It’s summer reading list time, but this year summer is also time for the Olympics, so it’s only natural that we compile an Olympics reading list. As an Olympics super fan, I’ve read many books about the Olympics over the years and have compiled some of my favorites below. Take your pick and read now to get excited, read in between events, or read afterward when you’re depressed over the long wait until Tokyo.
Best of the Best: Rome, 1960: The Summer Olympics that Stirred the World, by David Marraniss
This is my ultimate favorite Olympics book. It follows a remarkable cast of characters from Wilma Rudolph and barefoot Abede Bikila, to young Cassius Clay before he was Muhammed Ali as amateurism began to die and drama from drug scandals, politics, and equal rights issues exploded. All while the world followed along on TV for the first time ever. After I read this, I wished there was a book like this for each Olympiad. Other similar books I’ve tried haven’t measured up, proving 1960 was truly special.
For the Marathoner: Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, by David Davis
This book tells the story of the 1908 Olympic Marathon, the first time the marathon was the absurdly arbitrary 26.2-mile distance we know today. Before then it had been roughly 25 miles. The story follows the three favorites and ends with a stunning, controversial finish that made the marathon the must-watch sport of the time.
For the Biography Lover: Triumph, by Jeremy Schaap
While the book is about Jesse Owen’s life, the main focus is of course on the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany. You may know the rough story, but I enjoyed the extra details of Owens’s early life and particularly the in-depth story behind the ’36 Games. I watched the movie Race recently, but was left thinking, as always, “The book was better.”
For the Ancient Historian: The Naked Olympics, by Tony Perrottet
This book is about the original Olympics in ancient Greece, not the modern Games as we know them today. I always assumed our Games were nothing like the ancient version, but when reading this I was surprised at the many similarities: political fighting, professional athletes, and even cheating. Although the latter was by performing magic, not taking drugs. Of course there were also huge differences: very few events (one of which was an extreme version of Ultimate Fighting), naked competitors, and an unreal amount of olive oil.
From the Non-Running World:
I love the Olympics not just for the track and field, but also for all the niche sports that get their quadrennial moment to shine. Here are my two favorite Olympics books that have nothing to do with running:
Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
Another book about the 1936 Games, this time focusing on a rowing team out of the University of Washington struggling through the Depression. I knew nothing about rowing when I started the book, but the underdog story was captivating.
The Three-Year Swim Club, by Julie Checkoway
This book starts in 1937 and tells the fascinating story of impoverished Japanese-American kids in Maui trying to make it to the 1940 Games. (Minor spoiler alert if you think that through…) Against all odds and at a particularly tumultuous time for Japanese-Hawaiians, they become world-renowned swimmers. While some parts seemed a little long-winded, the story is truly special.
Have another favorite? Share it in the comments below!