Review of The Gold in the Rings

Stephen R. Wenn and Robert K. Barney. The Gold in the Rings: The People and Events that Transformed the Olympic Games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020. Pp. 360. Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 paper, $14.95 ebook.

Reviewed by Nicholas E. Sarantakes

In the historiography of American sport, there are many sub-fields and topics. Most sport historians focus on a certain sport, topic, or time period—probably all three. Baseball history has the largest plurality of interest, but it is only a plurality. The issues of race, class, and gender that dominate U.S. history also are as relevant to sport historians as they are to any other group of historians. An exception comes in baseball history, where issues of commerce are quite popular.  

The history of the Olympics stands apart from the rest of sport history. It is an exceptionally small but noisy subfield. A Ph.D. candidate studying for their comprehensive exams could probably read all the journalistic and historical works and still have time to spare for another topic. Research on the Olympics often requires international travel and a second language. A significant amount of scholarship on the Olympic movement—probably about a third—appears in either German or French. Almost all of the research is on the Summer Games, with the 1936 gathering garnering the most, but by no means all, of the focus. No topic dominates, but there have been some innovative, attention getting work on topics of diplomacy, race, and culture.

University of Illinois Press, 2020.

Anyone familiar with Olympic history or serious sport history will know the names of Stephen R. Wenn and Robert K. Barney. In The Gold in the Rings: The People and Events that Transformed the Olympic Games, these two historians explore the events that transformed the modern Olympics into a financial powerhouse. Contrary to popular belief, the Olympic Movement has changed significantly since its founding in the 1890s; this change is especially pronounced in its financing. Wenn and Barney make this point with an attention-grabbing anecdote. In 1970 the funds of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were so limited that Monique Berlioux, the director of the IOC’s staff, had to get authorization to either buy or rent a photocopy machine from the committee member in charge of finance due to its high cost and the organization’s constrained budget. The authors contrast that situation with 2013, when the funds of the Olympic Foundation stood at $1,035,860,000.   

How did such a powerful transformation take place? According to Wenn and Barney, “The overall trajectory of the IOC’s financial circumstances in the past fifty years owes much to two critical external developments in the twentieth century: the invention of television and subsequent technological innovations, especially the advent of satellite technology; and globalization,” (p. 3).

Wenn and Barney certainly have the credentials and authority to write this book. Their pioneering work on the financial and commercial aspects of the Olympics is the best work on that topic in the field of sport history. Their first book on these issues, Selling the Five Rings: The IOC and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism, won the 2003 North American Society for Sports History (NASSH) Book Award. They followed with Tarnished Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Salt Lake City Bid ScandalThe Gold in the Rings marks their third. Barney also established Olympika, the first peer-reviewed academic journal focusing on the Olympic movement. Both have served as President of NASSH. Barney holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and is professor emeritus at Western University in Ontario, Canada. Wenn received his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

Wenn and Barney’s source materials certainly are broad and deep. They even managed to get the permission of the IOC to look at the records of meetings that were less than 20 years old. These documents are normally embargoed for two decades. From this thorough research, the pair identified 10 episodes that changed the nature of the Olympics. These episodes fall under three general categories: threats to the IOC’s authority, the development of policy, and the development of the Olympics as a revenue generating brand. 

The first point of change Wenn and Barney explore is the confrontation between Paul Helms, the chief executive officer of Helms Bakeries, and Avery Brundage, then the head of the US Olympic Association, over the use of the Olympic rings as a symbol in advertising. The tensions emerged in 1932 and extended to 1950. The US Olympic Association and IOC prevailed because Helms chose not to pursue his strong legal case. He believed in the Olympics and did not want to do damage to the Movement, much to the exasperation of his lawyers. This incident taught the IOC that it needed to safeguard its properties. 

