Asterix at the Olympics cover detail by Albert Uderzo
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Asterix v12: “Asterix at the Olympic Games”

Writer: Rene Goscinny
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1968

Asterix competes in the Olympics, but has to do so without his magic potion.  This is Asterix tying into an event of the day in the best sit-com fashion.  It’s “Asterix in Greece” with the Olympics as a backdrop.

A Little Background

This is the second Asterix album published in 1968, right after “Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield.”

The year was 1968 and it was, indeed, an Olympics year.  Mexico City hosted the Summer Games.  It was not without historical note: This is the Games with the Black Power salute on the podium, a student protest in the city that left potentially hundreds dead, and a very strong design aesthetic that graphic design folks still marvel at.  If you want to learn more about all of that, here’s an episode of 99% Invisible for you to listen to. It’s a good one.

Two interesting things about those Olympics: Those Summer Games happened in October.  And Mexico City won the bid to host the Games by beating out three other cities: Buenos Aires, Lyon (France!), and — Detroit.

Detroit.  Can you imagine?

Even worse: “Asterix in Detroit”.

Someday, I’ll have to come up with Top Ten list of the worst possible Asterix adventures that Goscinny (thankfully) never wrote. I think we have our first there, though.  “Asterix in Fargo” might be funny, but “Asterix in South Central” too sensitive.

Still:

Straight Outta Gaul

My meme game is strong, though a couple years behind the times…

The Plot: Loopholes to the Olympics

The Romans in the nearby Aquarium camp are very excited.  It’s Olympics time!  And they have a strong contender for the Olympic games.  They plan on bringing glory to Julius Caesar through wins by their strong and fast warrior, Gluteus Maximus.

Gluteus Maximus practices his hubris in the mirror.
Gluteus Maximus practices his hubris in the mirror.

He’s part Gaston and part Muhammed Ali, as he constantly refers to himself as “The Greatest” in the earliest pages of this book. This isn’t the first Ali reference in the series, either.  Cassius Ceramix was a reference to Ali’s original name, Cassius Clay, in “Asterix and the Big Fight.”

When the villagers hear of the Romans’ excitement, they want to join the fun.  They think they could win these games, too.  With their magic potion power, they will destroy all the Greeks and Romans.

Except — the games are only available for men from Rome or Greece.  How will they compete?

Don’t worry; Asterix has the loophole: Julius Caesar says he’s conquered all of Gaul.  The Village is in Gaul, so they’re all Romans!  Party on!

The Gauls become Romans for the sake of the Olympics. The Romans aren't thrilled with this news.

Demoralization

Most of the point of this book is that the Romans are demoralized that the Gauls are going to win with their magic potion. The Romans are going to disappoint Caesar and there will be heck to pay.  If they’re lucky, they’ll be cleaning up the circus and not entertaining people from inside of it.

Things get tense enough from the Roman side of things that their leader comes into the Village seeking an audience with the Chief. As with everything in the series, that doesn’t go off without a hitch. The Chief was in the middle of his annual bath:

Someone always interrupts Chief Vitalstatistix's shower. Every year!

Once the action moves to Greece, it becomes a major clash of cultures.  The Gauls “invade” Greece, and it’s like the redneck hillbillies coming to the big city for the first time. They’re loud. They bringing dozens of boars with them, carry signs, and cheer loudly.

They also don’t act like the other athletes, who plan to eat plain but healthy foods and go to sleep early to keep fresh for their events.  The Gauls’ loud parties and frequent gourmet eating ripples through the Olympic village, and the other athletes can’t resist.

The Gauls are, once again, destroying something merely by their presence.

There’s a lot of Greek jokes along the way, including a bunch I don’t get.  I recognize that they’re jokes and probably play on words for local place names or something, but they’re lost on me.  The vast majority of the jokes, though, are easy to understand and still bring a smile to my face.

It isn’t until two thirds of the way through the story that the Gauls are told the Magic Potion is an artificial stimulant and not allowed at the games.

Then, there needs to be a Plan B.  And that’s what the last third of the book is about.  Don’t worry; Asterix and Getafix have a cunning plan!

The Olympics, Themselves

Someone who saw the live action movie first might be surprised to find out there’s not many games played in this book.  There’s no chariot race.  There’s a foot race and a wrestling/boxing hybrid thing. That’s it.

