Gold rush

Ben Johnson (right) crosses the finish line ahead of Carl Lewis to win the 100m final at the Seoul games in 1988. He was later disqualified when he tested positive for doping

The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, by Anon, Bloomsbury, RRP£8.99, 224 pages

Sport and Politics in Modern Britain: The Road to 2012, by Kevin Jefferys, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£19.99, 328 pages

The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final, by Richard Moore, Wisden Sports Writing, RRP£18.99, 326 pages

Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague, by Marc Perelman, Verso, RRP£8.99, 144 pages

Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton, Particular Books, RRP£20, 336 pages

What do you feel on crossing the line first in an Olympic final? “Relief, honestly,” says an American gold medallist in the wonderful book The Secret Olympian, written by an anonymous British athlete who competed at the Athens Games. “I’d been at it pretty hard for 13 years ... When you win, you know you never have to do it again if you don’t want to ... Thank God that’s over.”

In the space of a few decades, the world has come to take sport more seriously than ever before. One symptom is the almost inhuman devotion now required of athletes. Another is that much of the planet will stop later this month for the London Olympics, whereas only 30 years ago the Games seemed about to die out. Athletes have become our personal role models and our national flag-bearers. The five books under review here – themselves products of the Olympic frenzy – help us understand how quickly sport has been transformed and what that has done to sportspeople and to everyone else.

The Marxist polemic Barbaric Sport, by French academic Marc Perelman, blames sport for most of the world’s ills. What capitalism was to Marx, sport, with “its innocent-seeming mischief”, is to Perelman. In fact, he argues, sport is the form that hypercompetitive global capitalism takes in our time.

His perfectly humourless book is all too easy to mock. You knew he was going to write, “Sport has become the new opium of the people” long before the line comes. He exaggerates his arguments unto absurdity. Here he is on Hitler’s Berlin Olympics of 1936: “The logical outcome of the great festival of the whole world’s youth would be war, war carried by the Olympic Games as cloud carries a tempest.”

Barbaric Sport is a short work that should have been much shorter. When I reached the last words – “there should be no sport” – I felt the relief of that gold medallist on crossing the line. And yet buried beneath the verbiage, some truths shine out. For instance, Perelman’s claim that sport “becomes the sole project of a society without projects” rings uncomfortably true as austerity-hit Britain prepares to host a lavish Olympics.

He is right that in our time “everyday conversation is bloated with invasive logorrhoeic blather on ... the knee injury of some player, the love life of some female champion”. He is also right that (as Umberto Eco and Noam Chomsky have pointed out more elegantly) this kind of media blather helps distract people from politics.

Above all, Perelman is right – and the secret Olympian would surely concur – that the modern athlete’s life bears little relation to old-fashioned notions of happy play and good health. He asks: “How ‘healthy’ really is a swimmer who has spent her entire youth doing lengths in a 50-metre pool?” Despite the trademark exaggeration, he has a point when he writes: “The forms of sporting slavery invented by past and present Stalinist dictatorships (USSR, GDR, North Korea, China, Cuba) [have been] taken up in their essentials by western democracies, albeit on a smaller scale.” Whereas the East German state sponsored Stakhanovite athletes in pursuit of communist glory, the British state sponsors them with National Lottery money in pursuit of national glory.

British politics provides another case study of what the historian Kevin Jefferys calls “the relentless rise of sport as a cultural and economic phenomenon”. In his honest but plodding Sport and Politics in Modern Britain, Jefferys charts how the UK’s politicians have gone from ignoring sport to obsessing over it. In 1948, the government provided barely a penny and scarcely more encouragement for the London Olympics. When a Labour MP asked prime minister Clement Attlee whether he might consider appointing a minister for sport and physical culture, Attlee’s reply in full was: “No, sir.” There were more important things to do.

For decades, British officials regarded state funding for athletes as a vulgar form of cold warfare best left to foreigners. Today, you can’t keep British politicians away from sport. When the government announced £80bn in spending cuts in 2010, it did not touch the Olympic budget of £9.3bn. Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, has said sport is now “higher up the political agenda than it has undoubtedly ever been in the United Kingdom”.

Once sport becomes important and lucrative, athletes start taking life-threatening drugs in order to run milliseconds faster. We can name the day the public stopped believing athletics was pure: September 27 1988, when Ben Johnson, the freshly crowned Olympic champion and world record holder in the 100m, tested positive for doping in Seoul. The sportswriter Richard Moore tells the story at a sprinter’s pace in his rollicking and well-researched The Dirtiest Race in History. Along the way, he bears out many of Perelman’s charges against sport.

The eastern Europeans pioneered sports doping but the west soon learnt their tricks. For years the authorities barely took doping seriously. It was not until 1968 in Mexico City that Olympians were tested for drugs. The first culprit caught was a Swedish pentathlete named Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall. His drug: alcohol. Liljenwall had had “two beers to calm his nerves” before the pistol shoot.

Into the 1980s the authorities only tested athletes during competition, making it a cinch for dopers to pause their regimes and clean up before an Olympics. Indeed, Moore shows that some in authority were reluctant to catch cheats: positive tests made sport look bad. He produces strong evidence that several positive tests at the Los Angeles Games of 1984 were “disappeared”. No wonder, because in the 1980s athletics was becoming ever more popular and lucrative. With all that going on, Johnson tells Moore that he remembers thinking: “Why should I do it clean when everybody else is doing it dirty?”

