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Olympic Visions: Images of the Games through History by Mike O’Mahony (review)
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A very ambitious pursuit, Mike O’Mahony’s Olympic Visions manages to capture not only the readers’ undivided attention but also over a century’s worth of Olympic visual and creative media history—all in eight concise and well-written chapters that span less than 200 pages. Olympic Visions represents O’Mahony’s efforts to offer acolytes of the Olympic games a novel approach for analyzing the complex and entwined cultural, economic, and political significance of the games. The near ubiquity of the Olympic games is undeniable, but for O’Mahony a critical piece of the Olympic history puzzle has been largely overlooked. Far from being irrelevant or useless, O’Mahony believes the more common approaches to Olympic history, including gathering statistical data and compiling primary source descriptions of events, should be supplemented by serious inquiry into the visual history of the games. O’Mahony wants to develop a field of critical analysis that looks at what he calls the visual culture of the Olympic games. The author recognizes the enormity of this undertaking and tempers readers, cautioning them that Olympic Visions is only a preliminary step in what he hopes to be the long march of Olympic visual history scholarship.

Although only a first step, Olympic Visions seems to have had a running start. Acknowledging the necessary selectivity inherent in his project, O’Mahony has chosen representative examples of the fruit that further analysis of Olympic visual history artifacts may bear. Traversing the Olympics—from the ancient games to their modern rebirth and through the most recent London games of 2012—the eight chapters are organized by major events and emergent themes, effectively bridging different eras throughout the history of the games. As vast as the timeline selected for his analysis, so too is the scope of materials and artifacts O’Mahony includes in his analysis.

O’Mahony chose to focus his analysis primarily on images, including documentary photographs, motion pictures, and promotional media. However, where relevant, the Olympians themselves appear, especially when their actions have inspired the creation of such artistic visual representations of and at the Olympic games. With no shortage of controversial moments and enduring themes to choose from, the cross-section of themes the author chose covers an assortment of socio-political and cultural issues, ranging from chapters entitled “Olympic Transgressions: Drugs, Political Protest and Terrorism” to “The Russians are Coming! The Olympics and the Cold War.”

The book begins with a satisfying introduction to his methodology and explanation of its potential merits. Examining artifacts such as wall paintings, artistic pottery, and life-sized Olympian statues, Olympic Visions begins with the imagery of the original Olympic games of Ancient Greece but quickly finds its connection to modern times with O’Mahony reminding readers that the Olympic games—including Pierre de Coubertin’s notion of Olympism—and the visual and performing arts have been fused since the beginning. Following the opening two chapters that provide a general history of the evolution of how the early Olympic games had been visually illustrated and photo-documented, Olympic Visions moves on to one of its most compelling and representative chapters, entitled: “A Suitable Activity for a Woman?”

A controversial topic from the inception of the Olympic games (women were not allowed entry into the ancient games), this chapter addresses the presence and depiction of women athletes at the Olympics. From Charlotte Cooper’s demure and over-dressed still photographs in the early twentieth century to the “flapper” image perpetuated by gold medal tennis star Suzanne Lenglen and the younger generation of the 1920s, O’Mahony traces the history of the gendered expectations women had in popular culture.

In one particularly illustrative example of O’Mahony’s visual culture analysis, he presents the Monument to Fanny Blankers-Koen—a large statue in Rotterdam dedicated to the most famous track and field athlete in Olympic history. Despite her matronly portrayal in popular Dutch media, Blankers-Koen’s statue depicts anguish in her face and a fatigued, yet triumphant posture as she crosses a finish line. O’Mahony argues that this exhausted depiction of Blankers-Koen represents not only the struggle she faced in winning that particular race but also “echo[es...


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