- The Gold in the Rings: The People and Events That Transformed the Olympic Games by Stephen R. Wenn and Robert K. Barney
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, consequential uncertainties over public health and international travel, and related postponement of the Tokyo Olympic games until 2021 have tested axioms and exacerbated critique over the value(s) of the Olympics (and organized sport more generally), and the economic conditions that underpin their existence. Such evaluations are aided by historical analysis, and here Stephen R. Wenn and Robert K. Barney's latest book The Gold in the Rings: The People and Events That Transformed the Olympic Games makes its timely entrance. Published prior to the pandemic, Wenn and Barney's book focuses on "isolating milestone events" (x) and people instrumental in the IOC's intertwined economic, television, and corporate sponsorship histories. Drawing on extensive archival research and in-depth interviews with notable International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, organizational employees, and leading international sport figures, the authors move beyond the already substantial evaluations of the IOC to a more precise examination of the committee's decision-making, organizational structures, and stakeholder arrangements that have sustained the organization's eminence and economic growth.
Bracketed by an introduction and epilogue, the book contains ten substantive chapters, each of which, Wenn and Barney note, pertains to a "key, transformative event" (6) vis-à-vis television rights and corporate sponsorship. Here, Chapters 4 and 10 are particularly noteworthy. In Chapter 4, Wenn and Barney present new analysis of how the era and actions of Willi Daume (IOC member and West German Olympic Committee president) created a radical blueprint for media-rights relationships for the 1972 Munich Olympics. The authors expose how crucial individual ideological vision, ambition, and manoeuvring have been in pursuit of organizational change within the Olympic movement yet have also been enmeshed within broader political arrangements. In Chapter 10, Wenn and Barney unpick how some of the ambiguities and machinations of host city and IOC politics manifest in the most critical moment of the bid process: the vote. Here, the authors excel at providing insight into the "backstage," "frontstage," and "stage-managed" intricacies of the final bid environment and voting processes; a setting very few readers, let alone academics, will have the opportunity to witness or fully understand. The authors succeed in mapping key contextual forces influencing the session, how personal agendas coalesce into political factions and how historical ghosts come to bear on the present. Of most value here is the reminder that, while democracy, rationality, and ethical practice may be desired of sport organizations, these virtues are not, necessarily, natural traits (especially in the IOC). Moreover, the Olympic body contains human agents with their own motives, agendas, ambitions, and long memories.
Wenn and Barney have uncovered new archival sources that enrich the book's narrative and may also prompt further exploration and analysis. The authors also shed light on the financial details and realities that shape Olympic processes and, in so doing, open up the [End Page 93] organization to further economic scrutiny and accountability. The only reservations are relatively minor and relate largely to the work's wider utility for younger scholars and/or undergraduate audiences or those interested in methodological aspects. In the first instance, and unlike many of their historian peers, Wenn and Barney usefully explain features of their methodological approach—not merely the archive repositories visited but also how access to certain archives has been gained. For example, access to recent Executive Board minutes was aided by their enduring and good working relationships with IOC members and/or individuals connected to the movement (for example, Dick Pound) and senior management at the Olympic Studies Centre. That Wenn and Barney have such exceptional access to a breadth and depth of organizational figures (and assisted global archival repository access) is impressive and, indeed, a marker of the esteem in which they and their scholarship are held...