The unmasking of the Jamaican-Canadian sprinter was a shock that continues to reverberate. The men’s 100m race, as Moore explains, is the centrepiece of the Games. It is felt to be the test of the limits of human possibility. The man who holds the record is considered, as Time magazine once wrote of Johnson’s rival Carl Lewis, “physically the most advanced human being in the world”. Johnson’s record of 9.79 seconds seemed like a giant leap for mankind. As he boasted, drunk, to journalists afterwards: “I’d like to say that my name is Benjamin Sinclair Johnson Jr, and this world record will last 50 years, maybe 100.” Then it turned out to be just a giant leap for pharmaceuticals.

No major athlete had ever tested positive before. Many rivals had long suspected Johnson: indeed, Moore reveals how Lewis’s camp planted a friend in the testing room with Johnson, to chat to him, ply him with beers and to make sure he couldn’t take a masking agent to disguise the drugs in his system. Post-Johnson, many people suspect every winning athlete.

The secret Olympian, who competed in the Games of 2004 before becoming an Olympic-standard writer, clarifies just how serious sporting preparation has become. He has written the book anonymously, presumably because of the code of omertà that permeates professional sport, and though we learn that he is a racer, it does not even become clear whether he competes in track or cycling.

His anonymity helps create an impression of honesty when he takes us behind the closed doors of training camps. He says he never took drugs. Nobody offered him any, and anyway, he would have felt awful using drugs to displace a workaholic teammate. “Doping athletes don’t slip into their competitors’ houses at night and steal their medals and tens of thousands of dollars,” he writes, “but the effect is the same.”

On the other hand, he says: “I drank protein shakes by the gallon, took various vitamin supplements ... [and] popped legal anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs when injured or aching badly, which was pretty much all the time.” And he trained non-stop for years. The Olympian’s life, his slim book makes clear, is almost devoid of family gatherings, nights out or friends’ birthdays. Even with all that preparation, a race is apparently so painful that competitors worry they will collapse and die. The secret Olympian writes infinitely better than Perelman but he echoes Perelman’s point: “What is globally seen as sporting performance is in total contradiction with the natural capacities of the body.”

This degree of seriousness is relatively new in sport. As late as the Barcelona Games of 1992, the British hockey team staged a pizza-eating competition in the Olympic village. Many British Olympians were then still hobbyists. Mind you, perhaps hockey players remain a breed apart: at a reception on the eve of the Athens Games, the astonished secret Olympian watches one of them down beer after beer.

Just before his race, the secret Olympian reflects in terror: “I’ve been training 11 years for this.” If he does well, these few minutes will transform his life. Instead he does badly. The account of the race takes just a page of his book. Suddenly his career is over: “I suppose I should go and have a shower?”

But then, like most athletes after their events, he throws himself into the condom-strewn Olympic party scene. In his account: “Everyone wants to talk to you, buy you a drink or just be seen with you. Members of the opposite sex approach and try desperately to get you into bed.” One medallist of 2008 who carried his medal around Beijing told him: “It helps with girls, clearly.”

What is going on here is that great athletes are now the kings of the human jungle. In the past 30 years, as they have perfected themselves, they have become our society’s models of perfection. This greatness fascinates others, notes the secret Olympian. “Mediocrity – a study in average has yet to hit the top of the bestseller list.”

More than that, male athletes have displaced soldiers as the masculine ideal. Countries used to reach nationalist frenzy in war. Now they do it in sport. When Perelman compares sports events to military rallies, he is being unfair. It’s surely better for people to cheer on runners than to cheer on tanks. Perelman himself quotes the historian Eric Hobsbawm on the rise of international sport: “Regular contests ... provided a safety-valve for group tensions, which were to be harmlessly dissipated in symbolic pseudo-struggles.”

The difficulty for the athlete at the centre of all this is how to move on once his moment has passed. The secret Olympian, who soon after Athens finds himself in a disappointing office job, has good things to say on the topic. Leanne Shapton has devoted most of a memoir to it. When young, Shapton swam in the Canadian Olympic trials but didn’t make the team. Swimming defined her: “I might not be able to say the right things or fit in, but I could do something well.” And so the alarm went at 4.25 on Canadian winter mornings, and her sleepy mother drove her to the pool.

Swimming Studies is interspersed with Shapton’s drawings, and Michael Schmelling’s photographs of her bathing suits. Her meandering memories are finely written yet overwhelmingly self-absorbed. Not all her thoughts from the pool are enlightening: “Lap 42, shopping: the dusty beige-pink colour of a pair of trousers I saw in Berlin but could not afford.” The prose is often faux-weighty: “I look in the mirror at my reflection, the red goggle marks around my eyes. I cover my wet hair with a hat, leave.” So entranced is Shapton with her own art that when she meets Lucian Freud in a restaurant, she shows him her drawings. Yet this is self-absorption without much disclosure: an undramatic life, barely examined.

Still, there are moments of truth. After the Olympic fantasy ends, Shapton has to find her place in normal life. Watching a boyfriend swim in the sea on holiday, she reflects: “I realise he doesn’t see life as rigour and deprivation. To him it’s something to enjoy.” But high-level sport is not about enjoyment.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.