Every two years, something pretty magical happens: the nations of the world set aside their political differences in favor of something equally competitive…but way more heart-warming, inspiring, and fun to watch on TV.
Hundreds of prime athletes from all corners of the globe converge on stadiums in places as different as Sochi, Russia and Atlanta, Georgia to strut/swim/snowboard their stuff. And the result is as dramatic as anything HBO or Starz could cook up: dreams being realized, devastating defeats being endured, a few dozen spectacles that literally involve blood, sweat, and tears. And—oh yeah—the whole shebang is underscored by the low murmur of geopolitical stress that's been put aside in favor of rooting on talented sportsmen.
Yeah. It's no big shocker that books have been written about the Olympics: the events at the Games read like every great story ever told.
In fact, the only shocking thing about Sports Lit that focuses on the Olympics is that so many people dismiss it as fluffy, cute, light-weight…or some other adjective that's a compliment when used to describe a kitten and a (very pretentious) insult when talking about literature.
If you're a newb to the genre of Sports Lit, you might be surprised by its breadth, depth, and sheer scale. Because, even in an enlightened era where everyone (finally) knows that sci-fi can be high art, murder mysteries can be as brilliant as any zillion-page Henry James novel, and fantasy can make your heart sing like the best Romantic poetry, Sports Literature still gets a bad rap.
But we'll silence the haters once and for all: there are as many kinds of Sports Lit as there are events at the Olympic Games.
A book that falls under the umbrella term "Sports Lit" can a serious political, historical, and journalistic approach of the Olympic Games (like Rome: 1960, by David Maraniss). Or it can be a light-hearted look back on the short-but-thrilling life of a gold-medal winning gymnast, like Gold, Grace and Glory by Gabrielle Douglas.
It can be a strategic public-relations move like Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, which was the tale of his triumph over cancer…and was released just as his doping scandal started hitting front pages worldwide. (Clever.)
It can even be an emotional memoir like Greg Louganis's Breaking the Surface, or Amanda Beard's In the Water They Can't See You Cry, which relate their struggles to overcome drug addiction, abusive relationships, and other serious issues.
Whatever the subject, the thirteen books in this anthology all have one thing in common: they all have something to do with the Olympics. Whether it's a tragic terrorist act that spurred international intrigue, like the events in the prologue of Vengeance by George Jonas, or Jesse Owens's story of Triumph, cataloguing his amazing athletic feats and wins on the global stage, these books all try to capture the unique atmosphere that the Olympics create.
An international event that inculcates peace, friendship, and sportsmanship across political and philosophical boundaries, the Olympics are a pretty unique (and insanely exhilarating) venue, and these books all address what the Games have meant for the athletes that were talented—and lucky—enough to participate.
Some are funny, some are sad, and all are downright awe-inspiring. But, much like in the Olympic Games, the fact that they're so diverse is why they're so thrilling…and so important.
So without further ado, we invite you to dive in (reversed, with a few twists: got to impress those judges). Here are the Olympics-themed books we've given perfect 10.0 scores to:
Hey: maybe you don't love sports. Maybe you'd rather build a robot. Or rewatch Citizen Kane. Or build a daisy chain to weave in your hair.
Maybe you'd rather clean the entire gym with your toothbrush than participate in whatever torture your PE teacher has in store for you. (If you want us to start screaming, just whisper "burpees.")
But here's the thing: you don't have to be an athlete yourself to appreciate the Olympics.
The Olympics are one of the only times us normal people can watch the best athletes in the world competing against each other in their highly specialized fields. And that amazing fact aside, they're just simply amazing to watch.
Maybe it's the thrill of being able to root for your country in a totally apolitical way.
Maybe it's because, while they show competition at its highest level, they also bring athletes together in a way that no other sporting event ever will. The sportsmanship on display is unrivaled, and the Olympics are a space where people strive to learn about each other's culture, and forge unlikely friendships in the heat of battle.
Maybe it's because it's hard not to appreciate the level of dedication, determination, and insane skill that's on display during the Games. A race is won by fractions of a second, games are won in a single lucky pass, and World Records are beaten at great personal cost.
