Olympic slime


Rating: NNNNN


THE GREAT OLYMPIC SWINDLE: WHEN THE WORLD WANTED ITS GAMES BACK, by Andrew Jennings (Simon & Schuster), 390 pages, $37 cloth. Rating: NNNN

INSIDE THE OLYMPIC INDUSTRY: POWER, Politics and Activism, by Helen Jefferson Lenskyj (State University of New York), 272 pages, $19.95 paper. Rating: NNN

Admit it. Most of you are getting ready to bliss out on all those bodies at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Read these books and you’ll never look at the Olympic torch in the same way again.

Lenskyj’s examination of the five-ring circus — an industry, not a movement, she insists, and certainly not a family — looks at the way romantic myths about sports and global unity have masked a mean, corporate and corrupt machine that has hopelessly skewed the priorities of countries hosting and bidding on the Olympics.

An activist with Bread Not Circuses, she had a particular interest in the 1996 Toronto bid, its undemocratic underpinnings and its neglect of the city’s ecology and social problems. She does not, obviously, support the 2008 bid.

She makes her case by tracking the impact of the Games on Atlanta’s disadvantaged populations, the increased police presence during the Games there, the muzzling of the press and how the International Olympic Committee and the city of Atlanta shut down any form of grassroots protest. The situation, she says, will repeat itself in every way in Sydney

Lenskyj’s analysis is thorough, indispensable — and grim. But where she wants readers to think, Andrew Jennings wants us to get mad (see excerpt page 18). His Great Olympic Swindle is an appalling catalogue of the excesses of the officials of the IOC and the way bidding cities have bought off committee members one by one. Seen from Jennings’ outsider’s point of view, Lenskyj’s villain, Toronto bid chief Paul Henderson, who came cleaner than most on the subject of IOC members looking for loot during the 1996 bid, looks like a hero.

Jennings is a gifted storyteller who creates characters out of the bizarre personalities peopling the IOC — from Anita DeFrantz, the African-American former Olympic rower and now true toady for the IOC, and executive board member Kim Un-Yong, who parlayed his Olympic connections into a concert piano career for his middling pianist daughter, to the big cheese, the really stinky one, IOC president and former fascist Juan Antonio Samaranch.

All of it is completely gag-worthy. Read ’em and weep. These books may not induce you to tune out NBC — whose methods of securing the Games, by the way, are also deeply suspect — but they will tune you in to one of the biggest worldwide scams of the century. SUSAN G. COLE


THE PHOENIX LOTTERY, by Allan Stratton (Riverbank Press), 392 pages, $22.99 paper. Rating: NNN

Allan Stratton’s novel The Phoenix Lottery is a crazy-quilt satire filled with outrageous characters and situations.

At the centre of the story is Junior Beamish, who takes over his hated and deceased father Edgar’s thriving business and turns it into a charitable organization.

When circumstances land Junior on the brink of bankruptcy, he decides to hold a lottery in which the winner, watched by a worldwide audience, torches a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh.

But that’s only part of the story. Stratton whisks his readers from Toronto to Rome and from Cuba to Nunavut, drawing together the stories of an illness-ridden pope, a sneering Toronto art critic, Fidel Castro, a crafty Roman cardinal, several spirits — including the cardinal’s literally sainted mother — and a goth-style performance artist who channels the dead. It’s six keystrokes of separation, as Stratton knits together seemingly disparate plots and figures.

There’s a farcelike quality in some of the plotting and, in fact, a stage version of The Phoenix Lottery premieres at London’s Grand Theatre next winter.

As funny and foxy as the novel is, its cleverness sometimes trips it up. Stratton can embroider needlessly, the mention of a new place, person or concept often leading to a digression about its history and related comic anecdotes. Also, the recurring device of delivering a situation’s payoff and then tracing the steps that lead to it becomes a predictable writing tic.

Still, The Phoenix Lottery is a bonfire of a read from a witty author who writes with finesse. Stratton reads in the Harbourfront Reading Series Wednesday (September 20), 7:30 pm, at the Brigantine Room, (235 Queen’s Quay West). 973-4000. JON KAPLAN

write to books at susanc@nowtoronto.com

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