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Run it past me again

CHRONICLE OF THE OLYMPICS 1896-1996. Dorling Kindersley, Pounds 19.95

Jessica Saraga celebrates the Olympics. The ancient Olympic games had endured nearly two millennia when they were finally banned by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I. Chronicle of the Olympics, after a mere century of the modern games, is none the less a weighty tome. It's all here: an entry for every summer and winter venue and a complete list of winners in every event at every games in a wonderfully comprehensive reference section.

What marvellous feats are performed; what a piece of work is man - and of course, though her participation in the games was strongly resisted, woman too. There were more than 1,000 male competitors to the 19 women (all tennis players) competing in 1900 in Paris. Although female numbers crept up, women runners were still prevented from competing over distances longer than 200 metres until 1960.

Most striking are the images of the human body, stretched to all possible limits. Largely static in the first modern games in 1896 in Athens, only four years later, camera shots were capturing athletes in Paris at speed in mid-action and mid-air.

Sports photography never looked back. No split second, no bodily contortion, no feat of speed, tension, balance, control or endurance goes unrecorded. The mental effort required to produce prodigious physical performances is caught in the intensity on Jackie Joyner-Kersee's face as she prepares to put the shot in the heptathlon in Barcelona 1992, or the ecstasy of release in the eyes of her compatriot and predecessor, Josiah McCracken, rather more modestly dressed than she for the event in Paris in 1900.

Black and white photography dominated until the late sixties, and it's still hard to beat it for sharpness and drama. Johnny Weissmuller smiles, hands on bent knees, sunlight glinting on the powerful shoulders that will later swing him through the jungle in a loincloth as Tarzan. In Berlin 1936, Jesse Owens, apparently alone, runs as though he could run for ever, past a blurred crowd in which, perhaps, Hitler sits fuming at such a majestic demonstration of black superiority over a German team of white Aryans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos salute black power on the podium at Mexico City in 1968, after which they were both sent home. What further proof do we need that racism has no place in this contest between nations?

In an ideal world politics might not intrude, but we do not live in an ideal world. This collection plays down the politics, but rightly without ignoring the political incidents and boycotts which have beset the modern games.

Let us hope that Atlantis year will escape political protest where the last North American games did not. Los Angeles 1984 was boycotted by the Soviet Union and Eastern European bloc on the pretext of lax security, but widely understood as retaliation for the American boycott of Moscow four years previously in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

One thing we can be sure of this year is commercialism. Watch out for Atlanta's horrendous mascot "Whatizit", previewed here, all cartoon eyes, teeth and baseball boots at the closing ceremony at Barcelona in 1992. Less exposed perhaps, but of more relevant interest, will be the three new events at Atlanta, two-a-side beach ball, women's football, and mountain biking. With still a few months to get in the mood, Chronicle of the Olympics effectively combines information, a sense of occasion and, for adults, nostalgia for games past.

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