Goscinny and Uderzo left a LOT of jokes on the table with that.  I could very easily see how this story could be expanded out to two volumes, just to go through a bunch of games for the gags you could get out of them.

They wouldn’t be necessary to the story, at all, but they’d be funny.  I guess it’s better to stick to the story, though.  Otherwise, you end up with something like “Asterix and the Banquet”: a series of gags that don’t have much of a plot behind them.

A Couple of Pacing Problems

This might come from being a serialized story first, but there are two weird pacing issues in this book.

The first and more minor of the violations is a page-long introduction to the architecture of Greece.  It feels like a completely wasted page. They’re establishing a bunch of buildings that have no relevance to the story and that from which almost no humor comes.

Uderzo spends a page on the architecture of Greece

Maybe Uderzo was a big fan of the architecture and wanted to spend a week drawing these buildings? Goscinny (or maybe Bell/Hockridge) salvages a funny joke about shoe sizes that he can then call back to later, but there has to be a shorter way to that joke.

The bigger issue is the end of the book.  It comes up fast and feels very compressed.  The story is done, sure, and there’s not much left to do but to have the banquet and end the book.  But it still feels very sudden.

The story is rolling along, the final trap is sprung and a celebration happens. Then there’s a lot of little panels to fit the rest of the story onto the last page and it’s the end already.

Even the Banquet gets a small panel — about two-thirds of one tier.

This story could have used an extra page for a softer denouement.  (Look, Ma!  I just used a French story structure term about a French comic!)

Welcome to the Village

It’s something I haven’t talked about in a few weeks, but this book starts to look more at the other characters in Asterix’s village.

Geriatrix dances with his cane

Notably, Geriatrix gets a few good gags in for being the old man who has a thing for the ladies.  We first saw him in “Asterix and the Gladiator,” but there he just played the old man with a cane who thought himself stronger than he really way. He didn’t even get a name at that point. Here, he gets a few good jokes and a whole dance number that’s very well colored in the 2010 remastered edition. (I like those cut-in shadows.)

You also get roles for Chief Vitalstatistix, Cacophonix, Fulliautomatix (whose main role is to terrorize Cacophonix), and Impedimenta. It’s not like we’re fleshing these characters out or giving them the starring role, but they do seem more present in this book than they have in a lot of the others, where Asterix and Obelix leave them all behind for most of the book to have an adventure without them.

The women of the village are left alone

The entire male cast of the village leaves for the games (women weren’t invited in the earliest days), and a panel later, all the women of the village appear. There are even some small children in the village, which you don’t see too much of, except in wide angle establishing shots.

Also, not all of the women are statuesque realistic humans in model proportions like we saw with “Asterix the Gladiator” with Panacea.  I’m not sure if that’s meant to be her in the panel above, second from the left.  The woman second from the right has the right colors, but looks older.  The rest of the women look much shorter, with larger heads and rounder bodies. They’re more in the Asterix style.

Wearing pink in the middle of the panel, that’s Impedimenta, Chief Vitalstastix’s wife, who is talking.

Lots of Good Gags

The previous book in the series had the best page-long example of the Obelix-fighting-with-Asterix running gag.  This book plays off that dynamic to tell the joke in an entirely different way.  This time, Obelix is riled up and ready to go to war, draws Asterix in, and then lets him off and walks away.  It’s hilarious in the way that is subverts the usual arrangement of this joke.

Asterix and Obelix have a minor spat that's not a spat

Obelix, by the way, is still not fat:

Obelix is not fat. And he'll punch you out if you say it.

Goscinny and Uderzo make an appearance in this book, referring to each other as “tyrant” and “despot”:

Uderzo and Goscinny appear in an etching on the wall at the Olympic registration table.

I read somewhere that the image might also be a reference to the labors of Hercules.  Yes, I’d imagine producing two “Asterix” books a year would be a Herculean task….

A Reference to “Asterix and the Banquet”

Obelix has fond memories of Lugdunum while eating in Greece:

Asterix and Obelix remember a fine veal meal they ate in "Asterix and the Banquet"

The pair stopped in Lugdunum during their tour of France in “Asterix and the Banquet.”  The city, now known as Lyon, you may remember for being the maze of buildings through which our Gaulic duo lost the Roman soldiers in pursuit.

