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REFLECTIONS OF OLYMPIC GLORY SEVERAL NEW VOLUMES ABOUT THE GAMES ARE WORTHY OF MEDALS

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As the XXVI Games in Atlanta draw ever nearer, Olympics-oriented
books are speeding off the presses faster than Michael Johnson
sprints off the blocks. Happily, a few of the volumes have
historical value. The coffee-table-style Chronicle of the
Olympics, 1896-1996 (DK Publishing, $29.95), provides a
mercifully succinct yet admirably detailed accounting, in words
and some 750 photographs, of every Olympics, summer and winter,
since the rebirth of the ancient games in Athens in 1896. An
appendix lists every medal winner. And the final chapter
explains just how the International Olympic Committee awarded
the 1996 Games to the Georgia capital over what would have
appeared to be the logical site of the centennial celebration,
Athens. This book may also prove invaluable as a trivia tool.
If, for example, the name of Gustav Thiefenthaler pops up
unexpectedly in conversation at your neighborhood sports bar,
you will be able to say that he was the light flyweight
wrestling bronze medalist in the 1904 Games in St. Louis. So
there!

Grace & Glory--A Century of Women in the Olympics (Triumph
Books, $19.95) recounts in only 100 pages the struggle that
female athletes have waged for recognition in Olympic sports.
Women were excluded from the 1896 Games, although a courageous
female marathoner singularly named Melpomene competed on the
sly, finishing an hour and a half after the winner. At Paris in
1900 women were authorized to compete, but only in golf, tennis
and yachting; track and field was not opened to them until 1928.
Figure skating was the only event for women in the first Winter
Games, in 1924. In tracing this dogged ascent of Olympus, Grace
& Glory offers winning portraits of such athletes as Sonja
Henie, Babe Didrikson, Wilma Rudolph, Pat McCormick, Dawn
Fraser, Olga Korbut, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie
Joyner-Kersee and Bonnie Blair.

By far the most intriguing of the new histories is author Stan
Cohen's The Games of '36 (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.,
Inc., $19.95), which recalls the furor over the so-called Hitler
Games of 1936. Innocently enough, the IOC had awarded both the
'36 Winter and Summer Games to Germany in 1931, two years before
the Nazis rose to power. But by 1936 more than enough was known
of Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism and his suppression of human
rights (if not about his lust for international conquest) to
create unrest in the Olympic community. There was pressure in
the U.S. for a boycott of the Games. But the Berlin Olympics
and, perhaps inadvertently, Hitler himself had a staunch
defender in Avery Brundage, president of the American (now U.S.)
Olympic Committee. His credo was "the Games must go on." And
they did, with amazing consequences.

The Nazis put on quite a show, a masterwork of propaganda. And
yet an African-American sprinter named Jesse Owens crabbed
Hitler's act, winning four gold medals. Long afterward the myth
persisted that Hitler, in a rage over this triumph of a
supposedly lesser species, snubbed Owens, turning his back and
stomping indignantly out of the stadium after each of Owens's
victories. But as Cohen takes pains to establish, der Fuhrer had
been told by Olympic officials that it was not his function to
congratulate any of the winners and that if he insisted on doing
so--as he had done with German athletes on opening day--he must
congratulate them all. Hitler decided that he had neither the
time nor the inclination to shake that many hands, so he kept to
his luxury box, congratulating no one publicly and, in that
sense, snubbing every competitor.

But there was more than enough controversy to go around. A
swimmer, the effervescent Eleanor Holm, was kicked off the U.S.
team for partying too enthusiastically on shipboard en route to
the Games. Two U.S. sprinters, Marty Glickman and Stan Stoller,
both Jews, were bounced from the 4x100-meter relay team in a
move they suspected was made to appease Hitler. The Jewish
sprinters were replaced, however, by two blacks, Owens and Ralph
Metcalfe.

Berlin's were the first Olympics in which the torch was lighted
inside the stadium by the last runner of a relay team that had
begun its journey in Athens. And these Games inspired a
memorable film, Leni Riefenstahl's Olympiad, which has survived
in all of its beauty decades after its evil sponsors met their
ruin.

Not long after the conclusion of the Hitler Olympics, Brundage
advised his U.S. committeemen that "we can learn much from
Germany." That, in a tragic sense, we did.

And yet, as worthwhile as these books are, they will inevitably
suffer in comparison with a work in progress that may, as its
promotional blurb unabashedly proclaims, "render nearly every
other Olympic history superfluous." When it is complete, The
Olympic Century (World Sport Research & Publications Inc.) will
total 25 volumes, will have taken 12 years to prepare and will
have the official blessing of the USOC. This enormous project is
headed by Gary Allison, an award-winning screenwriter (The First
Olympics--Athens, 1896), with a staff of eight writers, and
edited by Laura Foreman, formerly with Time-Life Books. Judging
from the two volumes published so far--The VIII Olympiad, Paris
1924, St. Moritz 1928 and The XXIII Olympiad, Los Angeles 1984,
Calgary 1988--this collection will be not only an important
historical document but also a most pleasurable read.

The Paris-St.Moritz volume has some hitherto unpublished photos
of the Paris Summer Games that were recovered in a Tokyo museum
by Allison's intrepid team of international researchers. The
shot of the legendary Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi,
barefoot and with spikes in hand, captures the essence of that
dedicated if dour athlete, who won five gold medals in Paris.
Nurmi's heroics and those of other leading performers in these
Games are described in surprisingly lively prose that is free of
the deadly solemnity that so often characterizes the writing on
the Olympics. In the section on Johnny Weissmuller, for example,
Ellen Phillips, the author of this volume, veers off into a
discussion not only of the swimming champ's later career as a
movie Tarzan but also of the attempts by four other
Olympians--gymnast Frank Merrill (the 1920 Olympics), swimmer
Buster Crabbe (1932), shot putter Herman Brix (1928, later known
as Bruce Bennett) and decathlete Glenn Morris (1936)--to play
the Apeman.

The 1928 Winter Games were dominated by another future movie
star, Henie, a figure skater of such transcendent gifts that, as
the book informs us, "the wind split open to let her through."

In the volume that covers the 1984 Games, the somewhat more
serious issue of commercialism in the Olympics is addressed: Was
Peter Ueberroth, head of the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee,
"the capitalist demon who sold out the Olympics or the pragmatic
angel who saved them?" The Games' net profit of $222.7 million
seems to leave the question still open for debate.

Obviously, The Olympic Century will not unfold in chronological
order; the next scheduled volume covers the Hitler Games and the
1948 postwar revival of the Winter Games. The last volume in the
series, covering the Atlanta Games, will appear sometime next
year. Each of these books may be purchased by mail for $18.95
(plus shipping). Write to the 1st Century Project, Back Bay
Station, P.O. Box 350-G, Boston, MA 02117-9733, or call
800-451-8030.

B/W PHOTO: NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME/STEVE KANIA COLLECTION Swastikas greeted the 1936 U.S. team in Berlin (above); Henie (right) skated off with gold in '28, '32 and '36. [Crowd in train station decorated with swastikas and Olympic flags]

B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE STILL PICTURE BRANCH OF THE U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES [See caption above--Sonja Henie]

B/W PHOTO: AP Nurmi didn't stop running until he won five golds in 1924; Didrikson (top) won two golds in 1932, clearing hurdles for women, too. [Paavo Nurmi]

B/W PHOTO: ALLSPORT/IOC [See caption above--Babe Didrikson]