Read To Win
We’re about halfway through the 2018 Winter Olympics. In about 3 weeks, several athletes will be offered book deals. Later this year or early next year, they’ll all be published with titles like Working Out: How I Won a Gold Medal. Unquestionably, all of these books will be bad and you should not buy them. (In the late 90s, I read Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen’s memoir Full Circle. That’s some time I will never get back.)
But the human interest stories are the best part of the Olympics (for me, at least). So when good writers write about them, we get some gold medal books.
Nine Men in a Boat
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
I was a coxswain in college, so I’m biased towards crew books, but this one is universally appealing. Even people who don’t know anything about rowing (which, based on the number of people I’ve met who think the coxswain just sits in the boat and yells “row,” is almost everybody) loved this book. It’s the story of the University of Washington crew team, who were chosen to represent the USA in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Brown tells the stories of the individual rowers, their coaches and support staff (including a really cool boat builder) and their journey as a team. And once you’ve finished the book, you can watch their climactic race on YouTube.
The Games Before the Storm
Hitler’s Olympics by Christopher Hilton
Speaking of the 1936 Olympics, they were insane. Hitler essentially used them as a giant Nazi rally. Many minority athletes either avoided the games or spent their time watching their backs. One of the rowers from The Boys in the Boat was informed by his father that they were secretly Jewish right before he set sail for Germany. (Thanks, Dad.) The fact that Jesse Owens became the prominent success story of those games only made everything weirder.
Run For Your Life
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
You’re going to think I’m obsessed with the 1936 Olympics, but this is the last one. Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who later joined the army. After being shot down in the war and surviving for weeks on a raft in the Pacific, he was later captured by the Japanese. The fact that he ran at Hitler’s games ends up being the 5th most interesting thing about him at best, which is saying something.
Wrestling Should be Fun
Foxcatcher by Mark Schultz and David Thomas
If you’re a true crime fan, I’ve got great news—there are sociopaths in sports, too! John du Pont, mega-rich heir of the du Pont family, built a wrestling training center on his estate because he was a huge wrestling fan. Also, he was crazy. The story of his relationship with Olympics wrestlers (and brothers) Mark and Dave Schultz is a book, documentary, and film starring Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum. Because nobody can get enough of how crazy it is.
The Boys of Winter by Wayne Coffey
On a lighter note, when the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team beat Russia at the Olympics, it felt like winning The Cold War. Perhaps the greatest underdog story ever told, Coffey goes into the lives of the rag-tag players and their improbable coach, and how they pulled of “The Miracle on Ice.”
Dream Team by Jack McCallum
I don’t have adequate superlatives for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball team. Watching them on TV when I was a kid undoubtedly felt like watching the Avengers. Their untelevised practice scrimmages are famously some of the best basketball ever played. McCallum covered them for Sports Illustrated and gives us a behind-the-scenes look at all those egos, high-stakes poker games, and the day Magic and Jordan went one-on-one.
Watching the Olympics this year or have any good sports bios for us? Let us know in the comments!
Feature Image: CBC Olympics