Life & Culture

The Games and the Goldblatts

"This month, all anyone can think about is the Olympics," says the author of a new book on the Olympics, "then nobody gives it a thought for the next two years."


The Museum of Ivor Goldblatt is a beautiful thing. It's a son's account of his father's life, produced in 2011, 10 years after Ivor's death, and posted on the internet. Many family photographs, a brief biography, and documents - including a barmitzvah certificate as well as others marking less respectable landmarks - tell the story of a life, much of it similar to those of many readers' families but some of it definitely not, especially its ending.

More of that later.

It's the work of his son David, an award-winning writer and a master at assembling swathes of information on a somewhat larger scale. His two biggest books are both called "global" histories. The Games - A Global History of The Olympics has just been published and makes him a man much in demand in the media at the moment, so he's running round at record speed.

"This month, all anyone can think about is the Olympics," he says, "then nobody gives it a thought for the next two years."

Born in 1965 and growing up in Ruislip on London's western rim, he was a clever boy at school. His parents wanted him to be a doctor (whose didn't?). He duly went to Cambridge and studied medicine for two years before chucking it in and doing a degree in politics and sociology and then a PhD. In the acknowledgments in his first book Social Theory and the Environment he thanks his parents and his brother for "a lifetime's love" but it seems unlikely that Ivor, a market trader in dresses and coats and a compulsive gambler on the horses, was well up on this abstruse subject matter.

On the other hand, he was certainly the right father for a little boy who went on to write The Ball Is Round - A Global History of Football and last year won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award for The Game of Our Lives - the meaning and making of English football.

During the 1970 World Cup, when two games were screened simultaneously, Ivor, Spurs fan and football fanatic, had two televisions on in the house so he could watch both.

One of the wholesalers who supplied him with mohair overcoats was Morris Keston, famous as the Spurs superfan of all superfans. When his dad went to Keston's to do business, little David was sitting on Keston's knee staring at big pictures of Cyril Knowles, the Spurs full-back.

If you're looking for evocation of heroic moments in sport, Goldblatt's books are not the place to look. You won't find lingering descriptions of Usain Bolt's miraculous world-charming performance in Beijing or Jessica Ennis in London 2012. They are dealt with in the time it takes to run 100 metres or throw a javelin. No superfan moments for David Goldblatt; he expressed his love of the round-ball game by producing world maps of football.

"What use is a book without pictures and conversations?" Lewis Carroll's Alice asks her sister. She might have had Goldblatt's books in mind (though the 500-page Olympics book does have a few pictures). If David Goldblatt had fallen into Wonderland he would have considered the economic motivation for the growing-shrinking performance-enhancing drugs, the environmental impact of the pool of tears, tensions and stratification within the Hearts dynasty and the social inclusiveness of the caucus race where everyone wins prizes.

The current burning question is about Russian athletes and drugs. To Goldblatt, the International Olympic Committee's failure to exclude Russia from participation is an act of cowardice, this year's example of a 120-year history of lying, hypocrisy, unkept promises, cowardice, corruption, political chicanery, racism… you name it. The modern Olympic Games, according to Goldblatt, started in the spirit of high snobbery, became the pawn of power politics, succumbed to low corruption and are now in the grip of high capitalism.

There is much to hate about the Olympics, in both its old elitist and new capitalist eras, and that is clearly reflected in Goldblatt's attitude. He has kept faith with the politics he developed in his youth, and with the hairstyle and the language. His head is a harvest of short dreadlocks; he uses the word "dude" quite a lot as in "he was a major dude in Olympic politics". He is hot on discrimination of all kinds.

At the Paris OIympics of 1924, Harold Abrahams won the 100 metres, the only British Jew to have won a gold medal for athletics, a feat that was not forgotten in the Anglo-Jewish community by those old enough to remember, and many who were not.

"Despite a very privileged middle-class background, he remained at one remove from the overwhelmingly Anglican and quietly antisemitic circles of British Olympian culture," writes Goldblatt in The Games.

The Olympics have often been exploited for political propaganda, never more so of course than in Berlin 1936. "The Games had been awarded to Berlin in 1931, during the Weimar republic," Goldblatt tells me, "and, when Hitler came to power, Nazi students broke up the track, planted Germanic oak trees and a banner saying 'No Olympics Here'. They regarded the International Olympics Committee as a Jewish conspiracy but then Hitler and Goebbels said "here's an interesting propaganda opportunity.

"The Jewish community in the United States were the leading force proposing a boycott but so did the Protestant and Catholic churches and the trade unions.

"There were huge rallies and half-a-million people signed a petition. Initially, the US wasn't going to the Games, then America's OIympic boss Avery Brundage, a notorious antisemite, went to Berlin to check it out and came back and said it was all fine.

"He boasted to the Nazis that he didn't allow Jews or Irish into his Chicago athletics club either." Brundage became president of the International Olympic Committee. His reign lasted from 1952 to 1972.

Late in our conversation, Goldblatt told me he had written an article about the death of his father Ivor in Granta, the literary magazine in 2004. I realised I had read it and remembered it 12 years later. Who could forget it? After David's mother Bobby died, his father went into the porn business and became king of the spanking party scene, founder and president of the Red Stripe Club.

In 2001, when he was 61, Ivor Goldblatt was brutally murdered, stabbed 26 times by a robber who knew he had cash in the flat. A dramatic and emotional piece of writing, the Granta article also recounts the shambolic state of Ivor's affairs. He hadn't paid car tax, or any tax for years. He had managed to shake off visits from the bailiffs. Endless boxes of years of undealt-with "papers" reduced David to tears of anger.

Nothing could be more different from his other writing, nor indeed from his modus operandi in his own work, his mastery and control of facts and detail. Nor, presumably, from his life in Bristol with his partner Sarah and their two late-teenage children.

He admired the way the London Olympics were staged. He was in the stadium on the glorious Saturday night when Mo Farah and two others won gold. But there was a great deal he doesn't like. Where is the "legacy" we were promised? It's a fiction. What about the astronomical cost of the whole thing? He describes the original estimate of costs as "the equivalent of Saddam's 45-minute weapons of mass destruction". Olympic history is a litany of debt, environmental damage and lies.

So would we be better off without the Games? "Oh no," says Goldblatt, "It is easy to destroy international organisations but incredibly difficult to create them and, in a globalised but increasingly fragmented world, it is very important for people to get together. They have an immense, global television audience and in different ways in different places they matter a lot."

He sounds like the committee of Polish Rabbis who, after long debate, voted by a majority that God did not exist, then got up to daven mincha.

'The Games A Global History of the Olympics' is published by Macmillan (£20)

'The Museum of Ivor Goldblatt' is at www.

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