejected; it has merely been translated into practical terms.
Espy says that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the guardian of the Olympic ideal and charter, can be regarded as the cause and reason of all the troubles surrounding the present day Olympics. He cites the expulsion of Indonesia from the IOC and the suspension of ski champion Karl Schranz for professionalism as actions motivated not by the IOC’s charter and noble principles, but by political expediency. In other words, the IOC charter was used when it supported IOC actions but was conveniently ignored when the situation was contrary to IOC purposes, says Espy perhaps somewhat simplistically.
In his discussion of the organizational structure of the IOC, which was conceived in the early 20th century, Espy points out that it was set up at a time when Europe was the centre of power and politics, and sport was not yet another forum for conflict between the nations of the world. Since then, the rise of the African nations, increased governmental interference, and growing financial strains, along with the prospect of alleviation through television revenue, are but a few of the issues that strain the IOC’s organizational structure. Espy gives the impression that the Olympic Games, especially under Avery Brudage, were incapable of meeting the challenges put to them.
Overall, I found this book fascinating reading. For example, did you know that it was Russia that introduced and pressed for the expulsion of South Africa from the Olympics? Or that the avowed reason for the African withdrawal from the Montreal Olympics was because of New Zealand’s sporting contacts with South Africa, yet New Zealand was only one of 26 countries that had sporting contact with South Africa during the period?
Like it or not, the Olympic Games, says Espy, have become a showcase for nationalism and international politics and are probably a better forum than the United Nations for such political activity.
Espy’s book, while slightly heavy with historical detail, is well worth reading. I was left with the impression that the Games, torn between its bumbling guardians, the IOC, and its member states, have become another tool of nationalistic expression, an expression that contains no mention of the athletes themselves. Bob Neil
The Russians, by Hedrick Smith, Times Books Ltd., 1976, $12.50, paperback.
Hedrick Smith won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for coverage of Moscow, and in his book, The Russians, he brings us hundreds of anecdotes and images gleaned from four years of living in Russia as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times.
Smith says in the forward of the book that he wanted to bring readers “the human quotient” — to show us the Russian people and their lives. He is a skilled observer and he succeeds with his aim. The book is fascinating.
The book is divided into three parts — The People, The System and Issues.
Under the section entitled The People, Smith tells tales of the elite and their posh summer houses outside Moscow. He writes of the interesting phenomenon of “queuing” — the art involved in being a consumer in the Soviet Union. He writes of the corruption prevalent in the Soviet Union. He says that there is a distinct counter-economy that operates throughout the country and he adds that “ordinary people take it for granted as an essential lubricant for the rigidities of the planned economy.”
In the second part, The System, Smith elaborates on the meaning of the planned economy. He has been told that often all supplies and materials aren’t received by factories until the 14th or the 20th of each month. So factories must fulfill about 80 per cent of the quota determined by the government in the last 10-15 days. Understandably, concern with quality diminishes and volume is the most important thing. One of his Russian friends tells Smith that when a Russian buys an appliance, they try to buy one with a certificate saying it was produced before the 15th of the month. If it was made after the 15th, the chances of it working properly are quite slim.
Smith, in Issues, tells us stories of those Russians who are privileged to travel outside Russia, and of those who are not so privileged.
One subject Smith does not address himself to is sport, although he does give some fleeting images. In one chapter, in which he is attempting to make the point that Russians have a desire for one all powerful “boss”, he quotes a Russian sports fan as saying that the Soviet national hockey team lost to Czechoslovakia in the world championships in April 1974 because the coach was too soft.
Smith goes on to discuss the importance of rank in Soviet life. Rank is paramount and it permeates all levels of Soviet society. He says that “each rank carries not only its salary scale but special housing allotments.” Thus, individual sportsmen and women are also ranked formally — International Class, Master of Sport, Class A, Class B, etc. We hear once again that Russian athletes have great incentives to perform well.
Smith reiterates in a chapter on Patriotism that sport in Russia is not entertainment, but politics. And for that reason Soviet sports are well subsidized and top performers “are secretly provided extra prerequisites and handsome cash bonuses.”
