A Financial and Commercial History of the Olympic Games

Martin Friis Andersen
Aarhus University, Denmark

Stephen R. Wenn & Robert K. Barney
The Gold in the Rings: The People and Events that Transformed the Olympic Games
336 pages, paperback, ill.
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2020 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-08452-2

The Olympic Games are much more than athletic competition, international understanding and national rivaling. Olympic history writing usually focuses on great Olympic moments like the Blood in the Water-match in 1956, the Black September terrorism at the 1972 Olympic Games or the political boycotts in the 1980’s. These great moments are commonly used as a prism to investigate the relationship between the Olympic Games and world society in general. However, an important factor in the making of the Olympic Games tends to disappear in these narratives: The financial and commercial history of the Games.

In The Gold in the Rings, Professor Stephen R. Wenn, Wilfrid Laurier University, and professor emeritus Robert K. Barney, Western University, unravels the ties between the International Olympic Committees (IOC) and its commercial partners. By investigating previously undisclosed IOC materials and combining the knowledge gained in the archive with explorative interviews with various high-ranking Olympic personalities, the authors have managed to write an important book on the development of the Olympic Games.

The book consists of an introduction followed by 10 chapters, structured chronologically with 1932 as a starting point and ending with the implications of the 2009 Copenhagen IOC Session. Each chapter pinpoints a conflict and unfolds the ramifications of the conflict within different branches of the Olympic system. On the one hand the repetitive structure influences the reading experience and makes it a bit “dense”. On the other hand the structure also helps decoding the analysis because the reader can more easily focus on the content rather than the format. An epilogue concludes on the most important transformation of the Olympic Games presented in the book. An extensive section with notes secures transparency in the analytical work of the authors and a bibliography and index makes it manageable to the reader to maneuver in the book.

Chapter 1 focuses on the early days of Olympic brand protection. The conflict between IOC president Avery Brundage and the businessman and Olympic enthusiast Paul Helms in the pre war years convincingly introduces one of the main themes in Wenn’s and Barney’s Olympic history: the fight for the IOC to establish a sound economy around the Olympic Games and keeping rivals from exploiting an Olympic brand of increasing value.

After World War II the funding of the Olympic Games, the IOC, the national Olympics Committees (NOC’s) and the International Federations (IF’s) relied increasingly on media negotiations and contracts. Chapters 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9 focus on the fight for commercial and economic revenue from television rights. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC), the IF’s and the IOC fought about who should profit from television revenues. Meanwhile, commercial media corporations in the USA outbid each other for television rights causing rights fees to reach astronomical figures. This development caused conflict between the IOC and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), because the EBU could not match the bids on the American market. In general the chapters analyses the complexity of media negotiations on several levels at the same time.

The historical dilemma of importance of individuals vs. structure thus reactualises itself, making the book even more interesting to read.

Chapters 5 and 6 are dedicated to the creation of the TOP (The Olympic Partner) programme, which also made the economy of the IOC more stable and secure. A path from the theme in chapter 1 runs through these chapters, introducing and focusing on the roles of personalities like executive director of the IOC Monique Berlioux, business executive Peter Ueberroth, founder of Intelicense Stan Sheffler and business entrepreneur Horst Dassler. It becomes clear that individuals with their motives and actions have the ability to transform a cultural phenomenon like the Olympic Games; in this case transforming it into a brand worth billions of dollars.

The Olympic brand suffered from the Salt Lake City Scandal. In chapter 8, the authors analyse the impacts of the scandal and the way the IOC handled the crisis under the leadership of IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch and IOC vice president Dick Pound. The expulsion of members and reforms eased the tense relationship between some of the Olympic sponsors and the IOC.

Chapter 10 ties some of the knots in the complex structure of the commercial and economic transformation of the Olympic Games. Chicago’s failure to secure the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games are used as a prism to pinpoint some of the most important elements in the economical structure of the IOC in 2009. Once again the work of specific people like chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee Scott Blackmun, IOC member (now IOC President) Thomas Bach and IOC President Jaques Rogge influenced Olympic agendas.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is its ability to combine biographical facts with the analysis of archival material. Each time a new person is introduced to the reader, the authors provide the reader with a small biography of that person. It seems a clever choice for several reasons. First of all, readers who are not familiar with all the individuals involved with the IOC, the USOC or the EBU would miss out if they were not guided by the biographical information. Second, based on the biographical notes it is easier for the reader to understand the motives of the high-ranking Olympic personas and how their (more or less) personal motives have influenced Olympic history. The historical dilemma of importance of individuals vs. structure thus reactualises itself, making the book even more interesting to read.

Wenn and Barney convincingly portrays the progression and development within the IOC and they manage to do so without the nostalgic perspective of how the Olympic Games used to and ought to be, for which they should be credited. In my opinion, combining biography with archival material in the analysis makes the book very readable to both researchers and students. Last but not least, the book reaches its goal to redefine and visualize the complex economic structures around the Olympic Games by focusing on the financial and commercial history of the Olympics.

Copyright © Martin Friis Andersen 2021

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.