They didn’t have time to stop and eat in town, though, and they left with the local specialty of meatballs and sausage.  Not veal.

It was on their way to Nice where they stopped at a restaurant and ate veal. The problem is, Obelix wasn’t happy.  It wasn’t boar.

In "Asterix and the Banquet", our Gallic duo ate a fine veal meal between Lyon and Nice

I guess he ate it, anyway, and enjoyed it.  Good for him.

So Much Stuff

I’ve covered an awful lot in this review, and yet I haven’t hit on three quarters of the stuff going on in this book. From Dogmatix’s various adventures to Gluteus Maximus’ broom obsession to the Spartans to the Parthenon jokes to the boat ride to Greece and so much more.

I have no doubt some of you have favorite parts of this book that I didn’t cover.  Thankfully, there’s a comment section.  Feel free to use it. I need to pick my battles.

Punniest Name of the Month

This is a tough book to make a decision from, because there’s such a wide breadth of names here.

Gluteus Maximus should win, because it’s a perfect name for such a muscular character.  (He also goes by the name “Solar Plexus” in some earlier translations. That’s not a bad one, but I think the right name won out in the end.)

However, I have a tendency to like longer names that you have to parse out as you read until it becomes obvious and you laugh yourself silly.  In this book, that winner would be Gaius Veriambitius.

In the end, though, I have a personal favorite.  I know it’s not terribly clever, but as a Type 1 diabetic of 30+ years, the winner for me is Diabetes.

Diabetes the Greek

It’s as simple and obvious a name as they come, but he’s my people.

Sorry, Philibuster the orator.

Sorry, Invinoveritas, who gets extra points for the Latin name that I could figure out on my own.

The Movie

Asterix at the Olympic Games header image

They made a movie of this book a few years back.

My review is posted over here.  It includes lots of screenshots and the trailer, itself.  Oddly enough, the movie mixes in a plot point from “Asterix and the Goths” out of left field.

While I don’t mention it in the review, there is a scene where the son of Julius Caesar sings “What a Feelin'”.  No, I’m not kidding.

Crazy stuff, but a fun movie.

Recommended?

Asterix at the Olympics cover, the 12th volume in the series by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Sure.  It’s not the best book, but it’s entertaining, with a plot that does have a twist at the end that shows Goscinny was always thinking about the next surprising thing he could do in the book.

It isn’t enough for “Asterix” to be a travelogue, though this one weighs heavily in that direction. It also needs to have a plot with some level of conflict for drama.  We get that here, but it all seems to happen very quickly near the end.

— 2018.035 —

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30 Comments

  1. Argh, thanks to my daughter borrowing my books I was halfway through Asterix in Spain, believing that was next. I just had to quickly bomb it through this book instead.

    I like this book a lot. Plot-wise it’s about as unimportant as they come (but then again so are Asterix and the Banquet and Asterix and the Cheiftan’s Shield). The story is enjoyable though, and even the Romans are kind of likeable. This one gets 4/5 from me.

    I agree about the pacing at the end. Very abrupt – but I really like the final panel. The Romans in this book really aren’t villains, so it’s nice to throw them a bone.

    Being the geek I am, I had to calculate Hercules’s foot length, and it’s 32cm. That’s a hell of a lot more than the size 11 which is quoted in the British edition

    The best name for me in the book is Phallintodiseus. I like that I had to work a bit to get the pun. Gluteus Maximus comes second though (and IIRC, is the one used in Life of Brian too).

  2. Olympics is one of the few books in the line I remember almost nothing about… someday I’ll have to do a re-read of the series!

    Even tho I’m francophone, I’ve never been able to watch the live movies, I just find them too cringe-inducing.

    And unrelated comment, but can I just suggest you add some kind of ‘home’ or ‘back to top’ button somewhere on the bottom of the site? (hopefully there isn’t something already that I’m not seeing…)

    1. I can look into it.

      Also: Are you reading from your phone? The “Home” button on your keyboard would work on a desktop. On iOS, you can tap the bar at the top of the screen to scroll all the way back. I don’t know how Android works….

