Tales, damn good tales and statistics; BOOK OF THE WEEK

Olympics Facts and Feats by Stan Greenberg (1996, Guinness Publishing, pounds 13.99); The Olympics at 100 - a celebration in pictures (Simon and Schuster, 1996, pounds 12.99)
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The Independent Online
The Olympics may still be the best part of two months away, but already the Olympic book event is upon us.

The main bulk of the Games history grows steadily as a glacier, and has been traversed so often that writers and compilers can hardly avoid treading on the tracks of others.

As Olympic television viewers primp their cushions and check their spare video tapes before the Atlanta opening ceremony on 19 July, decisions over which Olympic books they might choose further to inform or entertain them probably come down to convenience and ease of reference.

By that token, Stan Greenberg's Olympic Facts and Feats deserves to do well. It provides two basic approaches - a chronological history of the Games combining both winter and summer events, and a sport-by-sport section.

What makes it a desirable item, however, is its reliability - Greenberg is a widely respected statistician - and attention to detail.

We are presented, for instance, with a record of discontinued events, such as rope climbing, club swinging and tumbling. You might not want to know about them, but if you do, here they are.

The narrative is leavened by anecdotes along the lines of David Wallechinsky's seminal but relatively unwieldy work, The Complete Book Of The Olympics.

Greenberg had many years of practice at providing information in satisfactorily assimilable form in his position as statistical adviser to David Coleman and the BBC TV commentary team. There are plenty of nuggets here of the kind which have been used to enliven idle moments on the screen.

There is a place amid the stats for the Cuban lightweight judo gold medallist of 1976, who said he had taken up the sport to defend himself against his six brothers. There is a noting of the detail that the president of the Los Angeles Organising Committee, Peter Ueberroth, whose shrewd organisation produced a reported profit of $215m which some found unacceptably high, had been born on the very day, 2 September 1937, when the Modern Olympics' spiritual father, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, died.

The Olympics at 100, a Celebration in Pictures with accompanying text by Larry Siddons, of the Associated Press, is an interesting but uneasy mixture of a book. Which is supposed to complement which? The pictures are too often insignificant, or used too small. The text gives a good sweep through the main Olympic history, but lets itself down into cliche on too many occasions. The ice skater Katarina Witt, for instance, is described as having "capitalism lapping at her heels" and adding "sex and sizzle, flash and dash" to her event. Well yes. But.

Mike Rowbottom

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