The second episode examined is the 1956 Melbourne Summer Games, when organizers and committee members saw the “monetary value of the Olympics as entertainment programing that proved game changing” and insisted that the television networks pay for the rights to broadcast the games (p. 34). The Rome formula is the next transformation studied by Wenn and Barney. At its 1966 meeting in Italy, the IOC hammered out a television revenue sharing agreement with International Athletic Federations and National Olympic Committees. The television agreement that the organizers of the 1972 Munich Games signed with ABC serves as the book’s fourth turning book. This deal was designed to exclude the IOC from most of the money and thus convinced the IOC that it should take over negotiating future deals.

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics are identified as the fifth moment of change. The Games realized a profit of $232.5 million, providing a new approach that made the prospect of hosting an Olympics attractive to many other municipalities. The sixth event is the establishment of the “Total Olympic Programme” by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch in 1985. It created a method for corporate sponsorship of the Olympic Movement that produced $4.6 billion in revenue in its first 31 years. The seventh pivotal development occurred in 1986, when the IOC and the US Olympic Committee (USOC) agreed to the broadcast marketing agreement that gave the USOC 10 percent of the money the IOC received from US television networks. The USOC had legal standing on this matter because congressional legislation gave it control over the five-ring logo in the United States. The compromise turned out to be a major factor in stabilizing the finances for both organizations. 

The eighth point of change on Wenn and Barney’s list is the scandal over the Salt Lake City bid, when the media learned that IOC members had taken bribes to vote for the US city. In response, corporations that were part of the “Total Olympic Programme” forced the IOC to act or risk their association coming to an end. The IOC thus expelled six members for accepting bribes. Turning point number nine again involves television contracts. In the 2000s, the IOC began insisting on competitive bidding from European television networks for coverage of the Games.  For the IOC, the result was a revenue stream that almost equaled that coming from their US counterparts. Finally, the tenth crucial moment is the 2009 Copenhagen meeting of the IOC. Chicago, presumed to be the front runner for hosting the 2016 Summer Games, was the first city eliminated in the voting. It appeared that a feud between the IOC and USOC over the distribution of US television money cost Chicago the chance to host. Wenn and Barney accept this argument, but they also provide evidence that Chicago simply made a poor presentation. Regardless of the reason, the ultimate outcome was that USOC understood it needed to resolve its differences with the IOC if any US city were ever to host another Olympics.  

Wenn and Barney have years of experience writing about the Olympics and it shows.  This book is both well-written and well-organized.  It is filled with interesting facts and good quotes.  Yet, even while respecting and appreciating their overall work, one can disagree with some of their assessments and come to alternative conclusions. The fact that they have ten turning points seems a bit much for an organization that is only 125 years old. Furthermore, some of the episodes—the confrontation between Helms and Brundage, the Salt Lake City scandal, and the 2009 meeting of the IOC—do not seem to rise to the level of being a decisive point of change, nor do the dynamics of these developments support the authors’ central argument. Likewise, while television was important, it is unsurprising that the IOC’s relationship with the medium evolved over the course of five decades.

Those are issues for debate, and Wenn and Barney admit their approach is open for discussion since they wrestled with these assessments among themselves. It is worth noting, though, that six of their pivot points occurred between 1984 and 2009. That period overlaps significantly with Samaranch’s tenure as president of the IOC. Although Samaranch has received considerable credit for improving the finances of the Olympic movement, Wenn and Barney seek to credit other IOC members and officials, including Baron Killanin of Galway, Richard Pound, Michael Payne, Richard Carrión, Thomas Bach, Timo Lumme, and Count Jacques Rogge. Since most of the IOC’s financial transformation took place while Samaranch was in office, this book bolsters his reputation more than the authors probably intended, even as they make clear he had a lot of help.  

While Wenn and Barney designed this book for a popular audience, it seems unlikely to reach that market, not due to any shortcomings in the study itself—it is an easy read with many colorful details—but because of the limited marketing resources of the publisher. No academic press, regardless of quality, is going to have the budget and resources of a major press. It is, though, a useful book that could and should be adopted in a variety of courses, not only in sport history and sport management but also in fields as diverse as advertising, marketing, public relations, and finance.  

Nicholas Evan Sarantakes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.  He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California.  He is the author of six books.  The most recent is Fan-in-Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974.

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