  3. I always felt like the Romans got a bad deal in this one. That tricking them in the end was kind of a low blow and not typical of Asterix’s usually more noble spirit. And winning by default… meh, not exactly a big hurray moment. Not one of my all-time faves, but there are some great characters and gags, for sure. This is the last book not to include the fishmonger, who makes his first appearance in the next book, if I’m not mistaken. This paves the way for many of the most hilarious village-set jokes and conflicts and is a simply brilliant addition to the cast of characters.

    1. I kind of glossed over the whole Magic Potion thing in my review, but I had a similar feeling. It was weird that they were ready to exploit their unfair advantage like that so readily — and not just to pick on the Romans, but to beat everyone else, as well. What did the Greeks ever do to Asterix?!?

      You have me looking forward to the fishmonger in the next book now. =)

        1. If you’re thinking about the “hiring”, that’s in Asterix in Spain – but I think we have Asterix and the Cauldron first.

          1. I was thinking of Asterix in Spain. Never mind. But yeah, that’s the general sequence. What a glorious first entrance the fishmonger and the fish make into the series! Unless the fishmonger is also in CAULDRON. Not sure anymore. I thought SPAIN was the first time we see him.

          2. That sequence is fantastic. I read it the other day when I accidentally got out of order with my read-through. I think that is the first appearance of Unhygenix.

      1. I didn’t mind the potion thing. I don’t think it really occurred to them that it was cheating, and they accepted it when they were told it was.

        1. I’m realizing as I continue to read the series just how naive the Village’s characters are. They are completely lost when they travel outside their own walls. It’s a major theme of “Asterix and the Cauldron,” where Asterix and Obelix look like total buffoons in situation after situation.

          I should really stop now and save that paragraph for the next review, though… 😉

          1. The fish out of water aspect, as soon as our heroes venture outside of the village, really is a transposition of how French Society was transforming after WWII, from the Tribe/region mentality into becoming more of a nation; as roads and train lines were modernizing to allow for easier travel (paid summer vacations were booming in the sixties into massive popular development in the south of France). Also the divide between Paris/big cities and the province/countryside is blurring rapidly, as agriculture becomes more industrialized, large populations move to the cities to look for work and end up in suburbs (Obelix & Co. explores that too). The next volume, the Cauldron, is probably a best example for these, since it reflects the introduction of the modern tax system. For the first time Goscinny lays out the concept of Money into the story and it’s not a pretty sight. You can feel the distress of the heroes trying to make it and Goscinny being Jewish, there are some subtle dark underlying tones, resulting from centuries of “special” treatment of Jews in Europe. Uderzo contributes greatly to that aspect by the way he designs these new characters and sets up their body language, it’s really striking when you know where to look.

          2. It’s probably also a dig at the French and their reputation for being awful tourists, thinking they’re much better than everybody else (they share that attitude with Americans, btw). Definitely increases the comedic potential.

          1. Well their normal behaviour is to beat up any Romans they find purely for the fun of it, so that was kind of tame.

            1. Oh yeah, I definitely root for the Romans – or sometimes just individual Romans. This book is definitely one of them. And it’s also part of why I like Asterix in Switzerland so much.

          2. The Reply button problem is because the software will only allow commenting 5 levels (I think it is) deep. After that, because the theme is only so many pixels wide, it would indent so far to start that you’d have a very narrow column. We’ve broken the commenting system on this site thanks to Asterix. I’m looking into upgrades, but the options so far aren’t that great. =(

          3. Remember that at the time, BD is still mostly considered for kids in France, the average audience for Pilote is pre-teens so they can’t go too heavily into the doping subject, so you can’t really blame Goscinny for the comicbook-y twist. The “it was there all along” is used regularly in Asterix stories right from the very first one, in the Shield, in the Cauldron…

          4. @ DAN. Asterix in Helvetica is also one of my great faves, but the Romans were awful in that one, with their orgies and what not. The hilarious epitome of depravity. Unless you’re talking about the one Roman who makes it up the mountain with them… yeah, I felt for him LOL.

          5. @ DAN below: Oh, right, I totally forgot about him. Yeah, he was great, as was his personal guard. First (and last?) time a Roman was invited to the big banquet. The way the druid rushes to his aid was very cool and noble.

