The 2012 Summer Games kick off in London this week and our inner armchair Olympian has the itch to start a reading marathon. There’s no danger of losing electrolytes or pulling a tendon as you race through these tales of courage, endurance, and straight-up physical prowess. Light your literary flame with stories of legendary sprinters, a media-scrutinized swimmer, and a certain Dream Team. You may never run a four-minute mile or medal in floor exercise, but you’ll stay with these books all the way to the finish line.
‘Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics’
By Jeremy Schaap
No Summer Games goes by without the name of Olympic champion Jesse Owens being invoked. ESPN national correspondent and New York Times bestselling author Jeremy Schaap takes us behind the scenes of one of the most defining moments in sports and world history. “Triumph” is the story of Owens, the son of a sharecropper who sprinted his way to four gold medals at the Berlin Games. But with serious reportage and sweeping storytelling, Schaap also weaves a dramatic backdrop, detailing America’s controversial participation in the games, the other athletes affected by Hitler’s push for Aryan supremacy, and a world on the brink of war.
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‘Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption’
By Laura Hillenbrand
Hillenbrand followed up her massive blockbuster “Seabiscuit” with this unputdownable book about Louis Zamperini, a true multi-hyphenate. Delinquent, bombardier, POW, and Olympian, Zamperini started out his life as a hooligan, breaking into houses and jumping trains. He channeled his rebellious ways into running and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But that’s only the beginning of Zamperini’s story; when World War II began, the athlete joined the Air Force, serving in the Pacific Theater. His bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean, leaving Zamperini stranded at sea for 47 days before being rescued/captured by the Japanese. While the Olympics is only a small part of Zamperini’s life, his story of endurance displays the spirit of a true champion. As Hillenbrand says, “It is a tale of daring, defiance, persistence, ingenuity, and the ferocious will of a man who refused to be broken.”
‘Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World’
By David Maraniss
(Simon & Schuster)
Every Olympic Games serves up indelible memories and unforgettable feats. Maraniss, however, makes the point that the 1960 Summer Games were something more. The athletes are represented, of course, including Wilma Rudolph and an 18-year-old Cassius Clay. But Pulitzer Prize-winner Maraniss, with meticulous research, talks about pivotal moments in sports, such as the first doping scandal, the first commercially televised Summer Games, and the first shoe endorsement. The world itself was undergoing massive change as well, with Cold War mistrust, political unrest, and the civil rights and women’s movements providing a turbulent backdrop to the 1960 games.
By Chris Cleave
(Simon & Schuster)
If you’re hankering for a novel, go for the “Gold.” Frenemies Kate and Zoe are at the heart of Cleave’s novel. World-class track cyclists, they met in training at 19. Now 32, they are both keen to medal at the 2012 Summer Games. Kate is competing while her daughter battles leukemia back home. Zoe has a more win-at-all-costs mentality, which could win her gold but cost her so much more. You’ll feel the rush of the Velodrome track at the same time that your heartstrings are being pulled in this rich tale, which explores the choices we make, the values we hold dear, and ultimately what it means to win.
‘In the Water They Can't See You Cry: A Memoir’
By Amanda Beard
If you want to go inside the mind and heart of an Olympian, dive into swimmer Amanda Beard’s memoir. At one point the most downloaded female athlete on the Internet, Beard competed in four Olympic Games and netted seven medals…but it came at a cost. In the spotlight since her first games at 14, Beard battled clinical depression, bulimia, drug and alcohol abuse and turned to cutting and toxic relationships. Now, on the other side and happily married with a son, Beard talks candidly about her troubles amidst her triumphs.
‘Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever’
By Jack McCallum
The cream of the NBA crop came together in 1992 to create the Dream Team to compete in the Summer Games in Barcelona. Sports Illustrated senior staff writer McCallum was with the team throughout the journey, and he now takes us into the locker room and onto the court. We hear how legends Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Larry Bird came together under coach Chuck Daly’s leadership to crush the competition. But McCallum also shares stories of late-night card games, bull sessions, and the greatest pickup game in history. If you’re thinking about reading this book, here’s a tip: Just do it.
Jennifer Worick is the author of more than 25 books (including the upcoming Things I Want to Punch in the Face) and a publishing consultant; she can be found at jenniferworick.com.
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