However, the nagging problem with this book is the feeling of overstatement, of exaggeration on the author’s part, perhaps in order to make his point. Many times, of course, his quotes and his sources do not come first hand and that does add to the feeling of doubt. And yet, just as you feel compelled to question the veracity of one of his stories, he comes back at the reader with an incident that, if you have ever visited Russia, is acutely real. For example, Smith states that often it seems, as a way at getting back at the harsh system, some Russians turn and inflict it on others: the “brigades of imperious matrons” on the floors of every hotel in the country are one such example. Or, as one Russian told Smith: “Put a Russian in charge of a little plot of ground or a doorway somewhere and he will use his meagre authority over that spot to make life hard on others.” Athletes and coaches, be forewarned!
So, despite a slight problem with total acceptance of everything that Smith writes, he does indeed show us an insider’s view of Russian life. And if there is a theme that pervades the book, it seems to be that the Russian people know that the system, as it exists, cannot be changed, so they don’t try. They accept it and then try to get around it. “The Russian tactic is not to confront Authority, not to seek reform of the system, but to step back, endure, and look for a loophole or pray that someone else’s inefficiency will somehow get you by.”
Definitely good reading for those going to Moscow this summer. Penny Werthner-Bales
Women and Sports; Janice Kaplan, The Viking. Press, New York, 1979, $9.00, Hardback.
Elizabeth Kaplan is a sports journalist, rather than a reporter, who has had extensive experience in the world of sport. As a sports journalist, Kaplan has developed a very observant and analytical method of examining the role of the female athlete. So rather than being a simple recapitulation of the usual male/female differences in sport, the book is a perceptive treatment of the female role, both physiologically and psychologically, in sport. Kaplan also exhibits a flair for clever turns of phrase, anecdotes, and explaining scientific terminology in plain language.
The book is divided into nine chapters, covering feminity and feminism, physiology, sex and sports, competition and attitude and choosing a sport. In the chapter of physiology, Kaplan presents much of the latest scientific research on menstruation, pregnancy, mothering, strength, etc., and gets off some of her better quips. Speaking of menstruation and dysmenorrhea (severe cramps): “If men had cramps, we’d have a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea”. She also points out that at one recent Olympics, more than one-half the Soviet women medal winners were mothers, something that is not common in North America.
Kaplan is at her best, however, when examining the psychological problems confronting female athletes. It is this area where the greatest problems lie because of discrimination and societal pressures placed on female athletes to be “ladies”. For example, Iowa has one of the most highly developed girl’s high school basketball programs in the United States. The girls play the old-fashioned basketball of a six-a-side with offensive and defensive zones and outdraw the boys during the state championships. The coach of the current state champions encourages his girls to “play for poise, grace and to become better ladies”, rather than to play like boys. Further examples used are Debbie Meyers’ developing anorexia nervosa rather than accept that her athletic build was “just as attractive” as a normal girl’s, or Shirley Babashoff coming slightly undone at the Montreal Olympics and accusing the East Germans of chicanery and “who would want to look like them anyway” sourgrapes. Sex testing in sports is another example. (“If you’re this good in sports, you can’t be a real woman.”)
It is in these areas of discrimination and femininity problems, where right and wrong are blurred, that I found the book most interesting. Rather than trying to hammer her readers with numerous examples of this and that and win by sheer numerical superiority, Kaplan presents fewer examples, analyzes them and then places them into the context of an overall scheme.
One of the drawbacks were the chapters exhorting more women to become involved in exercise. While filled with good practical information, the two chapters “Everyone can do it” and “Choosing a sport” would be of most value to those not currently, or ever, involved in sport. While not doubting the validity of having such chapters in the book as a practical step towards getting more women moving, I found the shift from perceptive writing to simple statement of facts and testimonials for exercise less interesting.
Even one who has never considered the words “woman” and “athlete” contradictory would find reading this book profitable. For those who have trouble accepting the role of women in sport, and, after all, it has been suggested that sport is the final frontier of male dominance, this book could cause a reexamination of a few old stereotypes. Bob Neil
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