  4. So much to love about this one and its one of my favourites. I’m not sure how much the world was aware of drug cheats in sport was in 1968, to me it became a thing with Ben Johnson in 1988 (it was 1988 right?) but maybe it already was and that’s just an age thing? Either way the theme really resonants and makes this story feel really relevant and timely even to this day.

    The other thing I like, which others might not agree with , but I like the way there’s no real villians (which again contradicts my increasingly shakely view that the best stories have the great, dark villians!) as Montana Kane suggests the Romans aren’t really. They act more as foils and I really enjoy the way – again – this makes them much more rounded as opponents. Here the tension and drama is created, like many great sports strips from the competitve nature of sports and here a great comentary on sport itself and the almost tribe nature of those who follow it. It all makes for a really different tone and I love it.

    There are all sorts of fantastic moments, I love the competitive try-outs in the villiage, a pre-curser to the yet to appear all out village brawl. The conversations between Vitalstatixs and Veriambitius as the Roman tries to work out this whole shield thing, and our Gaul chieftan just says ‘Wotcher’ or ‘Cheerio’ – the journey on the entrepreneurial captains boat. The fluctuating emotions and moods of … well… just about everyone really. Its just all such fun.

    Standout though is that moment captured in Augie’s post our first (I think) nose to nose between Asterix and Obelix and that laugh out load resolution – just a classic moment.

    Favourite pun name there are so many to choose from, most mentioned but I’m going to go with Aquarium… its not the best pun, but it was always my favourite fort name as a kid… why I had a favourite fort escapes me! Anyway for that very weak reason it gets my vote!

    So yeah it might wrap up a little quickly, but there is so much in here and it all feels so fresh. Its just so much fun and so good. Okay its not Legionary good, but nothing else matches it so that makes it a clear

    9.5 / 10

    1. “The other thing I like, which others might not agree with , but I like the way there’s no real villians”

      I definitely agree with that. It’s one of the things that helps redeem this books relative lack of importance plot-wise.

      1. That is absolutely true, one of the Great aspects of Asterix, maybe one that makes it appealing to Americans (Hi Augie) is that it’s so very far away from manicheistic Good-vs-evil typical plots. Asterix is a quest about self-discovery, exploring who we are as a people, what our morals are in the grand scheme of things. There is a plethora of philosophical theses written by very smart people dissecting even the tiniest aspect of this in the series. Romans are mostly foils, obstacles played for comic effect and most of them are lovable buffoons just doing their jobs or caught in the middle. Even Caesar itself often participates in neutral ways, representing higher power, never truly bad, often counterbalanced by a Brutus snark. If you thought that Doctor Doom was that genius invention by Lee and Kirby of the adversary-but-not-so-bad-after-all-with-a-tragic-underlying-destiny, well, look no further, cause we were here before. in a way more subtle fashion.

        1. A doubtless over simpliefied way of looking at this is the Roman’s play the role of straight man in a comedy duo. They therefore adapt to support the story. This has the consequence of making them gloriously rich and varied.

  5. The 1968 games in Mexico were the first time that anti-doping controls were established, mostly due to East-german athletes (and overall from the soviet block) looking suspiciously manly and buff. The most famous case in France is for French champion Marielle Goitschel to lose the gold medal at the 1966 world slalom ski to a german lady who later turned out to be a dude.

    1. That makes a lot of sense and the fact there was a big case in France a couple of years prior, all be it relating to gender, makes the timing of all this, along side Mexico 1968 of course, all the more clear.

      You are the fount of all knowledge JC!

      1. I just live here and I’m old enough to remember some stuff. No biggie. For a series like Asterix, the context gives a depth that I never got reading this as a kid the first time. All the more appreciation to Goscinny now that I see how much he put into his craft (and he wrote so much other stuff jjust as well, that is also worthy of interest). And today Augie makes us appreciate his perspective and the work of english-language adaptation that opens up another aspect of it. Win win, I’d say.

  6. The plot of this book is refreshing how it just about a game with a holiday feel to it. The logic of the Gauls participating was flawed however when it was only Roman citizens who could participate, most of the people in Roman Empire were not citizens (and certainly not there unconquered Gauls) until Emperor Caracalla made everyone a citizen for tax purposes.