Summer Reading List, Olympics Edition

20160721_184914It’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!

I'm a science journalist with a background in neuroscience and a love of running marathons and baking marathon-worthy feasts. I started out as an over four-hour marathoner but whittled my PR down to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. I write about the importance of chasing big dreams and -- as I'm currently pregnant with my first -- getting ready to chase around a little one.

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6 comments

  1. Ooh! Thank you for this. Having just finished Ginny Gilder’s biography, Course Correction: A story of Rowing and Perseverance in the Wake of Title IX – I was looking for some fresh inspiration.

  2. It’s not about the Olympics as much as the quest, but I enjoyed “As Good As Gold: 1 Woman, 9 Sports, 10 Countries and a a 2-Year Quest to Make the Summer Olympics” by Katherine Bertine.

  3. Boys in the Boat is soooo good! I read it over the winter, and it was one of those rare books that I simply could’t put down. The descriptions of the races are filled with so much anticipation and drama that I could feel my heart rate elevate. From a book? Crazy! But it’s definitely a feeling that runners can relate to.

    1. Agreed! I wasn’t sure if I’d understand/be able to relate to the rowing, but all sports are really so relatable. The effort, the sacrifice, the hope. So good.