Reviews: 'Dream Team,' 'Igniting the Flame' and evolving ideals
It was a very different U.S. Olympic team that traveled to Athens for the 1896 Games. There's a lot to learn from Jim Reisler's thin but well-researched "Igniting the Flame," which opens with the boat ride that the loosely assembled team of preppy Ivy Leaguers took across the Atlantic.

There were no tryouts for these Games. Instead it was more like Mickey Rooney had gathered up a bunch of his pals and yelled, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show."

Reisler's task in researching this project is evident from 40 pages of attribution notes — and the book does have a research paper feel to it, but he manages to tell the story with a good conversational style.

Throughout, Reisler provides readers with plenty of amusing gems. Take, for example, that the American athletes thought the Games started on April 18, 1896 — in fact, they began on April 6. How did this mistake happen? The Greeks, Reisler explains, used the Julian calendar while the Americans used the Gregorian: The result was that the Americans didn't arrive as early as they had hoped.

And, by the way, the winners didn't receive gold medals — silver medals were awarded to winners and runner-ups received bronze (the practice of giving gold medals didn't start until 1904). "[James] Connolly and the other Olympic victors," Reisler writes, "would earn silver medals for these Games, not gold.… With gold coins the standard currency at the time in many nations, [Greek Crown Prince] Constantine reasoned that gold medals would make it seem that the athletes were being paid."

Perhaps the most entertaining characters in "Igniting the Flame" are brothers Sumner and John Paine, a couple of rich kids living in Paris who were recruited because they were expert marksmen. They dominated the shooting competition while reaching into their pockets between shots to sip whiskey from a flask. (If the Paine brothers were competing today, they'd probably have an endorsement deal with Jim Beam.)

Today's emphasis on selling brands at the Games is a far cry from what International Olympic Committee founder Baron de Coubertin envisioned when he revived the concept of the Games at the end of the 19th century. In fact, what can you say about an event so big that NBC is willing to lose $100 million for the right to own it on all platforms?

Yeah, a lot can change in 100 years.

john.cherwa@latimes.com

Cherwa, deputy sports editor, is running the L.A. Times/Tribune Olympic Bureau in London. It is his seventh Olympic Games.