Account offers new perspective

The Games War: A Moscow Journal, by Christopher Booker, Faber and Faber, Boston, Mass., 1981, 235 pages, paperback.

George Orwell once wrote that “international sport is war without shooting.” This sentiment might strike a responsive chord in those with experience in international sport — particularly in contests involving East and West — regardless of how ambivalent their feelings might be as to the worthiness of that sentiment. One is left, however, with no doubt about how Christopher Booker feels.

As the author of The Games War: A Moscow Journal, Booker presents his impressions of the 1980 Moscow Olympics — the ‘Games War’ which was fought with many of the troops from the Western world missing from the battlefield — and puts forth his viewpoint, so like Orwell’s, that international sport is war, with “cheap shots” taking the place of shooting.

The result is a personal account of Booker’s experiences during the Games, which he attended as a special correspondent for the London Daily Mail. His intention in going to Moscow was to record his impressions of these Olympics — not as a sports reporter — but as an artist puts his impressions on canvas. Booker has used his talents as a political observer to create a canvas of the Soviet Union. The Olympic Games are the backdrop rather than the focus of attention.

Booker’s political talent, along with his anecdotal style and smooth prose, makes the book an interesting read. Despite his strong pro-Western slant, he does provide a wealth of political detail and includes background material containing much of the historical information necessary to put the Moscow Games in a ‘proper’ political context. What he ultimately does is create the mural of a Machiavellian Russian bear whose particular talent for dancing is not without its own peculiar charms.

Early in the book, Booker seeks to establish his credibility as a political observer, referring to a column on the Olympic boycott movement written in early January 1980 in which he says:

“My own view is that the present political momentum towards some kind of Western attempt to boycott the Moscow Olympics will prove unstoppable — but as a propoganda gesture it will go off half-cocked, just as the Games themselves are likely to. The Western boycott will be widely interpreted as yet another petulant and ineffectual response to the most terrifying fact in the world today — the ever-growing shadow of brute Soviet power.”

Because it was originally written as a prediction, Booker’s statement is impressive in view of the course the boycott action would take. The quote also serves as a synopsis of his two dominant views: that the boycott and the Olympics themselves were a sham; and that the threat presented to the rest of the world by Soviet aggression has never been so pronounced.

Booker looks to Winston Churchill for support, citing the former British prime minister’s description of the Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Not only does he find this holds true today, he likens its hypothesis to a ploy which was staged during the reign of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), when one Grigori Potemkin, a favourite of her court, had large, prosperous-looking but fake villages erected along the routes which Catherine’s coach travelled. His purpose was to convince Catherine of the richness and prosperity of her land and, obviously, to blind her to its serious problems. To Booker, the Moscow Olympics were a Potemkin village, on a scale grander than anything conceived by Potemkin.

Leaving the political theme aside, Booker does find time to write about Moscow — here his knowledge appears impressive — and the Games.

As a ‘tourist’ guide, Booker’s descriptions of life in Moscow and its environs would no doubt serve quite capably for those interested in such information. But his impressions of the Games are, at best, sketchy and readers interested in the actual sporting events would be well-advised to read elsewhere. For example, he caught the end of the marathon on television and summed it up as “won by the same East German who won in Montreal, very boring, I missed nothing.” The comment is typical. In this book, the sporting events are merely skirmishes within a much larger, and more serious, political battle.

Booker winds up the book by examining the Games in the context of the historic events which were unfolding in Poland as the Solidarity free trade union movement attempted to loosen the chains of totalitarianism. He concludes that the Potemkin village aspect of the Games could not hide the fact that the Soviets are facing one of the severest crises of their history as economic woes pile up one on top of the other.

The Games War: A Moscow Journal provides many intriguing and uneasy glimpses of the vast land which is the Soviet Union. For those interested in a television-style re-creation of the Games, this book is sure to disappoint. Those who want to place the Games as a potential landmark in East-West relations will get a provocative look at how and why a political commentator viewed the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games as nothing more than a Russian propoganda exercise. — Robert Neil.

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