Monday, May 23, 2016
I once read a handy definition of "amateurism" when it came to sports. It was along the lines that amateurism was a way of keeping money out of the hands of those who actually earned it. That's oversimplified a bit, but you get the idea.
The event most closely associated with amateur athletics over the course of relatively recent history is the Olympic Games. Organizers have struggled over the years with coming up with a definition that works for all, until they more or less gave up about 25 years ago and let anyone in the door. You still hear complaints that the purity of the Games was spoiled a bit by that decision, even though there's never been much purity associated with the subject.
Now comes along a book on the amateurism by Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves, two associate professors of kinesiology at California State University at Fullerton.
"The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism" fills in some gaps in our knowledge of this particular subject nicely if perhaps not neatly.
Speaking of oversimplifications, I've always thought that amateurism essentially started a way for organizers of sport to keep the lower classes out of their fun and games. The idea mostly was associated with Great Britain. The theory was that only rich people could afford to take up a game and practice it enough to become really good at it without compensation. Lower classes had to eat and didn't have the time to devote to pastimes.
There is some truth to that. However, the authors point out that some sports, such as soccer, had a professional aspect to them dating back to the 19th century. That's in part why soccer's big event is the World Cup and not the Olympics, although the story took some twists along the way.
Pierre de Coubertin usually gets the credit for playing the lead role in bringing the Olympics back as a world festival in 1896. It had been a Greek competition a couple of thousand years before that. De Coubertin was something of a romantic and probably didn't have his history straight, but the Games did get going. The problem when it came to amateurism is that standards were all over the place. For example, Jim Thorpe was ordered to give back his medals from the 1912 Games because he had taken a few dollars to play baseball before those Games, which was perfectly legal in some cases. The action was taken so quickly that Thorpe wasn't allowed a hearing. (Note: he was put back in the record book about 70 years later.)
But if there's a central figure to the story presented by the authors, it's Avery Brundage. The head of the International Olympic Committee was a strong believer in the concept of amateurism, to the point where athletes couldn't serve as coaches or commentators on their sports even after they had competed. As the Games grew in popularity, Brundage kept one foot in the past.
However, he was smart enough to change his views on some of the eligibility rules as world conditions changed. When the Soviet Union and its associated nations decided to make a huge effort to become athletic powers, suddenly Brundage forgot about rules designed to prevent government sponsorship and support of the athletes. And when television and endorsements became part of the situation and money was starting to get serious, well, it was fine for the IOC to take it in - but not the athletes themselves. You might call someone who acts that way a hypocrite, and you'd be right.
Once Brundage left the IOC in 1972, the Olympics fell into deep problems for a while. Eligibility issues were on people's mind, but boycotts, doping scandals and concerns on how to split up a growing financial pie among organizers caused problems. But the 1984 Los Angeles Games revitalized the competition in almost all ways, and in 1988 pro tennis players took part in the Games in Seoul. In 1992, the Dream Team showed up in Barcelona for basketball, essentially knocking the barriers down.
Llewellyn and Gleaves are obviously smart people, and they've done their homework. The University of Illinois, which published this book, is the home of Brundage's archives, and certainly the two authors spent lots of time there and well as going back through all sorts of other records and transcripts. They come to some sharp conclusions that appear to be right on target.
However, this is not a book for the beach. The story is mostly told from an administrative viewpoint, and it's a little too easy to get lost along the way. Meanwhile, Llewellyn and Gleaves use plenty of words that may add to your vocabulary; even my Kindle didn't have the definitions of some of them.
"The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism" is an interesting story that fills in several gaps in the subject, and it's not entirely fair to judge a book designed more for an academic audience than for the general public. But it's easy to come away wishing that it was a little more down-to-earth in its storytelling. If you are willing to get through the dry spots and have an interest in the subject, then take a look and give it an extra star. Otherwise, some may not find it worth the effort.
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Posted by Budd Bailey at 11:32 PM
Sunday, May 22, 2016
The Buffalo News gets the entire review, which you can access by going here. The shorter version would be that this is a collection of work of Deford's from National Public Radio. It is made up of commentaries about two pages long (three minutes or so of air time). Deford is considered the finest feature writer in sportswriting history, but he's pretty good at this too. Fans of Deford - which should include everyone - should like this.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2016
It doesn't take long to know what you're going to read when you look at the cover of this book. "I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies" tells you right away that the author is a man who loves, loves, loves baseball and all its quirks.
Then Tim Kurkjian goes about proving it over the 232 pages in the book.
It's baseball book No. 2 for Kurkjian, the fine baseball reporter for ESPN. The first was "Is This a Great Game, or What?" That was an easy read with stories and facts about the game.
Now he's back, about nine years later, with a repeat performance. Kurkjian goes through the notebooks once again in search of stories and information.
The title of the book comes from a remark Kurkjian made in 2007 on "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN. Carlos Lee had his 13th sacrifice fly of the season. That broke the club record, and it looked as if Lee was headed to break the major league record of 19 set by Gil Hodges. That's a launching point for a series of facts about this narrow part of baseball history. Chili Davis once drove in 112 runs in 1993 without a sacrifice fly, while 10 players have hit three of them in a game. By the way, Lee didn't have another sacrifice fly for the rest of the season.
For part of the book, Kurkjian names a subject and devotes the rest of the chapter on stories on that particular area from a series of people. What's it like to get hit by a pitch? What do players think of superstitions? What sounds are made during a game that the players notice? There are a few chapters devoted to some statistical oddities of the sport, and even one on the fascination of box scores. If you haven't figured out that this book is designed for BIG baseball fans, you probably are on the wrong website.
Kurkjian's best work in the book comes at unexpected times. The first chapter is about how difficult the game is to play. Anyone who has been cut from a Little League team or gave up the sport in frustration knows something about that, but it's tough for the big leaguers too. Then there's a tribute to baseball personalities like Earl Weaver, Tony Gwynn and Don Zimmer who are no longer with us. It's a nice contrast to the three paragraphs and out approach of much of the rest of the book, and Kurkjian's feelings come across nicely.
One more key point - this might be the first review in this space to criticize the foreword. George Will is the author in question, and his approach is to quote several of the items contained in the book. This has the effect of making the reader ask the question, "Haven't I read that already?" when it comes up in the actual text. At least Will read the book, but it's an annoying technique.
"I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies" comes off as a bit unfocused, but there's enough good information there to keep the reader going through it at a brisk pace. Kurkjian's good nature and his admissions about how he's a true "baseball nerd" help as well. His latest book might not be a keeper forever, but it will leave fans entertained.
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