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Book review. Jean-Pierre Augustin and Pascal Gillon, Les Jeux du Monde. Géopolitique de la flamme Olympique

John Tuppen
Référence(s) :

AUGUSTIN J.-P. et GILLON P., 2021, Les Jeux du Monde. Géopolitique de la flamme Olympique, Paris, Armand Colin, 224 p.

Texte intégral

1In little more than 200 pages, Jean-Pierre Augustin and Pascal Gillon, acknowledged experts in the geography of sport and the impacts of major sporting events, provide a fascinating and provocative analysis of the geopolitics of the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement. In a context of globalisation, the authors demonstrate the ineluctable links between sport and politics and the influence of the Olympics on international relations. This has occurred as the movement has grown in size and stature and has been faced with increasing pressures and attempts at manipulation, compromising many of its initial aims. The original ambition of an apolitical movement has long since disappeared, as the organisation of the Games has become a major source of the use of ‘soft power’ by the world’s leading political forces.

2The text is divided into five major chapters and is completed by an introduction and conclusion as well as a series of annexes and a select bibliography with references in both French and English. Following a concise introduction to the contents of the book, the first chapter focuses on the history of the Olympic movement. In the second chapter the question of the governance of the Olympics is explored, followed, in the third by an analysis of the way in which sporting performances acquire a geopolitical sense. The fourth chapter takes a practical look at the organisation of the Games from the perspective of various ‘Olympic cities’, while the final chapter considers challenges for the future. In conclusion the authors briefly reconsider some of the principal issues previously analysed in the main text.

3In looking at the history of the Games, the authors trace the development of both the summer and winter Olympics since the beginnings of the movement in the late nineteenth century showing how the number of participating nations has increased (with the opening up of the Games to African and East European states, for example), as well as the range of events. They also address the question of the development of an ‘Olympic spirit’ and the many difficulties faced in advancing this ideal. The importance taken on by the economic aspects of the Olympics is studied, notably from the 1960s with far greater media involvement and the televising of the Games, greatly increasing the global interest. The Olympics become a world-wide business and from the 1980s major commercial concerns become partners of the Olympic movement, sponsoring both the Games and individual competitors. Success at the Games, as measured by the number of gold medals, is reflective of the importance accorded to the Olympics by individual states as a means of demonstrating their power and influence, supported by national strategies to enhance their sporting prowess. Long gone are the days of amateur sports and amateur competitors and the myth of political neutrality between nations.

4The second chapter deals with the governance of the Olympic movement, initially detailing the different actors interacting within the system. At its centre is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that works closely with an inner circle of partners – The International Sports Federations (ISF), the National Olympic Committees (NOC) and the organisation committees for the different Olympic Games (OCOG). The strengthening of this structure over time is explained, showing how the powers of the IOC have been significantly increased giving it effective control of the international sporting movement. This does not mean, however, that tensions do not exist between these different actors, notably between the IOC and the ISFs. Ideally the NOCs need to work closely with the IOC but again the authors show that relations between the two are not always easy, particularly where NOCs are faced with political pressures from within their countries. At the same time, the IOC has sought to ensure its independence of all national governments. Negotiations between the host city or region (represented by the OCOG) and the IOC are not without difficulty either, especially over financial matters. This issue can be particularly problematic for the host city which ultimately assumes responsibility for the cost; the IOC owns the ‘Olympic brand’ which is licensed to the host for the period of the Olympics. External pressures and tensions also exist. The huge cost of the Games ensures the need for economic partners and sponsors from outside the Olympic movement, often with their own agendas. Two categories of these external actors are identified – the media, and especially the television networks, and multinational companies seeking to promote their products and services in linking them to the Games. The authors demonstrate how the demands of these partners may influence the organisation of the Games, as, for example, in timing events to coincide with peak television audiences even if this is not in the best interests of the competitors.

5Sponsors represent just one group of interests that do not wish to see the image of the Olympics (and their own image) tarnished by scandal or malpractice. Conscious of the importance of this issue, the IOC has been active in encouraging the development of control agencies, notably the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA). Both are independent agencies. The text focuses particularly on the problems of drug taking in sport and highlights a number of notorious cases such as the systematic doping of Russian athletes prior to the Olympics at Pekin, London and Sochi. Even in this field, the authors show there can be a conflict of interests with national federations seeking to minimise the problem. Given the importance of the Games and the worldwide media interest, the Olympics have now also become a target for activist pressure groups (Amnesty International, for example) seeking to publicise their message and indeed to demonstrate the incoherence of the IOC – advocating its humanist and universal values but choosing to organise the Games in a country where these values are not guaranteed (the Beijing Olympics in 2016, for example).

6In the third chapter the authors focus on the results of the Olympics – the levels of participation and the results obtained, highlighting significant geographical differences between the participating nations. The analysis is based on the Games organised between Seoul (1988) and Rio (2016). While the number of countries participating in the Olympics has greatly increased, major imbalances exist, not least in the number of competitors representing different nations. Measured by continents, Europe is over-represented whereas Africa and Asia are under-represented – in the latter case Asia houses around 60% of the world’s population but accounts for 17.8% of the Olympic participants. At the same time, however, the representation of emerging countries has greatly increased. Similar imbalances characterise the representation of different events which are dominated by athletics and water sports (swimming essentially). Many of the smaller participating countries, especially in Africa and Asia, are only present in a limited number of disciplines. Quite logically these inequalities are also evident in the results of the competitions and the medal tables. While the number of medals may demonstrate the sporting power of different countries, it has also become a surrogate measure of political power, amply demonstrated according to the authors by the rise and dominance of China.