The Olympics are the best place to see underdogs take out titans of sport, or watch a rookie take on a decorated veteran. There's rumored petty infighting, and over-produced drama that will either suck you in or make you roll your eyes at Bob Costas—either way, it's enthralling.
And, unlike baseball's "World Series", or the "Miss Universe" competition, the Olympics is actually participated in by countries all over the world. It makes you realize how simultaneously massive the earth is—so many countries we'll never, ever visit—and how small it is—we're all just hairless monkeys bound together by a shared love of watching synchronized swimming.
We'll say it again. You don't have to be an athlete to love the Olympics. You don't even have to like sports (no, air hockey doesn't count).
You just have to a) appreciate that human bodies are capable of amazing things, b) be interested in the fact that you live in a world full of different countries and cultures, and c) enjoy stories about humans that persevere against incredible odds to—quite literally—go for the gold.
Wanna Know About the 2016 Olympics?
Of course you do. Here's the official site for Rio 2016.
Avery Brundage Would be Shocked
Oh, the commercialism.
The movie version of The Boys of Winter.
Intrigued by Avner's story? Check out the film inspired by Vengeance.
Breaking the Surface
Want to see A.C. Slater as Greg Louganis? Check this movie out.
The Jesse Owens Story
A three-hour biopic might not be enough to show how interesting and inspiring this guy was.
The Boys in the Boat
Still technically in development, but we'll be psyched if/when it ever comes out.
A film showing the evolution of Lance Armstrong's fall from grace.
This is Too Perfect
Michael Phelps was in Entourage. Why did we not see that one coming?
The Dream Team
A documentary following the events of the book—with all the basketball greats in it.
Jesse Owens Interviewed After the 1936 Olympics
We love how awkward everyone looks in this TV interview.
Michael Phelps Talks About His Dark Days
If you can stomach Matt Lauer, then this is a good watch
Want to See Interviews With All the 2016 Athletes?
Of course you do.
Barbara Walters Is Weird on This Green Screen
Gabby Douglas was featured on her "10 Most Fascinating People" segment.
YouTube Titled This Video "Juval Aviv is the Real Zohan"
…and since Juval Aviv is "Avner" from Vengeance, need we say more?
Oprah is Queen
Lance Armstrong comes clean about his doping scandal to Oprah.
Amanda Beard Seems Happy
An interview in which she discusses the stuff she revealed in her memoir.
The Boys in the Boat Book Trailer
A brief trailer for the book calls it, "Chariots of Fire with oars."
How the Boys in the Boat Came to Be a Book
The author Daniel James Brown talks about meeting Joe Rantz and realizing that he had to write his story.
Jesse Owens Running Like the Wind
Watch as Jesse Owens makes his other competitors look like they're sleepwalking.
Opening Ceremony of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin
As the first televised Games, this is pretty impressive, but try not to think it's a segue clip from Indiana Jones…
Not For Those With Weak Stomachs
Here's the infamous clip of Greg Louganis hitting his head on the diving board. It is not easy to watch…you've been warned. Oh, and watch it on mute, that soundtrack deserves to be taken out back and put out of its misery.
Louganis Talks About the Scary Jump
You know…the one we just linked to…where he hits his head?
Watch Amanda Beard Win Gold
Oh, and tie a World Record in the breaststroke. No biggie.
Gabby Douglas on Uneven Bars
See for yourself why she's called the Flying Squirrel.
The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw
Footage of the scrimmage between the stars of the Dream Team.
Miracle Motivational Speech
Eyewitnesses say this is a pretty accurate re-creation of what Coach Brooks said to motivate his team.
Watch The Boys in the Boat Kick Some Boat Butt
We like the incredulous tone of the German announcer, but there are versions with English narration…
This One is Hard to Watch
Lopez Lomong miscounts laps in the 5000m race, costing him everything.
Check Out The Angle of Jesse Owens' Body While He Runs
This shot was taken during his historic 200m race.
Michael Phelps Gulping for Air
This is an amazing shot…what more can we say?
The Exquisite Form of Rafer Johnson
First African American to carry the flag in an Olympic procession. Get it, Rafer.
So many medals, only so many necks to put them on…