September 13, 2012


A Passion for Victory: The Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times. By Benson Bobrick. Knopf. $19.99.

The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood. By Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D., with Beth Margolis Rupp, M.A. Berkley. $15.

      The adulation, even adoration, of sports figures often seems to know no bounds.  They are paid tremendous sums of money to entertain and amaze spectators with their athletic prowess, and they are showcased worldwide as representing the absolute best that their countries have to offer the world.  This is nowhere truer than in the Olympics, in which nations spend billions of dollars to give athletes brand-new venues in which to perform, with dramatic opening and closing ceremonies and weeks of confusion and interruption of everyday life for nonparticipants.  Declining to be overwhelmed by the Olympics seems faintly unsavory and, for people in the host country, even unpatriotic.  The modern Olympics are extraordinarily commercial productions, with companies bidding huge amounts of money to be named official suppliers of everything from foods to condoms and with host countries avidly policing Olympic areas to be sure that only the much-hyped “official” products are used, with others excluded altogether from the Olympic Village.

      It was not always so.  For many years, the Olympics really did celebrate athleticism, and to the extent that there were non-athletic matters involved, those were military rather than commercial.  The original Olympics, as Benson Bobrick explains in A Passion for Victory, began in 776 B.C.E. and lasted until the Roman Emperor Theodosius I abolished them in 394 C.E.  Extremely violent in their earliest years – an event called the pankration was a no-holds-barred fight that ended with one opponent unconscious or dead – the Olympics originally were individual competitions, not team or national ones, and participants either won or lost; there were no awards for second or third place.  During Roman times, the politically ascendant Christians hated the Olympics, not because of the violence but because the games were deeply intertwined with worship of pagan gods; this is why the games were eventually banned.  As Bobrick points out, the memory of the Olympics endured through the Dark Ages of Christian domination – the Byzantine Empire even tried to revive them.  But it was not until 1896 that the first modern Olympic Games were held, with many events differing from the ancient ones and some with similar concepts being handled differently.  Bobrick’s explanation of these early modern Olympics, accompanied by fascinating period photos, is a high point of his book, which goes on to discuss the first female Olympic champion (Charlotte Cooper, 1900), the first black South Africans to compete (1904), and many other notable “firsts.”  Bobrick carries the story of the Olympics only as far as the notorious 1936 games, held in Berlin under the aegis of Adolf Hitler.  He includes many fascinating bits of information, such as the fact that those Olympics were opened with “an Olympic hymn, reluctantly written by the German composer Richard Strauss (who hated sports),” and that while Hitler acknowledged the triumph of black superstar Jesse Owens, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not.  Bobrick’s book stops well before the Olympics became the multinational commercial extravaganza that they are today, but it shows the many and varied religious, political and other decidedly non-athletic influences that shaped the Olympics both in ancient times and in their modern reincarnation.

      And what about people who aren’t interested in the Olympics or in sports in general?  Marginalized during Olympic festivities, they face an even worse fate if it is clear from early in life that they are simply not athletic.  Bullied, outcast, leaned on by their own families as well as school officials and classmates, these non-athletes face condemnation and ostracism at every level, often with nowhere to turn but further inward.  The Last Boys Picked is about them.  Parenting and mental-health specialists Janet Sasson Edgette and Beth Margolis Rupp explain about the United States, in particular, being “a nation of extroverts living in a culture steeped in overstimulation,” which makes life extremely difficult for boys who are introverted and, by nature, not “team players.”  Pressure to “function outside their comfort zone only makes introverts anxious and uncomfortable,” the authors write.  “And shouldn’t it?  If they were ever to have thrived as extroverts, they would have done so long ago.”  Introverts are motivated not by accomplishing goals – the foundation of all sports competition – but by being appreciated for who and what they are.  And this is exactly what society denies them by trying to push them into sports.  The “relationship between sports status and power” in schools is deep-seated and extensive, Edgette and Rupp write, and certainly readers familiar with the horrendous Penn State child-abuse case (which revolved around the university’s famous, previously sacrosanct football program) will scarcely be surprised.  Edgette and Rupp are parents of six boys between them, and have seen in their own families the deleterious effects of a sports focus on boys who do not have the talent, ability or interest in competitive games.  They urge parents to be aware of the extent to which non-athletes will “fake it” by finding ways to get along in school, barely.  “Parents tend not to scratch a surface that looks good enough,” they write, and that can lead to being blindsided when serious problems seem to emerge suddenly.  They offer a number of suggestions for parental observation and conversation, getting into specific circumstances such as boys who withdraw from activities, ones who clown around to conceal their true feelings, ones who “overcompensate by showing off how smart they are,” and others.  Their chapter on “The Dangers of Romanticized Masculinity” is particularly valuable, although the one they call “We Need a Different Type of Warrior” is on the na├»ve side.  Although flawed, The Last Boys Picked is a very valuable resource for parents of boys who are simply not interested in sports.  The “Family Matters” chapter, packed with possible scenarios and suggestions for ways to handle them, will be a wake-up call for parents willing to listen.  How willing will they be, in a sports-obsessed society that tends to equate athletics with “manliness” and consider it “right” for all boys?  Unfortunately, that is a question that neither Edgette and Rupp, nor anyone else, can answer definitively.

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