For whatever reason, descriptions of the Olympic Games – including this one – feature the same splattering of numbers shooting across your screens: 16 days. 28 sports (subdivided into 41 separate ‘disciplines’). 306 events. While the games officially started yesterday, with the first round of women’s soccer matches initiating what’s actually called Day -2, we still have the official ceremony to look forward to tomorrow. In honor, we’ve compiled seven books that contain heroic and unusual tales from around the Olympic pantheon, each corresponding to some of the most anticipated events in the games.
Basketball – The Mozart of Basketball: The Remarkable Life and Legacy of Draen Petrovic by Todd Spehr
Petrovic was a basketball wunderkind, playing for the Croatian national team when he was only fifteen years old. As an Olympic competitor, he led the Yugoslavian and Croatian teams to silver and bronze medals over three Games. Topping that, Petrovic later found international exposure as part of the first wave of non-Americans to truly break through in the NBA. While that’s eligibility enough for recognition, Spehr’s treatment of the young star shows him as a layered figure, and a representation of hope during central Europe’s Cold War-torn despair.
Rowing – The Secret Olympian by Anon
While, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear that the writer is a rower, The Guardian seems to have its suspicions that a certain competitor in the 2004 Athens games was the compiler of Olympians’ tales of debauchery, obsession, and alienation. In it, he and some more forthcoming athletes trade secrets about life during and after the Games, such as the ‘real’ reason the Sydney Olympic Village ran out of condoms. It’s a shadier but also more grounded reality than the one on the sports reels. Anon balances the salacious with the honest – like the feeling when, in one moment, you’re on the minds of millions (if not billions) of people and the next, no one can remember your name.
Wrestling – The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games by Terry Perrottet
Terry Perrottet’s recounting of the ancient Greek Olympics is as offbeat as nonfiction gets. With a one-two punch of humor and sociology, the book explores how the games were played and coached, mythologized and corrupted. It’s Bacchic as your imagination thinks it is, and Perrottet backs it up with keen research and keeps it interesting with an exciting, and at times vulgar, tone. And yes, many of your favorite Greek figures make an appearance as well.
Table Tennis – Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia by Victor D. Cha
In the modern era, the Olympics is as much about the events as it is about honor, diplomacy, and national identity, especially for the host nation. Beyond the Final Score illuminates the political context to some of the most significant events in Asian sport’s history, from Nixon’s ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ to the rise of Yao Ming. Cha outlines China’s complicated influence on the Games, and tries to gauge whether the 2008 Beijing Olympics were a début of a new national era, like South Korea’s 1988 Games, or as a tool to amplify its own political ideology, like Germany in 1936.
Track & Field – Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull and David Diaz
One of the most impactful ways to impart the importance of another person’s achievements is by immortalizing them in children’s book, and Wilma “The Black Gazelle” Rudolph is no exception. Rudolph’s life was challenged from the start, with polio and emaciation almost crippling her ability to walk before she was even five. It was through her own determination and spirit that she was able to walk, then run and sprint, without support braces. Diaz illustrates how she made her mark on the 1960 Olympics in Rome as the first American woman to win three gold medals during a single Olympic competition artfully and boldly.
Gymnastics – Letters to a Young Gymnast by Nadia Comaneci
Nadia Comaneci is often cited as single-handedly bringing gymnastics to the world. By numbers, she’s a five-time gold medalist and the first to earn a perfect 10 score in the sport. In practice, her grace and dynamo turned it into an art form and inspired generations of young female athletes. It is only fitting that we view that legacy through her firsthand experience of it in Letters to a Young Gymnast. Her anecdotes, learned from a unique pressure that was placed on her, are inspirational, dramatic, and hard-fought.
Swimming – The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway
In 1937, a group of poverty-stricken Japanese-Americans, living on a sugar plantation in Maui, began their challenging training to become Olympians. The odds were not in their favor: they had no pool, so they had to swim in irrigation ditches; their ‘coach’, a local schoolteacher, knew next to nothing about swimming; the odds of getting on the team in the anti-Japanese climate were virtually none; and the looming world war brought the entire existence of the games into question. Yet, exceptionally, their tenacity and drive not only made them spectacular athletes, but worldwide sensations.
Featured image courtesy of Johnathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.