7The factors contributing to and explaining differences in national sporting performances are also considered, ranging from the existence of long sporting traditions to countries’ wealth and the willingness of governments to invest in sport. In the same way, it is shown how certain countries, while unable to be competitive in wide range of sports have developed successful niche strategies – Kenya and Ethiopia in middle and long-distance running for example.

8The different locations chosen for the Games are examined in the fourth chapter with emphasis on how the selection process and the challenges for the different Olympic cities have evolved over time. From the 1960s, in an increasingly globalised world, competition to organise the Games increased as countries recognised their symbolic importance and the economic benefits which they were capable of generating. A brief history of the choice of sites (for both the summer and winter Games) is provided which shows that despite efforts to spread the venues more evenly between countries, European sites in the more highly developed nations remain dominant. The authors also show how cities have used the Olympics not only to organise a major sporting event with its associated marketing and tourist potential but also to undertake ambitious programmes of urban regeneration both from a social and economic perspective. The example of Barcelona is considered in some detail and viewed positively, as are others which are discussed (Sydney and London, for example). Not all such policies are seen as being successful, as illustrated by the Rio Games (2016) and those of Beijing (2008), despite in the latter case the huge investments by the State. The question of the high cost of the Games has not only reduced the number of candidates to hold the event but also encouraged the IOC to revise its objectives and promote a more sustainable approach in the development of Olympic sites. This is briefly discussed using the examples of Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028).

9The fifth and final chapter considers the challenges faced by the Olympic movement over the coming years. These concern not only questions of governance, the choice of destinations and the range of sports to be included but also newer issues related to sex and gender, religion and physically impaired competitors in a rapidly changing world. Can the CIO maintain control of the Olympics or will governments seek to intervene more forcibly? How should the range of sports be widened not only to take account of changes in sporting practices but also to provide more opportunities for emerging nations to participate more successfully in the Games? The Olympics were slowly opened up to women participants and more recently to handicapped sportspeople (with the success of the Para-Olympics), but the authors show that other divisive issues remain as for example, how to ensure an equality of treatment for the LGBT community (although the Gay Olympics are now organised every four years, the last being held in Paris in 2018) and how to resolve the conflicts between Islam and sport, notably over the place of female athletes in the Games. External pressures continue to exist relating to the role and influence of multinationals and the use of the Olympics by many countries (and not just the largest and richest) as a form of soft power. The question of sustainability and the Games concerns not just the locations but also wider issues relating to transport and mobility and the environment in general - is it possible to envisage a ‘slow Olympics’ as indicated by the authors. Technological change has numerous implications for sport, not least in terms of enhancing performance, again raising the question of how to regulate or incorporate such advances.

10In conclusion the authors propose an overview of the Olympic movement today. A world stage on which political and economic forces confront traditional Olympic values – fraternity, a mixing of populations and cultures and peace. The Games remain dominated by prosperous, essentially western countries and one of the key issues for the future is how to widen participation and offer a chance of success to smaller, less prosperous nations. However, success also comes at a price and one of the other challenges for the future is how to reduce the problems of doping and corruption. The Olympic ideal based around a more democratic and just society remains intact but is constantly under threat from commercial and governmental influences.

11Overall the text of Jean-Pierre Augustin and Pascal Gillon is full of interest, tracing the history of the Olympic movement, identifying many of the controversial and ambiguous aspects of its development. The geopolitics of the Games are examined in detail as the worldwide influence and reach of the Games have increased and, in this context, the different and at times opposing strategies of the main institutional actors concerned are highlighted. The influence of certain individuals on the evolution of the Olympics (such as Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC from 1980 to 2001) is also evaluated. The book is well-written with a strong analytical approach, supported by numerous examples to illustrate the authors arguments. Throughout the text there is an excellent balance between the analysis of the positive features of the Olympics and its laudable ambitions and the more negative features and deceptions. The numerous maps, tables and charts are also particularly helpful in understanding many of the issues.

12The authors clearly have an excellent understanding of their subject and it is therefore tempting at times to expect a more comprehensive analysis of certain issues. This applies for example to the winter Olympics. They are by no means absent from the text but in certain cases there is very little or no mention of these Games despite the fact that they display many of the same problems as the summer Olympics. This is notably the case in chapter three which deals with sporting performance. The same might be said concerning the issue of doping. This is touched upon at various points, including in the conclusions, but the problem is largely absent from the analysis of the future challenges for the Olympic movement; yet it is surely a vital question for the Games and sport in general. Indeed, while the authors identify with clarity the main problematic issues facing the Olympics, they are generally less convincing with respect to proposing solutions to these problems. Nevertheless, the Olympic ‘battlefield’ is clearly presented with its associated geo-political and economic tensions, leaving readers to speculate on what might become of the Olympic spirit in forthcoming years.

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John Tuppen, « Book review. Jean-Pierre Augustin and Pascal Gillon, Les Jeux du Monde. Géopolitique de la flamme Olympique », Géocarrefour [En ligne], Comptes rendus inédits, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2021, consulté le 09 décembre 2021. URL :

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